What Happens When Americans Give Up On God?
What Happens When Americans Give Up On God?
Zaid Jilani has some questions for Shadi.
Published on: Apr 27, 2021  |  

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Earlier this month, Shadi participated in a dialogue on Pairagraph, a platform that brings together pairs of individuals to debate a topic. We thought it might be of interest, as it addresses our preoccupations—religion, identity, and meaning. Shadi's sparring partner was Zaid Jilani, writer and founder of Inquire, a new publication on Substack. Below is the entirety of their exchange, crossposted with permission from Pairagraph.

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Shadi, I'm glad that someone wrote a piece about this topic and that this person was you. First, it's something I've thought a lot about. What the heck happens in a famously religious country like America when people become a lot less religious? And second, you're one of the few writers in the left-of-center space who is religious and seems to actually make a real effort to understand religious people, both here and in the United States. So kudos!

I remember watching the documentary film "Jesus Camp" in college and not 100% buying the thesis -- that there is this vast right-wing Christian fundamentalist movement that has the capacity of taking over America. It turned out the film might as well have been a massive red herring; the Christian Right's overreaches during the Bush presidency may have even contributed to a lot of people turning away from organized religion.

What fills that vacuum? You've suggested that it's politics. I think it's certainly true that for a growing number of partisans, politics is now serving as a form of self-identity. Heck, we're even increasingly sorting ourselves into partisan *neighborhoods,* based on political party.

My big question about this is how much it actually relates to the decline in religiosity. Are less religious people the most polarized? I would argue that many of those on the right who are highly partisan maintain their traditional religious commitments; they're avid church-goers, and identify as Christian. I'm not so sure we can draw a link between intense political polarization and political self-identification and a decline of religion on that side.

On the left, the picture is a lot more clear. Probably the most ideologically extreme and politically adamant section of the political left is (this is a generalization and I hate generalizations, but here goes...) college-educated white folks. This is also the least religious portion of the Democratic coalition. Wokeness is definitely serving as a form of religious thought for many of these individuals, filling a void that psychologists like Jonathan Haidt (an atheist) has argued we all kind of have because he believes religious thinking serves an evolutionary role for our species.

Whatever the role of religious decline is in driving polarization, you've suggested in your piece that we should be looking to an Americanist creed to bring us together.

I'm wondering if you've seen the December 2020 report from More in Common showing that among all groups, "progressive activists" tend to be the least proud in America. Now, the same report shows that such activists are a small sliver of Americans -- they're in the single digits -- but as we both know, they're incredibly influential in the media, business, politics, law, etc.

Do you think that people have to have pride in America in order to embrace the American creed? You've noted that even critics of American society like James Baldwin also testified to their love of it. But I'm unclear if the bulk of today's activists feel similarly. What do you think?

—Zaid Jilani

You raise an important question: Are religious Americans more immune to the most polarizing candidates? They were. In the 2016 primary, Ted Cruz was the first choice of churchgoing evangelicals, while Trump had his strongest support among those with lower levels of religious affiliation.

Evangelicals soon reversed their early skepticism and became committed Trump supporters, which provoked hundreds of confused think pieces. But white Christian conservatives are taking their cues from the broader culture. Regardless of whether their assessment is correct, they perceive a secular onslaught emanating from nearly all mainstream cultural, media, and academic institutions.

So they are willing to accept Trump as an unlikely vessel for their protection, even if entails making certain moral compromises. In this defensive crouch, their religious identity has been subsumed under what is essentially a secular movement organized around the person of Trump. As I wrote in my Atlantic essay, these Christians may go to church, but then they also go a Trump rally, where they focus on blood and soil rather than the son of God.

A common Christian culture might have forestalled this, but now that the vast majority of white evangelicals are now firmly entrenched in a Trump-centric Republican Party, their religious and partisan identities have become intertwined. Once you overlay one “divisive” identity with another, you end up with an odd fusion of Christian nationalism, with the nationalist part increasingly winning out.

In my article, I struggled to come up with a comforting “conclusion,” in part because, as someone preoccupied with the darker aspects of human nature, I don’t think that problems necessarily have solutions. I'm not a Christian, so I find myself in the odd position of longing for more Americans to believe in something that I don’t believe to be true. But I don’t have to believe in the truth of Christianity—and what comes out of its creed—to believe that it is good.

Unfortunately, I don't see a religious awakening coming. Fortunately, as a country of believers (in the broader sense), there is still the belief in America, if not the country as it is then at least the idea of what it should be. But, as you point out, American pride is also in free fall. In 2004, 91 percent of Americans were either extremely or very proud to be American. In 2020, that figure dropped to 63 percent.

This pride deficit seems like an odd response to America’s very real sins. I, for one, have long argued that what the U.S. has done in the Middle East is nothing short of destructive. But this record doesn't negate an idea, just as the disappointments of what Muslims or Christians do in practice shouldn't be equated to a failure of Islam and Christianity in theory.

This is why a sustained attack by a small subset of elites—who have outsized cultural influence—on the foundations of the American idea has profound implications. It should be possible to hate what America does while loving what America is.

—Shadi Hamid

The idea you offer -- that even non-Christians should maybe hope for a more Christian America -- is compelling. It may sound counterintuitive, but isn't it quintessentially American to take a side in a conflict you have no direct kinship with (certainly that would be the case with our policies in the Middle East and elsewhere)?

Growing up in the American South, religiosity was a feature of basically every culture I encountered. As someone who, like you, comes from a religious (but not Christian) background, I can easily see the upside of religion in the American social fabric.

As one example, take a look at some of the people from minority backgrounds elected statewide in the American South in recent years: you have Senators like Raphael Warnock, Tim Scott, and Ted Cruz; you also have governors like Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal. Although these public officials all came from different parties and were elected in different states, it's pretty remarkable that a region that was known for existing as a network for virtual apartheid states half a century earlier now regularly elects non-white people to rule over them. It's a remarkable testament to the region's growing tolerance.

But there's another noteworthy fact about everyone I just listed: they're all Christian. In Jindal and Haley's case, they both converted to Christianity earlier in life. Could they have been elected if they weren't Christian? I imagine, at the very least, that it would be considerably more difficult.

In this way, Christianity is both a force against sectarianism -- it can bring Southerners who happen to be white and those who aren't together -- and a force that can reinforce it, for those who happen to fall outside its umbrella. I think it's important to at least recognize this shortcoming of using religion for social cohesion. It can help us overcome divisions between subordinate identities -- like the social fiction of race -- to create a wider Us while still setting up its own boundaries to exclude a different group of Thems.

That makes me wonder what other social categories we have that can bring us together. One thing that researchers who study polarization point to is that during the Cold War, we had a common enemy: the Soviet Union. No matter what differences we had with each other, we knew that we were still competing against the "Evil Empire."

Today, we're in a sort of national anomie. We don't really have a coherent national mission or outside enemy -- it's hardly a surprise that our politics involves endless culture war against ourselves, with everything from the MLB to Dr. Seuss books being dragged into the melee.

Do you think competition with China could end up being a depolarizing force? One outcome of Trump's presidency and COVID-19 is that the U.S. image of China has plummeted. This could result in crude nationalism, but we could also see the emergence of healthy national cohesion and international competition. What do you think?

—Zaid Jilani

Like all potentially unifying things, Christianity helps overcome divisions while reifying others. As you point out, Zaid, politicians like Nikki Haley or Bobby Jindal might not have succeeded in the South if not for the fact they are Christian converts.

To unify some people around a common identity does not mean erasing division; it simply means shifting the line of division. To the extent that there is an “us,” there will always be a “them,” since any shared sense of identity can only be constituted through acts of differentiation. This is why unity and consensus are illusory in politics. As the political theorist Chantal Mouffe writes: “All forms of consensus are by necessity based on acts of exclusion.”

Unity can only be forged by expelling or defeating those who threaten it. This is, in part, why civil wars end. The victor decides what constitutes unity and then invites the vanquished to join in the new consensus.

So division is inevitable. The question is how to make the category of “us” as inclusive as possible and to limit the number of people who end up as the “them.” This is the more charitable reading of the nationalist project—that, in theory, it attempts to make all citizens into the “us.” In effect, this would mean that the overwhelming majority of Trump voters, despite having voted for Trump, would not be viewed as deplorable or beyond the pale. They would be adversaries, not enemies.

To get closer to this “unity” would still require an enemy, but the enemies here would be those beyond our borders. You're correct, Zaid, that two World Wars, the Cold War, and then the September 11 attacks were able to sustain this outward facing enmity for seven decades. Directing a bipartisan anger toward the Chinese regime, one of the few regimes that has genuinely earned itself the rarified title of evil, might help along the margins. However, it is hard for me to see China as a sufficiently worthy substitute. It is not a battle that arouses the imagination, in part because the Chinese regime’s ideology is not universalist and therefore not easily exportable. Marxism, on the other hand, was genuinely appealing to millions, with communist parties in the West—drawing direct support and inspiration from the Soviet Union—gaining considerable traction in democratic contests.

Perhaps more importantly, I don’t know if we should want external enemies, even if having them might help us at home, since obviously this can contribute to unnecessary military escalation. It can also stoke anger against fellow citizens, whether Muslim Americans after September 11 or Asian Americans more recently. Which means that the best option is also the most difficult—to find a way to live with deep difference. It also means that each side, in our own internal cold war, will have to accept a permanent antagonism, while taking precautions to prevent this antagonism from turning to something darker. In this respect, the decline in social cohesion is less something to solve and more something to lament.

—Shadi Hamid