BACK in 1960, when John F. Kennedy ran for President of the United States, my mother opined that, since Roman Catholics followed the Pope, if Kennedy ran the country, the Pope would run the country.
The syllogism was bruited about, but no one took it seriously. No one now expects that Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee and also a practising Roman Catholic, will take orders from the Vatican if elected — or that his religious affiliation will make any difference.
By the mid-20th century, most Americans regarded Roman Catholicism as an innocuous variant of American civil religion. President Eisenhower announced that the country made no sense unless founded on a religious faith, but that he didn’t care what it was; and TV public-service spots, showing identical white men representing priest, minister, and rabbi standing together, urged each American to “worship this week at your church or synagogue”.
Americans wanted their elected representatives to have at least a nominal religious affiliation, but they did not care what it was, because they did not expect items specific to their various religious affiliations to make any difference to their political agendas. And politicians complied.
Evangelicals were largely invisible beyond the South. Elsewhere, they were hunkered down in a closed subculture, with its own schools, seminaries, and gift shops, and they were politically inactive. It was only during the next decade that they emerged, allied with conservative RCs, as a voting block to promote a socially conservative agenda.
The rise of the Religious Right during the 1970s marked a realignment of religious identities which, increasingly, tracked political affiliation. A chasm opened between Evangelicals and “mainline Protestants”, and between a minority of conservative Roman Catholics, allied with Evangelicals, and ordinary RCs, who vote with demographically similar mainline Protestants. RCs are no more inclined to vote for Mr Biden in the forthcoming election because he is a member of their Church than others are are inclined to vote against him for that reason.
IT IS race, geography, and social class rather than theology which drive political behaviour in the United States. Black Americans, most affiliated with theologically Evangelical churches, are overwhelmingly Democratic voters. During the 2016 election, 96 per cent of black Protestants voted for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate. Eighty-one per cent of white Evangelicals, disproportionately Southern, rural, and working class, voted for Republican Donald Trump (News, 11 November 2016).
Pundits scrambled to explain why Evangelicals threw their lot in with Mr Trump, a notorious evil-liver. Evangelical leaders, however, compared him to Cyrus, the Persian king who, although not himself a Yahweh-worshipper, ended the Babylonian captivity and was Good for the Jews. The received view among Evangelicals was that, Mr Trump, despite his personal idiosyncrasies, was Good for the Christians.
Evangelicals look to him to establish what they understand as a godly society: one in which abortion is unavailable, male headship is established, and traditional sex roles are upheld; law and order are maintained through strict discipline, severe punishment, and the use of force; and government does not restrict the liberty of men to protect their womenfolk and other property with firearms, usurp churches’ part in dispensing charity to the deserving poor, or provide benefits to the undeserving poor.
As the election approaches, Evangelical support for President Trump remains firm. His Evangelical supporters are not put off by his crudity, habitual lying and cruelty, sexual escapades, shady business dealings, criminal activities, or collusion with hostile foreign powers. For all his ungodliness, his Evangelical supporters view him as an instrument of God for, most of all, appointing conservative Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Court’s decision guaranteeing women access to abortion as a constitutional right.
Evangelicals will not vote for Mr Biden, because, like all Democratic candidates for public office, he supports “reproductive rights” and has pledged to codify Roe v. Wade into federal law. Indeed, they might prefer that the Pope, who shares their views on abortion and sex roles, run the country.
Within days of the death of the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative Roman Catholic who opposes abortion, to fill the vacant seat. The Republican-majority Senate will confirm her nomination, solidifying the Court’s conservative majority, making it more likely that the Roe v. Wade decision will be overturned, and cementing Evangelicals’ loyalty to President Trump, come what may.
THE “what may” came on Sunday evening, when The New York Times, which had obtained the President’s tax records, published an extensive and documented account of his business failures and bankruptcies, and his tax evasion, scamming, and other criminal activity (he called the story “fake news”). No one was surprised.
These latest revelations will not curb Evangelicals’ enthusiasm any more than the ongoing disclosures of his serial adulteries. President Trump has got them what they most wanted: a solidly conservative Supreme Court, and has shown that he is an effective instrument for the promotion of their agenda.
It is not clear what the consequences of Judge Coney Barrett’s appointment will be. Reversing Roe v. Wade may not make any significant difference. Overturning it will not prohibit abortion: rather, it will leave policy concerning the availability of abortion to individual states. Abortion will remain legal in most states, and, for women who live elsewhere, abortion tourism is likely to become a popular option.
Mr Biden is favoured to win the forthcoming election. But a Trump victory is not impossible, and his performance during the past four years makes it very clear what the consequences would be. Let us pray.
Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, in the United States.