Religiously Divided Politics

My stay in Lebanon has exposed me to a country which experiences intense religious division in its politics. When the French occupied the country after World War I, they considered themselves the protectors of Christians (who had experienced persecution under the Muslim Ottoman Empire). Accordingly, they established the borders of Lebanon to ensure that Christians constituted the majority of its population; they also mandated that a Christian be the president of the small country. This left the Shia Muslim Druze — who had ruled the territory under the Ottoman Empire — and the Sunni Muslims of the coastline at a distinct disadvantage politically. Then, in the mid-1900’s, wars in Palestine/Israel sent hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees to Lebanon, changing the ratio of the population and temporarily making Lebanon a base for the Palestinian Liberation Army. Christians, fearing their power was at risk, began fighting against Palestinians in 1975. This devolved into an all-out civil war, essentially Christian against Muslim but with many shifting alliances, from 1975 to 1990.

Fighters from a Christian militia during the Lebanese Civil War. From Pinterest

Peace was established in 1990, but it is a complicated peace. Lebanon hasn’t had a census since it became independent from France in 1943, since a census would likely show that Christians are the minority now and therefore would require a change in the political order. The constitution still mandates a Christian in the presidency (and a Sunni Muslim as prime minister), but ambitious politicians and a conflict-weary public are alike pushing for changes in the rigid sectarianism of politics. These religious divisions are, undoubtedly, one of Lebanon’s greatest curses.

Unfortunately, I believe the political system in the United States is also becoming increasingly divided along religious lines.

That may be a controversial thesis, so let me explain. As in Lebanon, there are many shifting alliances. But the essential battle lines are drawn: if you are an evangelical Christian, you are Republican; if you are an “evangelical” secularist, you are Democrat. (By “evangelical” I mean “marked by militant or crusading zeal.”) Ultra-Christian Republicans invoke pictures of Democratic rule as a godless government where abortion is unlimited and Christians are persecuted. Ultra-secular Democrats paint Republican government as a theocracy where evolution is banned from school curriculum and gays are persecuted.

Sure, there are complications in this picture. The Democrats have never nominated a non-Christian for president. Some Republicans, particularly libertarians, are atheist. But anyone remotely familiar with US politics is aware that this divide has existed for years. Just look at this graph:

from pewglobal.org

Many Republicans believe that America is be a Christian nation, and they seem to have become more sure of that stance in the last few decades. Most Democrats believe that America should not be explicitly Christian, and they too have hardened in that position recently. The Republican Party has become the party through which Christians advance their interests in the United States. The Democratic Party has become the party through which non-Christians (or Christian secularists who want religion to be private) resist Christian influence.

It was not always this way. Our first parties, in the years after the Revolutionary War, were (essentially) divided by urban and rural interests rather than cultural or religious. During the Civil War, both North and South claimed the approval of God in fighting for or against slavery. During the Civil Rights Movement, the left’s social justice war was explicitly Christian under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.; King’s opponents also invoked Christian rhetoric in their defense.

Only in the last few decades, it seems, did the secular/religious divide insert itself into our US party politics. Perhaps it was the Democratic embrace of multiculturalism in an increasingly diverse US population, with growing numbers of non-religious individuals as well as immigrants with other faiths. Perhaps it was the Republican semi-transformation from the party of business and economic growth to the defender of culture and family values in the 60’s and 70’s. Whatever the reason, I believe Christians across the nation will confirm this truth: in many Christian churches, particularly white Protestant-y ones, it is a cultural expectation that members be Republican. That is certainly true in my own Mormon faith — whatever your views on immigration, environment, or healthcare, being a Republican signals that you are willing to stand up for church doctrines such as marital fidelity, traditional (heterosexual) marriage, or the sin of abortion. Increasingly, being a Democrat also implies that you want to “get God out of our schools and our government,” abandoning the power which created and sustained this country.

I believe this is one of the primary reasons that Donald Trump was elected to the presidency in 2016. Trump is not a particularly religious guy, but he is the ultimate culture warrior — he despises the secular, multicultural vision of America that Democrats have espoused and considers it his mission to return America to its roots, including Christianity. His unwavering for a Christian, anti-secular platform has won him the bedrock support of almost all white evangelicals in the country.

This division of parties along religious lines concerns me, deeply. I don’t anticipate that it will plunge us into civil war. I don’t foresee the imminent breakdown of American democracy. But I do believe the partisan gridlock in Washington (and in state capitals) is largely due to the animosity caused by the secular/religious party divide and the resulting “culture wars.” In light of this division, I want to make two pleas.

First, to secular Democrats. I think you often see religiously based policies as irrational Bronze Age impositions. But you must realize that many people arrive at their faith rationally, after much reflection. When you see faith in this way, it is easier to see that compromising on some issues will not place the country on the road to a Christian theocracy. The United States has been a Christian-majority nation for its entire history, so the elimination of Christian symbols from public life is not just an attack on Christianity — for many people, it feels like a rejection of the American legacy. Move slowly. Tread cautiously. Does removing “In God We Trust” from the currency really promote good understanding between Christians and Muslims? Does demanding fewer restrictions on abortion really advance the cause of feminism when so many Christian women oppose abortion?

Second, to Christian Republicans. A vision of America returning to its Christian roots may be beautiful, but surely you can see how it might worry the millions of Americans who are not Christian. As you are aware, many of the founders of this country fled religious persecution and envisioned this country as a secular nation where no religion would be established or favored by the government. Even if the United States passes laws which are contrary to the laws of God, can we not still hope that God will still support the country? Those laws of God can still be taught in churches, in families, or even in the streets. But let us trust that God will uphold the nation if each person does their best to act (and legislate) morally, according to their religious or moral beliefs.

I hope I have not over-stepped my bounds here. Do you think religious party division is a major cause of US partisan gridlock? Do you think this can be partially overcome by greater understanding? I would welcome your feedback.