Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: A backlash against political God talk
Politicians use Americans flags as an imposing backdrop when giving speeches. Standing before the Stars and Stripes, a legislator or the president caps remarks with the conventional refrain, “God bless America!”
Wrapping Old Glory around God talk is a rhetorical device politicians have used since our nation’s birth to win over their audiences. In the colonial era, Patrick Henry advised cloaking controversial topics with references to God to gain voter approval.
After delivering an extemporaneous farewell address before boarding a train from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration in 1861, Lincoln wrote down remarks invoking God’s aid: “Without the assistance of that divine being, who ever attended him (strengthened George Washington), I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail.”
Formerly, politicians who profusely used God talk didn’t offend most citizens. Current voting trends, however, show a change in preference. Now, a politician turns off voters by habitually interjecting God into his speechifying.
“The point politicians need to get is that it is time to stop pandering to the religious,” advises Ryan Cragun, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa, “because there is a growing percentage of the population that does not want to hear that stuff. It is time for them (politicians) to realize they are going to be left behind if they … do that.”
Why have voters’ preferences changed so that the stock phrase “God bless America” no longer garners wide respect?
Nearly 20 percent of American voters write “none,” when asked about religious affiliation or preference. Atheists (2.4 percent) and agnostics (3.3 percent) increased by 50 percent in the past five years. Add to these voters the “nothing in particular” crowd, who make no room in their lives for religion. Dubbed “nones,” this segment of the American population has nearly tripled in percentage during the past 40 years.
This giant generational shift has occurred especially among young voters who shy away from religious preference. Between 20 percent and 30 percent of voters under 30 want politicians to strike God talk from their vocabulary.
“By 2010, in a stunning change,” records Episcopal trend watcher Diana Butler Bass, “America’s third-largest political group – and one of its youngest – is ‘unaffiliated,’ an independently minded group with no single issue, theology or view of God. The ‘nones’ include atheists, agnostics, ‘nothing in particular’ religiously oriented and secular unaffiliated people. … If these trends continue at the current pace, ‘nones’ and other religions combined will outnumber Christians in the United States by about 2042” (Christianity after Religion: the End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, p. 46).
Since our nation’s birth, Christianity has been the prominent religion, acting similarly to the ancient Israelites who dominated the Promised Land. Then a disastrous shift in political power occurred. In 597 B.C., the Babylonian army sacked Jerusalem. This enemy rounded up Jewish citizens and deported them into Babylon, captives in a foreign land. This terrible dislocation made ancient Jews question the power of God. They felt exiled, ripped from their Jewish culture where the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob prevailed.
Is the rise of “nones” making Christians feel like ancient Jews? After enjoying cultural and religious supremacy for many years, Christians wonder if they are enslaved to irreligion. God no longer counts for much.
Has the United States become a post-Christian nation? Is the American Christian church on its deathbed? Though far from expiring, does the lack of Christian influence among younger voters make the church appear like a terminal patient,
wheezing its last breaths? Are Christians keening like ancient exiled Jews, barely singing “the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137: 4).
What formerly was unheard of – a politician without a religious identity – has appeared in Congress. Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, who won a seat in the House last year, is the first to publicly describe her religion as “none.” When non-theist groups wanted to recruit Rep. Sinema, her campaign staff backed off. They said she preferred the designation of “secularist,” not “atheist.”
Such “nones” don’t necessarily deny God’s existence. They are not like the biblical fool who “says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalms 14:1). They claim, however, that religion makes little difference in their lives. It’s not noticeable in anything they do or think. Naturally, then, they reject elected officials who use religious rhetoric. “Nones” regard God talk wrapped around the flag as mere sound signifying nothing.
What, then, peeves “nones”? They dislike politicians who patter God talk by chattering sanctimoniously. The religious right turns them off. Many find religious language insufferable, prejudiced, tedious and mindless. They jettison it like space debris drifting in orbit after a completed mission.
“Nones” regard God talk as the new unmentionable word in American public discourse.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.