Religious conservatives should hope Hillary wins

Like Ted Cruz, millions of conservatives who have every reason to reject Donald Trump will vote for the Republican nominee in November. Cruz is just the most recent high-profile Republican to make the case that key differences between the two candidates—particularly on likely Supreme Court nominees—make Trump the better choice.

But Cruz’s and others’ reasoning is short-sighted. While it’s true that Trump’s known policy preferences are more conservative than Clinton’s, and while it’s likely enough that Trump will stick to these preferences, voting for him is still a bad bet for conservatives, and especially for religious conservatives.

Here are two reasons.

The first is that Trump as Republican president will come to represent conservatism. If we vote for him, then he’s in the club, whether we like it or not. And it’s unavoidable that the extent to which he represents conservatism is the extent to which he can corrupt it.

The second reason is that voting for a bad candidate only makes sense on a four-year time horizon.

In all likelihood, a vote for Trump is a vote for four Trump years and 4-8 years of the Democrat lucky enough to run against him in 2020. If Trump does become president, he will quickly become a historically unpopular one. Without popularity, and without the outsider’s appeal he has had this time around, he’ll be easily beaten by almost any Democrat not named Hillary Clinton in 2020. This includes any Democrat who chooses to run on a Sanders-esque platform of full-throated progressivism.

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Hillary Clinton delivers a policy speech at Georgetown University to a sparse audience. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)

On the other hand, a vote for Hillary is effectively a vote for a 4-year term, followed by 4 to 8 years of a (non-Trump) Republican president. Already unpopular, Clinton would have a very difficult time asking Democrat-weary voters for a fourth consecutive Democratic term in the White House, making 2020 a golden opportunity for conservatives.

In other words, a Clinton win in 2016 probably means more total Republican years in the White House between now and 2029. Choosing a bad Democrat over a bad Republican this year allows the possibility of a successful conservative candidate in the next few elections, while the second all but rules it out.

As for the Supreme Court itself (admittedly this is where the Trump temptation has the greatest pull), these four years are not uniquely crucial when the two alternatives are considered.

The thought of Hillary Clinton nominating two or three justices stings. In all likelihood her one-term presidency would end with only three conservatives on the court: Thomas, Roberts and Alito. Her (probably Republican) successor would have limited opportunities to increase that number by replacing liberals. But it becomes clear, taking a twelve-year look, that there are no good options for conservatives now that a damaged candidate has won the nomination.

Trump’s Democratic successor would likely replace Thomas and Alito and possibly Roberts between 2021 and 2029, pushing the court again toward a 5-4, 6-3, or even 7-2 liberal majority (Trump would at very best get the count of conservatives on the court up to 6, as no liberal justice would voluntarily step down during his presidency). Unless we think a Trump presidency would usher in a Republican dynasty in the White House, there’s no good reason to think it would leave the court in better shape a decade from now than a Clinton presidency.

There are some reasonable objections here as to the urgency of the situation. Isn’t it true that we can’t afford four years of Hillary right now? Won’t she irreparably damage the country? Isn’t this election a historic turning point?

Probably not. Every election feels that way. I say this as a Christian who suspects that, in the coming decades, religious institutions will be severely marginalized and believers forced to make painful choices between their faith and major aspects of public life. We know what persecution looks like, and we’re not there yet. Having a conservative president will be almost certainly be more important in 2026 than in 2018.

Bottom line: strategic religious conservatives should not, by voting, sabotage their own movement—particularly when the option remains to sabotage the other side. Let them have four years of Hillary. Don’t let us be stuck with Trump.

Hustings: The leftward drift

New post of mine at The Hustings.

Political writer John O’Sullivan once hypothesized a law of politics: any organization not explicitly right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing. The natural tendency of modern institutions, he thought, is toward the left, and the inclination is only overcome with effort …

[Read more at the Hustings]

“Bad Religion” and Mormon Orthodoxy: A Letter to Ross Douthat

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The following is a letter I recently sent to Ross Douthat.


Mr. Douthat,

I’m a young Mormon who spent much of his Sunday reading Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.

I loved the book, and if I’m being honest, I might have loved it because it felt like a vindication of my own views on modern religious practice. But your book also gave me a clearer vision of how to move forward as a Christian and a Mormon in the contemporary world. I wanted to express to you how your thesis applies to my religion.

I won’t argue with you that Mormons are heretics to orthodox Christianity, in beliefs and practice. Our temple rites, modern prophets and additional scripture are unique and place us outside any conception of the mainstream. While we believe the church to be a restoration of the original Christian church, it is also true that our religion emerged abruptly in history, in a peculiarly American way.

However, as you mentioned toward the end of your book, Mormons are an unusual example of “vigor and cohesion”. You’ve probably read books like American Grace and are aware that Mormons show an almost unparalleled unity of doctrinal belief among religions in America. Moreover, we really live according to our faith, generally speaking, by paying tithes, involving ourselves in civic life, rejecting alcohol and drugs, remaining chaste, engaging in proselytizing, and studying scripture daily.

I have always felt that the strength of my religion comes from its members’ devotion to (Mormon) orthodoxy, even though our orthodoxy does not fit the Christian religion as it has been inherited from the past. I’m a student of economics and math, and not particularly well read in theology, but I have always felt stirred by words like Chesterton’s, including those you quoted in your book, which characterize orthodoxy as the precarious equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, along a course interrupted by the obstacles of heresy.

This kind of orthodoxy is Mormonism to me, full of balances and syntheses: we are committed to being in the world, as we send out missionaries and devote ourselves to secular education, but we are also of a different world, rejecting contemporary philosophies when they contradict the teachings of Jesus. We are both enterprising and domestic, both outspoken and modest, both charitably disposed and inclined to call others to repentance. We keep a universal, or “eternal perspective”, but we do this by embracing very particular codes of conduct. We seek guidance in both tradition and revelation, in both the Jesus of the New Testament and in the living Christ who still speaks to his people.

We are a little like Catholics, never sacrificing our unity with, and fidelity to, the Church. But like Protestants, we are insistent about the necessity of an individual witness of the truth. We cherish the American ideals that allowed our religion to flourish but we love to watch the religion spread across the world. We worship with a democratic spirit wherein ordinary members, not preachers, speak in our services, and our leaders are unpaid laity—but we also defer to hierarchical authority, which we believe is the authority of God. We have a bit of a persecution complex, but also a conviction that we are in fact God’s chosen people, part of the Church of Jesus Christ, the kingdom to which the Lord will return.

Like the rest of Christianity, the Mormon struggle is as much against our own heretics as it is against secularism. While we have never faced the kind of existential collapse that has afflicted the Mainline churches, there is, in this internet age, a disproportionately loud chorus of well-meaning Mormon voices (along with disingenuous and cynical ones) telling Christ’s apostles that the church should catch up with the times (whatever that happens to mean in the current decade). My personal belief is a little bit Benedictine: I do not expect that the church will move away from orthodoxy, and I suspect that the tent of believers will shrink a little over the next decade or so before expanding again.

On the last page of Bad Religion you invited Americans to return to the Christian religion that is their heritage, and I welcome that call. I’m sure that, as a Catholic, you would rather move about in a country full of practising Presbyterians than lapsed Catholics, and I have similar sentiments. My invitation to you, one of the most important public religious voices in the United States, is not necessarily to expand your view of what orthodoxy is, but at least to take a longer look at the Latter-day Saints. I would be gratified to see you paint a truer portrait than the Glenn Beck-heavy one you painted in Bad Religion. This is, I think, a reasonable request in a world where a Mormon not only won a major party nomination for president, but lived perhaps the most “orthodox” religious lifestyle of any presidential candidate of the last half-century.

If you have gotten this far in this letter, I’m very grateful for your time. I’ll leave you with two links, which you can visit if you have the time and interest. The first is a recent sermon of apostle Jeffrey R. Holland to the worldwide church, which rings, as far as I can tell, in harmony with every teaching of the New Testament. The second is to my website, a collection of essays called Virtuous Society.

Thanks for your eloquent and essential voice.

Tom Stringham

Minimizing Casualties in the Culture War

Brendan EichThe culture war continues to make its effects felt, as last week the CEO of a technology firm lost his job for taking part in the fighting six years ago. Brendan Eich’s departure from Mozilla is in itself no tragedy, but it may be true, as Conor Friedersdorf argued in The Atlantic, that the move represents an affront to the values of a pluralistic society, and will have a chilling effect on political discourse.

Whether or not this is the case, the impassioned, sometimes vengeful response of some vocal progressives to Eich’s misdeeds and subsequent displacement seem to reveal a societal short-sightedness about cultural change itself.

Last year I wrote that the present wave of social progressivism had moved quickly, and that it was unusually unforgiving to its startled opponents. Social conservatives feel as in the position of veteran employees under new management, chastised for being slow to give up on the old rules, and still feeling affection for the old boss.

A fact easily forgotten by ideologues of any affiliation, left or right, is that the current cultural consensus does not foresee its own advance, to paraphrase F.A. Hayek. The main implication of this fact is the near-certainty that in our lifetimes there will be more sea changes in public opinion—and on issues we have hardly yet considered.

If liberals do not move with the tide on these future issues, as they have with marriage laws, they will at some point be in the position of gay marriage’s current opponents. Conceiving of the future is difficult, so it is worth bringing up a few possible scenarios.

For example, given recent history, it is not ridiculous to speculate that in the next few decades public opinion on polyamorous marriage could reverse. Supporters of the cause have already begun making the comparison to gay marriage. And if changing academic perspectives are any hint, pedophilia may see itself transformed from perversion to orientation. A growing transgender rights movement could lead to far-reaching institutional changes that would alter the way we talk about gender. Religious exemptions can hardly be generally guaranteed.

Looking further down the road: If animal rights attitudes shift, common farming and ranching practices could be banned and meat-eaters could face moral censure. Alcohol could go the way of tobacco and lose its place as the last widely acceptable recreational drug. The abortion dialogue could continue to trend rightward, creating a pro-life status-quo.

The headlines are not difficult to dream up: “Polyamory rights group wins suit against religious group.” “Physicians directed to provide therapeutic virtual child porn for minor-attracted persons.” “Mosque loses fight to require gender identification.” “Governor seeks to bring past abortion providers to trial.”

These hypothetical examples sound absurd, and it may indeed be the case that they are—but if radical changes seem unthinkable it is worth considering that to those whose memory goes back more than two decades, so once would have the headline, “CEO opposed to same-sex marriage steps down amid controversy.”

But the likelihood (or rightness or wrongness) of these particular contingencies is not the point, if we accept that whatever the affiliation of today’s political observers, they could before too long find themselves forced to become a conspicuous enemy of public opinion.

For this reason, it would be wise for today’s cultural conquerors to act with magnanimity and grace toward their conquered, the way Friedersdorf and Andrew Sullivan have done. But in our electrically polarized political culture, theirs is not often the attitude that prevails. Sullivan laments, after hearing feedback from his readers, “only a small percentage of emailers are as disgusted as I am.”

Ross Douthat recently wrote an almost epitaphic letter to the officers of the marriage battle (he titled it The Terms of Our Surrender). Acknowledging that Christians and conservatives have not always acted with restraint when in the position of victor, he requested only that the winning side in this conflict “recognize its power”. To their credit, many intellectuals on that side are doing so.

But I would extend Douthat’s metaphor a little further and plead for a little more, given all of our shared history and unavoidable future. We live in a ceaselessly changing culture, and all of us, conservatives and liberals alike, could at one point find ourselves in a position like Brendan Eich’s, having made, say, a donation to a majority political cause a few years earlier.

When new battles place some of us on the unexpected defense, our moral territory in the culture war left all at once deserted by the forces of popular opinion, is it too much to ask that the victors offer the defeated, at least until the surrender has been negotiated, clemency for having defended the losing side?

Sacredness and Mockery

A parody of the Christian symbol of the fish.

A parody of the Christian symbol of the fish.

As someone who inhabits the cultural world of the college-aged, I am seldom caught off guard by irreverence. Recently, however, I was surprised by a sticker I noticed on an acquaintance’s car. It was the familiar Christian symbol of the fish, but the icon was superimposed with the word “SATAN”.

My surprise came from the incongruity of the situation. While the parody was almost certainly an expression of humor (as opposed to hostility), this person was too well-mannered, I thought, to take so lightly the religious beliefs of others. I was sure she would not have intentionally risked making an offense. The likeliest explanation for her unexpected disrespect is probably not malice or even mischief, but rather a lack of understanding of what religious symbols can mean to others; an inadequate sense of the sacred (the transcendently valuable).

My generation lives at the intersection of fascinating civilizational movements, including ebbing religiosity, an impersonal, internet-driven mass media, and a flourishing of individualist thinking, to name a few. Each of these shifts in culture has had its way of shrinking the class of symbols our society collectively holds sacred, and each has deadened our sensitivity to the symbols that remain, religious or otherwise.

This phenomenon is not entirely new, as we can see by observing the ebbs and flows of history. However, while religious ridicule in history was most often intentional and polemic, the modern mocker is surprisingly simplistic, and shockingly casual. We see this in its essence on the internet: the medium of choice for the post-adolescent blasphemer is the “meme”, where a simple image is captioned with a one or two-line joke. An image of Mary, for example, with a caption suggesting that Christianity is the result of her lying about an affair. An absurd, belittling depiction of Jesus. An image of someone praying, with sarcastic annotation about the uselessness of prayer. Our societal misfortune is not just that irreverence is pervasive, but that it comes from ignorance. More and more young people do not see why they should respect the sacred symbols that are their cultural heritage. Or even, perhaps, any symbol that others revere, such as the red poppy worn by Canadians in November.

As each generation vulgarizes one formerly sacred cultural practice or object, they leave one fewer for the next generation. These symbols do not easily reappear, because children seldom sanctify what their parents treated as common. Of course, culture has perhaps always evolved in this way. The disappearance of sacred symbols need not necessarily mean anything dire. But if the present slow death of sanctity really is unprecedented, then we would do well to consider the dangers.

Sacredness need not be its own justification; scientists are beginning to suspect that it performs an important anthropological role. Jonathan Haidt, a secular moral psychologist, believes that “we evolved to see sacredness all around us and to join with others into teams that circle around sacred objects, people and ideas.” For a period after the attacks of 9/11, for example, Americans felt more united than they had perhaps felt in years; patriotism swelled and flags flew on more houses than had flown them for decades. The idea that America and its security were sacred seemed to renew the mutual goodwill and unity of Americans. Until recently in the West, there was a common reverence for the Judeo-Christian tradition. Leaving aside commentary on the value of Christianity (or Judaism) itself, it is hard to dispute that this common worship endowed our civilization with a set of symbols that defined our collective identity—in fact, modern definitions of “civilization” often rest on the idea of a common set of symbols.

A second justification for sacredness is revealed by considering what it is that we sanctify. Many of us consider children to be sacred. We place no earthly price on their protection. We value them almost infinitely. Marriage and religion were once seen this way, and many of us continue to see them this way. What these sacred things have in common—children, marriage, religion—is that they are vulnerable, costly, and have an extraordinary practical value that is invisible at first glance. We have collectively learned, over the millennia, to treat them as having transcendent value so that we never make the mistake of losing them, even though their cost is more apparent than their value. The norms and injunctions that surround sacred things serve to protect these things—the vulnerable, costly and valuable. We have begun to feel the effects of losing these norms—the Brookings Institution recently estimated that the US poverty rate would be 25% lower if marriage rates were what they were in the 1960s. Europe is now bearing the costs of plummeting birth rates, as the workforce stops growing while retiree numbers swell.

My last fear about the withering of sacredness in our society is one I have alluded to: that it will make us unsympathetic and callous toward minority groups with sacred beliefs, even if we are normally tolerant and friendly. My secular acquaintance did not seem to take much thought that her sticker might have hurt someone else. It is not that today’s twenty-somethings hold nothing sacred; most would place a near-infinite value on their own lives, the lives of their loved ones, or of their pets. But in these cases there is no conscious acknowledgement of sacredness in itself: the word would be written off as belonging to religion. If my generation, more than its parents, feels at liberty to mock Christianity, what will be the next generation’s attitude toward Islam or Hinduism? Can sympathy toward sacredness persist among those who have never believed in it?

A defense of sacredness is not necessarily a justification of any sacred object in particular, and it is left to our own discretion to worship what we will. But in our pluralistic society it seems essential at least to take seriously that which is holy to our friends and neighbors. If instead we slouch into casual mockery and lose our sense of the sacred, we will have carelessly squandered our civilizational inheritance, trampling as the swine the pearls that were cast our way.

Is There Still a Place for Religion?

A depiction of Abraham, spiritual ancestor of the major monotheistic religions.

A depiction of Abraham, spiritual ancestor of the major monotheistic religions.

If there exists a popular portrait of religion in the West, it is not as bright as it once was. The spirituality that once illuminated the stage of history is now painted dimly, as if an obstacle in the path of progress and material prosperity.

This metaphorical portrait is given commentary by academic voices speaking the language of statistics. Sociologists juxtapose the low religiosity of countries in Northern Europe with their low rates of crime and poverty. Unbelievers in America remark that religious people are over-represented in US prisons—and under-represented among its scientists and thinkers. In the opinion of many researchers, the statistical landscape of religion is bleak.

As someone who is religious, I have sometimes looked away in disappointment from this scene, wishing there was some other pattern to be seen in it. While I have always found compelling spiritual and personal justifications for my religiosity, I have avoided debates about the social effects of faith, suspecting there was little statistical ground to stand on.

I have recently discovered this is not the case. The dramatic patterns of cause and effect, made obvious by a glance at the portrait that was brushed in broad strokes, give way to subtler narratives when the picture is crafted in finer lines by someone with keener eyes.

Two books I have read recently on religion and society have given nuance to my view. Both attempt to uncover the nature and role of religion in the United States. One is American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, both researchers at prominent American universities. The other is American Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists by Rodney Stark, who is one of the best known sociologists of religion.

Despite the ecclesiastical tone of each title, both books are mainly occupied by data and analysis. American Grace is particularly data-heavy, and it is appended by 123 pages of notes and appendices. With little theory or speculation, the authors share their analysis of the newest and best datasets on religion in America. American Blessings is also a statistical work, and it cites more than two hundred academic studies, all of which, according to Stark, use rigorous statistical methods.

Here are the claims of the authors. Campbell and Putnam find that religious Americans are more civically engaged, more generous, more neighborly, and more likely to be happy than irreligious Americans. Stark goes further, making and justifying claims that religion has the effect of lessening crime and delinquency, increasing educational success, improving mental health, lengthening human longevity, preventing suicide and promoting charitable giving and volunteering, even to secular causes. He proclaims (with satisfaction) that religious couples report more enjoyable sex lives than their unchurched peers, and that they are less likely to cheat, divorce, or mistreat their children.

Some of these findings are not surprising: most everyone has agreed for some time that religiosity is linked to generosity and civic engagement. The rest of the claims, however, seem to contradict popular (or at least academic) wisdom. I assumed, for example, before I began studying the question, that religiosity was linked to lower educational success and higher rates of crime and poverty.

What explains the gap between our assumptions and these statistics? According to Stark, most of the claims made about religion in the sociological literature are justified by simplistic analysis of poorly gathered data. Many papers use small samples of individuals, often drawn from non-random sources. More importantly, a great deal of the analysis performed does not control for relevant external variables.

This is a vital criticism. When searching for cause-and-effect relationships in social science data, it is irresponsible not to control for possible confounding effects to find independent relationships between variables. This is more difficult than correlating two sets of numbers: it involves regression analysis, a sophisticated technique with well-established statistical properties that can reveal hidden patterns in data.

It is true, for example, that the US states with the lowest incarceration rates have the lowest levels of religiosity. But when controlling for race, income and other social factors by way of regression methods, Stark finds that religion is actually negatively correlated with violent crime. This apparent discrepancy is resolved by the fact that black and Hispanic Americans represent a hugely disproportionate share of incarcerated Americans, but are also more religious than white Americans. While religious blacks and Hispanics are somewhat less violent than irreligious blacks and Hispanics (as can be confirmed by a closer look at the data), there are so many more minorities in prison than whites that it appears as if religious people commit more violent crime. Naive interpretation of data, even accurate data, can lead to conclusions opposite to reality.

Likewise, little can be inferred from the observation that the Western countries with the lowest religiosity are also those with the lowest crime rates. While there is very little statistical analysis of religion and crime in Europe, the existing literature finds a negative relationship between the two (the cited study is for crime in Sweden). Further, it is important not to be selective with statistics: while the US has a much higher murder rate than the Scandinavian countries, it also has far lower rates of assault and burglary, using 2008 data (according to Stark). It appears that crime has declined in the West over time despite growing irreligiosity, and probably not because of it.

It is also certainly possible that the heresy of our age underlies the slow decay of economic growth rates in the West, the rise of structural unemployment, or the stubbornness of child poverty rates (which are correlated with single parenthood).

The literature on the social effects of faithfulness is of course not settled. It may turn out that some of Stark’s conclusions are wrong, or lack adequate nuance. To that point, it seems to me after more study that the relationship between education and religion is more complicated than he let on: while church-attending students outperform the irreligious, it is also true that individual religiosity decreases as individuals gain higher education.

Nevertheless, a second look at the data is justified. To the extent that social scientists have neglected rigorous analysis in favor of more agreeable correlations, they must re-evaluate their assumptions, and paint their portrait of religious society in finer strokes, and from a wider palette. They will likely find that faith does not cast a shadow on modernity, but rather lights its way.