Trump Returns Evangelicals the Favor

Over the weekend Donald Trump addressed the graduating class at Liberty University, the fundamentalist college founded by the late Jerry Falwell and now led by his son Jerry Jr. It was Trump’s first commencement speech and the venue indicated that he was there to pay a favor. White evangelical Protestants supported Trump like the had not supported other GOP candidates in recorded history. His speech should concerns all of us who cares about the secular state and maintaining the growth that the secular population has enjoyed in the last decade.

David Niose and Rob Boston, two of the best and most experienced voices on issues of church-state separation have very gloomy reactions to the speech. While there’s some overlap in their assessments, they highlight some separate issues.

Niose highlights the transactional nature of the Religious Right and how Trump, an expert in trasactional relationships, brags about the “deal.”

In speaking to his Christian audience, Trump was brazen in his you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours rhetoric, reminding evangelicals that their policy goals are his. “I am so proud as your president to have helped you along over the past short period of time,” he said, referring to last week’s controversial executive order instructing the IRS to do everything possible to allow churches and religious groups to participate in politics. Turning to his host Jerry Falwell, Jr. (son of the college’s founder), he bragged, “I said I was going to do it, and Jerry, I did it. And a lot of people are very happy with what’s taken place. . . We did some very important signings.”

Of course, here Trump refers to his infamous executive order on religious freedom. As Mark Silk notes, the EO really amounts to not a lot in practice. This doesn’t mean that we should take our guard down. The Religious Right has the Johnson Amendment on the cutting board and Republicans hold power in all three branches of the federal government.

The Benito Juarez Experience discusses the Johnson Amendment (Part 1; Part 2)

 

 

Boston focused his concerns on Trump’s view of the role of God in America, and in American history.

“America has always been the land of dreams because America is a nation of true believers,” Trump declared. “When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth they prayed. When the founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, they invoked our creator four times, because in America we don’t worship government, we worship God. That is why our elected officials put their hands on the Bible and say, ‘So help me God,’ as they take the oath of office. It is why our currency proudly declares, ‘In God we trust,’ and it’s why we proudly proclaim that we are one nation under God every time we say the Pledge of Allegiance. The story of America is the story of an adventure that began with deep faith, big dreams and humble beginnings.”

He’s right to be concerned. With the Religious Right-led GOP in power many issues of church-state separation are already coming up and will continue to come up. It is possible that we will get into a social and political environment where people on the fence, such as many nones, will stop identifying as such and return to their old religious labels. This could happen because people may fear the social, economic, and political consequences of not identifying as or been seen as religious.

We are in for a wild ride in the 3 3/4 years we have left in this mess. Trump may not be an evangelical, but he knows they got him elected. More important, they know it.

Responding To San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor

As a few of my fellow writers have noted Ivy Taylor the mayor of San Antonio is in hot water after she made a stunningly unintelligent claim about what causes poverty. If you’ve yet to see the clip you can find it here. The statement begins at one hour and eight minutes in (in case you’re curious if you heard it in a snippet it wasn’t edited, it’s that bad).

 

A Brief Contextualization Of Mayor Ivy Taylor:

Ivy Taylor is known for courting controversy even on issues her own party (she’s a registered Democrat) has taken clear stances on. She refused to condemn Trump’s travel ban, she was booed during a prayer for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting due to her track record on LGTBQIA issues. Her booing came after statements Ivy Taylor made in 2015 about the “waste of time” of a nondiscrimination ordinance she voted against in 2013 (which passed without her assistance anyway). Even when she takes the right stance, such as Taylor’s outspoken opposition to Texas’s own “bathroom bill“, was for economic reasons and not for simple moral ones.

What Ivy Taylor Gets Wrong:

I’m going to start this off by stating that this is insulting to poor people independent of their religious beliefs. It’s insulting because of the clear implication that if you suffer from generational poverty there’s something wrong with your family and quite possibly with you. Additionally if you live in San Antonio and are someone who has suffered from generational poverty while also being Christian, this should be even more insulting to you than it is to atheists because it could be interpreted as her saying that you aren’t a true Christian.

Are atheists and agnostics generally poverty stricken? Research seems to indicate that though some atheists and agnostics are affected by poverty the majority of us aren’t, and according to blind statistics we are less likely to be poverty-stricken than most of the various types of Christians that exist in significant numbers in the United States. One solid example of this is research from the Pew Research Center which breaks down the percentages of various religious stances by household income and showcases that in the cases of atheists and agnostics only 24% and 22% respectively of households are poverty stricken. What’s weird about this though is that Texas’s poverty rate has outstripped the U.S. poverty rate for decades according to Politifact, and Texas is the 11th most religious state which goes to show that Christianity cannot be a crucial factor in deterring generational poverty.

It’s challenging to try and quantify such a silly claim. However at this point there’s enough research out there to understand that the idea that Christianity is a valid tool to overcome poverty is not based in reality. If that was the case then research like that of the Pew Research Center wouldn’t show that only two types of Christians typically have more wealth than atheists, and agnostics, (and also that only 5 types of Christians out of 19 surveyed are more resistant to poverty in the context of blind statistics) and the Episcopal Church and the United States Presbyterian Church wouldn’t be below the Jews and the Hindus in terms of wealth accumulation and below them in addition to being below atheists and agnostics in terms of preventing poverty. Additionally Christianity by itself is clearly not a tool to use to avoid becoming a divorcee or to not be a situation where one gets an abortion. It’s important that I state that none of these things make people broken, as Ivy Taylor seems to think they do given her statements, but these are things that are tied to poverty and in none of them is being a Christian and thus “having a relationship with the creator” advantageous. Therefore we can and should dismiss Ivy Taylor’s claim.

If Mrs. Ivy Taylor was attempting to pander to the audience (the person who asked the question was with the Christian Coalition) I hope it didn’t work. But if she sincerely believes her claim she has to be one of the most incredibly out of touch democratic politicians I’ve had the displeasure of seeing making headlines and drawing the ire of both secular bloggers and even local newspapers. Hopefully she’ll learn from this mistake and not repeat it again in the future.

Thanks to “Leaders” Like Michael Shermer…

…the Religious Right runs circles (politically) around secular Americans.

In a new piece in Politico Magazine, skeptic Michael Shermer shows that his skepticism is limited to religion and pseudoscience. In other aspects of life, such as politics, he delves into conspiracy theory. Basically, Shermer thinks evangelicals are getting conned by Trump (they are, but not because of the reasons he thinkss).

Trump was elected president despite being the least religious major candidate in the 2016 field. Looked at this way, Trump isn’t the evangelicals’ savior. He’s just another data point in America’s long march away from religion.

Of course, this assumes that evangelicals voted for Trump because he was one of their own. They voted for him because he is:

  1. A Republican. As Pew shows, white evangelicals have been a core constituency of the GOP for a long time. They just voted for the candidate representing the party they prefer (and against the candidate they totally hate).
  2. A racist. A recent analysis of the American National Election Study by Prof. Thomas Wood who found that:

Since 1988, we’ve never seen such a clear correspondence between vote choice and racial perceptions. The biggest movement was among those who voted for the Democrat, who were far less likely to agree with attitudes coded as more racially biased.

Nineteen eighty eight was the year of the infamous “Willie Horton” and “Revolving Door” ads. The GOP had not been as explicitly racist in its appeals for nearly two decades. But the Obama presidency and Latinx and Asian-American presence have reignited a nativist streak in the GOP not seen since the 1924 immigration quotas law.

His use of the phrase “evangelicals” is telling. Shermer, who is not a very sensitive fellow on issues of race, doesn’t call Trump’s religious base for what it is: white and evangelical. The vast majority of blacks are evangelical, and they didn’t vote for Trump. The polling firm Latino Decisions found in its election eve poll that 60 percent of “born again” Latinx (Latinx evangélicos) voted for Clinton. These data show that Trump’s appeal to “evangelicals” was mostly limited to white ones.

Aside from pushing the “Trump is a closeted secular” conspiracy, Shermer sounds naive in his approach to politics and totally ignorant of American history. He’s politically naive as he ignores the reasons for why the Religious Right is so powerful.

The Religious Right emerged as a force in American politics not because it was pandered to, but because it made it an effort to get politicians to pay attention to them. Or by becoming politicians themselves. Shermer expects that because there’s a large number of secular Americans now, politicians will automatically seek our votes. They won’t, as I have explained before.

Amazingly, for a man who rails against identity politics, he seems fine with claiming victory for secularism because the President is not that religious (according to Shermer). Cheerleading the victory of a megalomaniac, sexist, racist con man is fine as long as it can serve as a f-u to religious American voters. Thankfully, not all of us have such low standards in our identity politics.

Two Appearances in the Secular Nation Podcast

Recently I served as guest and, later, host of Secular Nation, the podcast of the Atheist Alliance of America. In my guest appearance I talk about secularism and politics in the Trump Era with Aron Ra and Justin Scott of Eastern Iowa Atheists. In the show I hosted I interview Dr. Ron Millar, the PAC coordinator for the Freethought Equality Fund, a secular PAC.

For my guest hosting appearance I wanted to focus on the great work the PAC did in 2016, one of the few bright spots our movement had in this past election. You can listen to the show here. Ron discusses the process of finding and endorsing candidates, the importance of having more secular Americans running for office, and other issues. As a backgrounder I want to show some information about the PAC’s work last year.
The Fund endorsed 35 candidates in 17 states. Arizona led the way with 9 candidates, nearly one-quarter of the candidate pool. The states are quite diverse. There are hotbeds of American secularism such as Washington, Oregon and New Hampshire with multiple candidates. But there are also places like Utah, Missouri, and Tennessee.

One aspect we didn’t discuss in the podcast was the variety of offices that the candidates ran for. It wasn’t a matter of local offices. Most ran for state (legislative) offices and the second largest cohort competed for federal (Congress) offices.

Last but not least, the Fund was very successful with its endorsed candidates. The majority won their races. In the podcast Ron goes a little bit into detail into who was more likely to succeed.

I hope you enjoy the shows!

Trump Approval Watch

I am not normally obsessed with presidential approval ratings. But since the election of Donald Trump as President I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between approval and governing. A popular President can use it as leverage, think post-9/11 George W. Bush. An unpopular President that is also incompetent, like our current Commander-in-Chief, may have trouble making policy even with a friendly Congress.

Trump was never popular to begin with. As it was said ad nauseam during the 2016 campaign both Trump and Hillary Clinton were the most unpopular candidates for President ever (since public opinion started tracking such a thing). It is not surprising that now that he’s President he has enjoyed no honeymoon period, just breaking even at 45% of both approval and disapproval in the first Gallup poll measuring his ratings. That is the lowest among the Presidents since 1969.

image-10
Source: Gallup

Barack Obama, the only one of the last four President who won a majority of the vote had the approval of two-thirds of the country in his first Gallup appearance in 2009. His predecessor George W. Bush had the approval of nearly 60% of the country in 2001 even though (like Trump) he didn’t win the popular vote and (unlike Trump) his Electoral College victory was handed to him by the Supreme Court. Even Bill Clinton in 1993 had 58% approval following an election that he won by a plurality in a 3-way popular vote.

Before Trump the least popular presidents were Ronald Reagan in 1981 and George H.W. Bush in 1989. Both had 51% approval, 6 percentage points higher than Trump’s. Unlike Trump these two Presidents were not unpopular. In fact, none of the Presidents who preceded Trump in the Oval Office were unpopular.

earliest_approval
Source: Gallup

On average, all elected Presidents since Nixon had majority approval (58%). This ranged from 51% (Reagan and Bush I) to 67% (Obama). The average disapproval for Trump’s last 7 predecessors was 13%. Disapproval ranged from 5% (Nixon) to 25% (Bush II).

Trump’s first approval was 24% lower than the average recently sworn-in President. His disapproval was nearly 4 times higher than the average President since 1969 and nearly twice than George W. Bush, his most unpopular predecessor.

That leaves us with one additional number: those who did not have an opinion. Since 1969 nearly 3-in-10 Americans have not expressed an opinion of the new President. It makes sense, these polls are often taken in the first couple of weeks of an administration. Many people without strong opinions may want to wait and see how the new Commander-in-Chief does. In other words, the honeymoon period is a combination of positive opinion (approval), and willingness to cut some slack (no opinion). Even the last 3 Presidents in a more polarized environment have averaged 20% no opinion. Trump’s margin of error is much smaller. Only 10% of Americans did not have an opinion of him.

While approval ratings may rise and fall as Presidents get in trouble or out of it, as they accomplish goals or botch them, they start with a lot of leeway. Trump’s first numbers suggest that the vast majority of Americans have an opinion formed of him and what he’s going to do while in office.

As I write this Trump’s approval stands at 41% while his disapproval has increased to 53%. Right now 94% of the country has an opinion of his performance and it is not a good one. With executive orders, a friendly Congress, and his sheer incompetence he can still inflict a lot of damage. But he’s vulnerable even if he thinks the normal rules of engagement do not apply to him.

The Republican Party as of now stands united but as Trump increasingly becomes a liability we will witness more Republicans willing to break with him. Maybe not on their sweet tax cuts, but on issues that they don’t care much about but now feel bound to follow out fear of igniting the wrath of the President’s base. You will see the seams starting to fall apart in the Senate.

Senators have different electoral incentives since they have staggered terms. The first Republican Senators smelling blood on the Michael Flynn saga do not face election next year.

With a Democratic base energized in these first weeks and a bumbling President, expect a few more to start opposing in the longer term if the bad ratings continue. House Republicans will be harder to move, they have safe districts. Expect the few vulnerable ones to start considering their exit strategies.

Of course, it is possible for Trump to improve or have other external events to have people outside his base rallying in his favor. One potential event that has been suggested is a terrorist attack. George W. Bush initially became widely popular  after the 9/11/2001 attacks. But Donald Trump is not George W. Bush. The younger Bush was more charismatic than our current President. Also, Bush used the attacks to try to unify the country (in his own way). Trump is incapable of doing that, he will use the opportunity to tweet an “I told you so” message.

I think it will be very hard for Trump to gain net positive approval ratings. He’s certainly way over his head, most people dislike him, and once Republicans see that he’s more a distraction than an asset, opposition will line up within the GOP. I think he is incapable of uniting the country in case of a tragedy or a war. The latter will more likely be seen with the suspicion that Bush II never received. Finally, I think that when his approval ratings among the voters of his own party (currently at 88%) start dropping and hopefully reach and surpass the Nixon line (50% was his Republican approval at his lowest point), he will get a primary challenge. While his policies matter, his approvals (or lack of) will be of great help in his downfall.

Edit 2/15/2017 to fix a mention of GWB approval rating.

Representation requires more than votes

The Pew Research Center released its now-traditional “Faith on the Hill” study of religion in Congress. Among the not-so surprising findings are that Christians are overrepresented compared to their share of the population. The most underrepresented group, once again: the nones (nonreligious/atheist/agnostic). Emma Green has a piece up at The Atlantic blaming nonreligious Americans for their lack of representation in Congress. In essence, she argues that secular Americans don’t vote in large numbers and for that reason they do not have enough members of Congress representing them. She also makes an argument that the movement is not coherent because many nonreligious people don’t really care about religion enough to organize about the issue.

Both arguments are wrong. Let’s take first the first argument that the nonreligious do not vote enough to get representation. Green shows a chart from PRRI (full disclosure: I was once an employee of PRRI) showing the percentage of people who identify as nonreligious in the general population and the percentage of nonreligious voters in exit polls. The latter number is always much smaller, but that does not mean that we are certain that the secular cohort is less likely to vote. Most general population polls are conducted over the phone (landline and cellphones) and/or (increasingly) online. Exit polls are mostly done face-to-face. Considering how disliked are nonreligious people, particularly atheists, in the United States, it is possible that many secular-minded people are not willing to tell a stranger their real religious beliefs.

Even if it were true that secular Americans are less likely to vote, they are still a significant part of the of the electorate and should have more than 1 openly nonreligious member. But in our political system numbers do not translate to equal representation. After all, women do not account for half of our representatives and people of color do not comprise a third of elected officials. Just because the number of secular Americans has jumped in the last decade, mostly thanks to young people, doesn’t mean that they have a pool of people ready to run for office and win offices that are not very often open for business when we consider the high reelection rates of incumbents.

There are some changes coming that way. In 2016, the Freethought Equality Fund, a secular PAC, endorsed several candidates, many of whom got elected and did not run away from identifying with a secular label or from the support of a secular group. These candidates ran mostly at the state and local levels and represent a growing bench of secular leaders.

On Green’s second point, that is hard to organize a group of people with little in common except for their lack of religion, truth is there is a lot in common. Secular Americans regardless of labels agree on many social and economic issues. As a Puerto Rican, I have experience with imagined identities among groups with a hint of history together. Latinos have become an important force by combining the forces of groups that share some traits, but also have some major differences (I know a bit about this, trust me).

There are important problems of collective action in the secular movement that hinder its ability to become a major political force in the short term. I’ve written about this before. But there are important structural and cultural problems in this country exacerbating the lapses in political organization in the secular movement. Those are to blame for the lack of representation during this decade. We need to work on reversing them in the future.

 

Latinos, the Nones, and the Decline of American Catholicism

Last week PRRI released a new survey providing an in-depth look at the nones. The nones are now America’s largest “religious” cohort, surpassing Catholics. This is no coincidence. Former Catholics (or people raised as Catholic like yours truly) have been boosting the numbers of the nones for years. The stability of Catholic religious identification in the United States was a mirage. The growth of the Latino population in the 1990s and 2000s, back then overwhelmingly Catholic greatly contributed to the overall numbers and give the impression that Catholic identification was very stable in the face of overall declining religiosity in the country.

Back when I was at the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) and we released the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey we noted that anomaly. On page 15 of the 2008 ARIS Summary Report Barry Kosmin & Ariela Keysar noted that “…Catholicism lost ground within every ethnic group between 1990 and 2008. If the Hispanic population, which is the most Catholic, had not expanded then the Catholic population share nationally would have significantly eroded.” This observation was based on an analysis of a subsample of nones that received additional questions on ethnic heritage. We found a substantial number of former Catholics of Irish descent among the nones that was further explored in ISSSC’s report “American Nones.”

Even as Latinos seemed to give Catholicism a boost, under the surface there were problems. The third ARIS report, published in 2010, was on Latino religious change. In that report we noted that Catholic identification among Latinos had declined from to-thirds of all Latinos in 1990 to 6-in-10 by 2008 while the share of nones had doubled. The decline in Catholicism among Latinos led us to conclude that “…while Latinos helped to mitigate some of the losses in Catholic identification in the U.S., the Catholic identification is much lower than it could have been.”

By 2013 I had joined PRRI and our Hispanic Values Survey found that the growth of Latino nones was fueled by an exodus of Latino Catholics. The next year, 2014 the Pew Research Center found that 20 percent of Latinos were nones.

In sum, though the growth of the nones seems to be a mostly white, male phenomenon because the most prominent secular faces are white dudes, people of color especially Latinos have helped the group become the largest “religious” cohort in the country. So, secular America, in the name of all former Latino Catholics I say, you’re welcome.

 

Colorblind Conservatism

At TheHumanist.com, Sincere Kirabo writes about black conservatives. In the piece he dismantles the arguments of African-American speakers at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. A task simplified by the fact that there were so few, most fit in one magazine column. A sample quote below:

Black conservatives, along with their brethren, favor respectability politics and place faith in the idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”—both notions supported by a victim-blaming rationale that neglects the way some identities are privileged over others.

Sincere Kirabo, “The Black Conservative Anomaly

Though Kirabo’s focus is the current lineup of black conservatives in the GOP, black conservatism is an ideological current with a long history, something I learned during my years in graduate school. In fact, it was the scholarship on African-American ideologies, particularly the work by Michael Dawson and Melissa Harris-Lacewell (today Harris-Perry), what inspired me to write a dissertation on Latino ideology.

In this regard, Kirabo’s piece reminds me of Chapter 3 of W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk. That chapter is a serious takedown of the respectability politics and black conservatism of Booker T. Washington.

There’s a big difference between Washington and today’s black conservatives in the GOP. Washington’s conservative rhetoric included actions, such as the founding of the Tuskegee Institute. He was part of a debate about how to improve the conditions of the African-American community after the collapse of Reconstruction. Today’s GOP black conservatives deny there’s a problem at all, or that the problem lies in individual responsibility.

Which leads me to the contradiction of today’s GOP. As the party has moved from “dog-whistle” statements about race to explicit racism, it has also seen a boom in elected officials of color. The Party of Trump has South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the only African-American U.S. Senator, two Latinos in the U.S. Senate (Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz), as well as governors Brian Sandoval (NV) and Susana Martínez (NM), Indian-American governors Nikki Haley (SC) and Bobby Jindal (LA). Let’s not forget Dr. Ben Carson’s and Alan Keyes’s presidential aspirations. This shows that the party’s base may be racist, but also colorblind. They will elect anyone who spews the hateful rhetoric and reality-denying views they like.

The other day I was watching cable news in room as I waited for a meeting. I don’t recall which network it was, but I recall hearing something like this: A commentator asked where are the reasonable black conservatives like Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, and Michael Steele. And I though to myself, if Michael Steele is now considered a reasonable black conservative, the Republican Party is beyond salvation.