Much of the commentary surrounding a recent essay by Peter Beinart in The Atlantic has emphasized his awakening to the naiveté of the liberal cliché about religious people’s intolerance — that fading religion makes intolerance worse. One suspects, from his tilt, that Beinart mainly believes that what’s needed is not just a conversion to secularism, but to liberalism.
Why did these religiously unaffiliated Republicans embrace Trump’s bleak view of America more readily than their churchgoing peers? Has the absence of church made their lives worse? Or are people with troubled lives more likely to stop attending services in the first place? Establishing causation is difficult, but we know that culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful. Since the early 1970s, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, rates of religious attendance have fallen more than twice as much among whites without a college degree as among those who graduated college. And even within the white working class, those who don’t regularly attend church are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress. As Wilcox explains, “Many conservative, Protestant white men who are only nominally attached to a church struggle in today’s world. They have traditional aspirations but often have difficulty holding down a job, getting and staying married, and otherwise forging real and abiding ties in their community. The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives.”
The worse Americans fare in their own lives, the darker their view of the country. According to PRRI, white Republicans who seldom or never attend religious services are 19 points less likely than white Republicans who attend at least once a week to say that the American dream “still holds true.”
Note, in the above, the specificity in the statement that only “culturally conservative white Americans” require a correlation between church, economic success, and family breakdown. Contrast that specificity with the general assertion that “the worse Americans [generally] fare in their own lives, the darker their view of the country.” It has seemed to me that a great many highly privileged liberals have an extremely dark view of the United States. It’s kind of a thing. This is to say, I’d suggest, that liberalism and secularism independently lead to dark views. In fact, religion has long helped the disadvantaged to remain positive and happy despite hardship.
One wonders how it is possible that Beinart doesn’t see how obviously his conclusions apply across the political spectrum:
Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation. Trump is both a beneficiary and a driver of that shift.
This is true for cultural liberals, too. Their “identity” becomes their superficial identity group, united across identity lines through government.
Partly, what Beinart is observing is that vulnerable populations need the stability of tradition and church, but he seems implicitly to leave open the possibility that they could join liberals in taking up the government-as-substitute-source-of-meaning perspective that drives progressives. That would be no cure: Progressives can be as intolerant as any backwoods racist, simply directing their assumed righteousness toward different groups, and a look around America, today, proves that the Left becomes violent and cynical, too, when its great god government isn’t doing what they want.