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It is time to renounce religion

02 November 2012

Liberal Christians are dropping out of the Church in the US, says Harriet Baber



HERE in the United States, it is election season, when its citizens turn to thoughts of religion, and politicians look for Evangelical mascots to impress those of us whom the Obama organisation calls "people of faith".

Although Evangelicals account for no more than one third of all Christians in the US, and not all Americans are Christian, Evangelicalism is viewed as the religious industry standard. Admit to being a theist, and you are tagged as one of those people who "cling to guns and religion", and have crazy ideas about abortion, gender roles, and the origin of species.

I suppose that there are places in the US where theism is normal, and churchgoing is as unexceptional as going to the supermarket or the public library. I do not live there. I live among liberal urban-coastal professionals who are as secular as Europeans, and, owing to the proximity and political power of conservative Evangelicals, more hostile to religion.

I prefer hostility to condescension, however. I can understand why the Dalits in India (formerly referred to as "Untouchables") did not like it when Gandhi styled them "children of God". I would not want to be described by a patronising euphemism, either: that is why the secular-élite Obama administration's designation of me as one of those "people of faith" sets my teeth on edge. It assumes that religion is a peculiarity - and a social deficit. This is the paradox of liberalism: well-meaning attempts to help underdogs actually mark people as underdogs, and politically correct euphemisms only rub it in.

It is time to quit religion, I think, or at least to get into the closet. Last week, a Facebook acquaintance, a New York journalist, asked me in all seriousness whether I was a Creationist. I am sick of having to explain that I do not believe that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden c.4004 BC. A half-century of culture wars, stirred up during the current election cycle, has made religion socially impossible.

Religion shapes politics in the US, but, more important, politics shapes religion. American Christianity, once a wide, shapeless tent, has become a special-interest group for working-class social conservatives who are fighting a last-ditch battle against modernity. Like the angry young men of the Arab street, white working-class males in the US gain nothing from modernity, and stand to lose only their patriarchal privilege. They, and those of their female dependants who know which side their bread is buttered, are the Republican "base". Evangelical churches are their political lobby.

Liberal mainline churches do not support that agenda, but no one notices. Religious affiliation has become a political statement. The religiously unaffiliated - now 20 per cent of Americans, and the fastest-growing "religious group" in the US - are as solidly Democratic as Evangelicals are Republican.

That growing split, between a secular liberal élite and a religious, socially conservative proletariat, consisting of the white working-class, minorities, and as yet unassimilated immigrants, is self-perpetuating.

Being an "out" liberal Christian is miserable. Even sympathetic friends and colleagues are puzzled by us: if we are not socially or politically conservative, why on earth are we religious? What else is religion for? At work, in school, and among friends, religious affiliation is a source of embarrassment for educated, urban-coastal liberals - the traditional constituency of the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations.

So we are dropping out, mainline churches are dying, and religion, driven by politics, the media, and the market, is shifting hard right, as it becomes a speciality item for social conserva-tives.

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, USA.


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