Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Galston on Americans' Religious Beliefs

William Galston, currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, served in the Clinton administration and in the presidential campaigns of Walter Mondale and Al Gore. He's written a piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he reflects on American exceptionalism and cautions his fellow Democrats against disregarding the religious sentiments of the American people that are largely responsible for it:
Although this phrase [American exceptionalism] is much abused in partisan polemics, it should not be discarded. The United States does continue to differ from most other developed democratic countries. And the heart of that difference is religion. The durability of American religious belief refutes the once-canonical thesis that modernization and secularization necessarily go hand in hand....
It's common to hear modern western society described as post-Christian, but Galston cites statistics to indicate that this isn't quite accurate, at least not in the U.S.:
[D]espite the enormous growth in the nation’s diversity over the past 225 years, Christian conviction remains pervasive.

If you doubt this, take a look at the survey the Pew Research Center released without much fanfare two weeks ago. Among its principal findings: 73% of U.S. adults believe that Jesus was born to a virgin; 81%, that the baby Jesus was laid in a manger; 75%, that wise men guided by a star brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; and 74%, that an angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds. Fully 65% of Americans believe all four of these elements of the Christmas story, while only 14% believe none of them.

Although Republicans are more likely to espouse these beliefs than are Democrats and Independents, each group endorses them by a two-thirds majority or more. As expected, conservatives are more likely to espouse them than are moderates and liberals. But here again, majorities of each group endorse each belief. Among liberals, 54% profess a belief in the virgin birth.

What about the growth of secular thought in young Americans? As the Pew report dryly notes, there “is little sign of a consistent generation gap on these questions.” That’s an understatement. Seventy percent of adults age 18 to 29 believe that Jesus was born to a virgin; 69% that an angel announced his birth; 80% that he was laid in a manger; and 74% that the wise men made their gift-laden trek.

To be sure, the most-educated Americans are less likely to profess belief in the Christmas story. But even among adults with postgraduate degrees, 53% affirm the virgin birth of Jesus, with comparable or larger majorities for the story’s other elements.
All of this may be true, but what it suggests, I think, is that Americans live in a manner very inconsistent with what they profess to believe. Majorities of Americans may cling to the traditional Christmas story, perhaps for sentimental reasons, but an awful lot of us evidently live as though the significance of that story were irrelevant to modern life.

In any case Galston issues a warning to his colleagues on the left:
These public beliefs have constitutional consequences. When it comes to church and state, many Americans are soft rather than strict separationists. When asked whether religious symbols like Christian nativity scenes should be permitted on government property, 44% said yes, whether or not the symbols of other religions are present. An additional 28% said that Christian symbols would be acceptable only if accompanied by symbols of other faiths. Only 20% took the position that no religious symbols should be allowed.

Democrats should pay careful attention to these findings. In reaction to the excesses of the religious right in recent decades, many secularists and strict separationists took refuge in the Democratic Party. Their voices are important. But if the party takes its bearings only from their concerns, it risks serious misjudgment.
I'm not sure what the excesses were to which Galston alludes, nor do I think that whatever they were they were the motivating factor driving secularists into the arms of the Democrat party, but, nevertheless, skeptics and their philosophical allies have indeed taken up residence there, and their views have come to dominate the party's agenda. Even those who claim to be religious subordinate their religious views to the ambitions of the secular wing of the party.
Many Americans believe that religion has a legitimate if limited role in public life—including politics. Many Americans believe that it is wrong—not always, but usually—for laws and regulations to coerce individuals contrary to their conscientious beliefs. As Democrats pursue new policies in areas from health care to equal rights, they should work hard to minimize their intrusion on these convictions.
They should, but it's doubtful that they will. Much of the Democrat party stands for too many things the opposition to which comes almost exclusively from those whose convictions are informed by their religion. Abortion on demand and gay marriage are just two examples. Put differently, Democrat policies have, wittingly or unwittingly, facilitated the erosion over the last few decades of sexual restraint, the traditional family, the importance of work, individual liberty, and religious freedom. This is why many religious people tend to be conservatives and gravitate to the Republican party.

It's not that they like everything Republicans stand for, but rather that they see Republicans as their only realistic hope, short of divine intervention, for arresting the progressive statist juggernaut that threatens to steamroller them.