Sunday, February 12, 2012

Finally, Proof That Jesus Would Vote Republican

As the rough beast of American presidential politics begins its long slouch towards decision day in November, the civilized world is left wondering, as it does every four years, WTF is up with America's obsession with religion. In just last the few days President Obama has had to come up with a compromise on the birth control portion of his health care package in order to placate the Catholic Church, and this is against the backdrop of the Republican primaries, which consist entirely of white multimillionaires trying to proclaim that not only are they more god-fearing than the next guy, but they'll actually make America more god-fearing if given the chance in November. Once the actual presidential campaign begins the two candidates will invoke or quote Jesus and his dad in virtually every speech, and on Sundays we'll see them drop in on the nearest suburban megachurch where their piety will be on full display. But that won't stop both candidates from inferring, or even declaring, that their opponent is in some way heretical or godless.

The auto-da-fé of the American presidential election is a wonderment to Canadians and Europeans because it's a reminder that Yanks are more religious, by far, than anyone else on the block. But why is this? A few months ago I was researching this issue for an article and I kept looking for cultural and political causes of America's religiosity. Nothing seemed to explain the situation until I thought of the other major difference between Europe and the US: social  welfare spending. Europe believes in it, America (its ruling class, at least) loathes it. So I Googled social welfare spending and religion and came up with this academic paper written by Anthony Gill (his website's here)and Erik Lundsgaarde, professors at the University of Washington. Eureka! Solid evidence to explain the religiosity divide between America and most everyone else. Before I go further here are some quotes from the paper:

"...state welfare spending has a detrimental, albeit unintended, effect on long-term religious participation and overall religiosity."

"People living in countries with high social welfare spending per capita even have less of a tendency to take comfort in religion, perhaps knowing that the state is there to help them in times of crisis."

The professors back up these conclusions with all the necessary facts and figures (graph alert!), and their paper makes for very interesting reading, but be warned that it is an academic paper so it's a tad on the dry side. The profs argue that as church-sponsored social welfare programs (education, relief for the poor, etc.) are replaced by state programs, people see less value in religion itself. Religiosity (it's defined as weekly church attendance in the paper) does not, however, decline immediately upon an increase in social welfare spending. Decreases in religiosity are generational.

The paper emphasizes the role of churches in providing social welfare support as one of the key causes of religiosity. That's where I disagree with them. I don't think American churches have any significant tradition of providing material support for their followers. I think a more likely explanation, which is hinted at in several places in the paper, is that fear is what drives some people to church, and since WW II the US has been one of the most fear-filled countries on the planet. First there was the Cold War and its fear of nuclear war, then the Vietnam War, fear of street crime in the 1970s, and then a reboot of the Cold War under Ronald Reagan. Add in the wars in the Middle East and 9/11 and you have society that's filled with dread. It's small wonder that Americans look for supernatural protection and comfort when so much that surrounds them seems so dangerous and unpredictable. And this is all on top of a society that provides the most meagre of social safety nets.

It doesn't come as much of a surprise that the Scandinavian countries, with their broad and comprehensive social welfare programs and non-involvement in military conflicts, sit at the bottom of the league in terms of religiosity. It's a clear message that people who have some confidence in their future well-being, who don't live in fear of death and disaster lurking around the next corner, have no need of imaginary beings to protect them. Needless to say there are probably a dozen other factors that can help account for US religiosity, but it would seem that free, universal health care goes a long way towards creating and maintaining a secular society. Gill and Lundsgaarde's paper provides some more proof of this with the example of the ex-Soviet Union. Once religion was made legal in Russia after the fall of the USSR, spirituality made a big comeback. It was no coincidence that the end of the USSR also marked the end of cradle-to-grave welfare programs for Russians, not to mention the end of a guaranteed job for all.

The role of religion in American politics became a big deal in the 1970s as President Jimmy Carter let it be known that he was a "born again" Christian. That seemed to be the starting bell for the evangelical movement, and it's become a key factor in every presidential election since. The rise of the Christian right has gone in lockstep with the erosion of social welfare programs that began with the election of Reagan in 1980. The US is now at a point where the Tea Party and the various Republican presidential hopefuls spend enormous effort in thinking of ways the US government can do less for its people, except, of course, when it comes to waging wars. All this looks like more evidence of religiosity being largely dependent on social welfare spending.

So, from the point of view of a ruthless, evangelical Republican politician there could be no shrewder political strategy than to cut any and all social welfare programs; its appears to be a guaranteed way to fill the pews and stuff the ballot boxes with votes for the GOP. And, really, it's probably what Jesus would do. He wouldn't want a nation of happy, healthy unbelievers. Of course, there was that time he fed the multitudes with free bread and fish...that does sound a bit welfare-ish, a bit food stamp-y, but it was probably a deliberate mistranslation by some liberal, elitist professor of ancient languages.

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