20 February 2020

William Barr, Max Boot, and "the vapor trails of Christianity"

Today's American conservatives often point to secularism and to attacks on Christian morality as the causes of countless instances of social decay. U.S. attorney general William Barr's recent speech to that effect drew the attention of Washington Post columnist, Max Boot, who responded in a column entitled "William Barr's America vs reality in 2020."

Boot's first response is a direct challenge to Barr's assertion that (in Barr's words) "Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground." Boot counters:
Consider some of the improvements since 1960. Real per capita gross domestic product has increased 216 percent, from $18,268 in the first quarter of 1960 to $57,719 in the first quarter of 2019, driven in part by a 230 percent increase in output per hour for non-farm workers as of 2015. The share of 25- to 34-year-olds who have graduated from college has tripled as of 2016. Infant mortality has fallen nearly 80 percent as of 2018. The homicide rate was unchanged as of 2018 — five murders per 100,000 people — but that disguises a vast improvement since the homicide rate peaked at 10.4 per 100,000 in 1980. While the number of out-of-wedlock births was more than seven times higher in 2018, the share of single mothers has declined since 1997 because more unmarried parents live together. The abortion rate soared after Roe v. Wade in 1973 but has fallen more than 50 percent since 1980. How does Barr account for these improvements if the United States is on the road to ruin?
Next, Boot challenges Barr's central argument -- that religion is an essential factor in maintaining social health -- and that's when I really took notice. Boot describes how his colleague Sherry Cho assembled evidence that the opposite might be true. Cho listed the ten "most religious" and ten "least religious" nations (using data from this 2017 survey) and then compared various measures of social well-being between the two lists. Boot summarizes:
Indicators suggest that the less religious nations are much better off. Average GDP per capita in the least religious countries is more than five times higher, while the unemployment rate is more than twice as low and the poverty rate is one and a half times lower. The homicide rate is five times lower. Life expectancy is 22 percent higher, and infant mortality is 1,000 percent lower — in part because the least religious nations spend 50 percent more per capita on health care. The least religious countries are also better educated, with a mean 12 years of schooling per capita vs. 7½ years in the most religious countries. Income inequality is 24 percent lower in the least religious countries, and gender inequality (as measured by the World Bank) is more than 400 percent lower. Finally, the least religious countries are freer, with an average score of 87.6 from Freedom House, compared to 56.5 for the most religious countries.
I don't agree 100% with either Barr or Boot. Barr first: whether or not moral values are weakening as he asserts, his descriptions of the causes include absurd exaggerations. He says that in previous eras, moral decay was just one end of a pendulum-swing cycle that eventually self-corrected ... but now it's different:
First is the force, fervor, and comprehensiveness of the assault on religion we are experiencing today. This is not decay; it is organized destruction. Secularists, and their allies among the “progressives,” have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.

These instruments are used not only to affirmatively promote secular orthodoxy, but also drown out and silence opposing voices, and to attack viciously and hold up to ridicule any dissenters.

One of the ironies, as some have observed, is that the secular project has itself become a religion, pursued with religious fervor. It is taking on all the trappings of a religion, including inquisitions and excommunication.

Those who defy the creed risk a figurative burning at the stake – social, educational, and professional ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and savage social media campaigns.
I am sure there are militant atheists and secularists among us; I run into their abrasive rhetoric all the time. But sociologists tell us that the USA remains uniquely religious among the world's wealthiest countries. Surely if a militant anti-religious movement were effectively neutralizing our religious majority population, we would see more evidence of their vicious attacks, inquisitions, excommunications, and savage social media campaigns. Honestly, I don't. Actually, it seems as if most politicians at the national level still feel they need to wear their religion on their sleeves.

(Remember Hillary Clinton's campaign advisor suggesting an attack on Bernie Sanders' supposed atheism? One such example does not prove a trend, but when have we heard of any campaign trying to make a negative out of someone's Christian faith?)

I would also like to know whether America's conservative religious communities have better social outcomes than the country at large. Have things improved among evangelical Christians, for example, since Ron Sider wrote his sobering book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience?

Maybe I'm too judgmental, but Barr's overdramatization of the secularists' "organized destruction" does not seem like a genuine argument -- it is simply that same tired old rhetorical scare tactic that Richard Hofstadter described as the "paranoid style in American politics."

Boot correctly points out that Barr completely disregards advances in morality in the same years during which the USA has supposedly been decaying. For example, racial segregation was legal when Barr was born (1950). We could go on to list all the crimes and social sins that were routinely hushed up in pre-#MeToo, pre-#ChurchToo, and pre-Black Lives Matter times.

Here's what I'd like to discuss with both Barr and Boot: the usefulness of the word "religion" as a meaningful category. Barr says that religion makes all the difference -- and at various points he shifts from "classic Christian" to "Judeo-Christian" to the role of religion in general in the full 50,000 years of human development. Boot and Cho refer to the full variety of religions in the ten most religious and ten least religious countries they studied.

Here's the problem. A couple of years ago anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas wrote about the influence of religion in general to their ethical behavior: "No matter how we define morality, religious people do not behave more morally than atheists, although they often say (and likely believe) that they do."

In his article, "Are religious people more moral?", Xygalatas points to several devices that contribute to this divide between faith and practice. One very important corruption occurs when ethical behavior is only applied to fellow believers within the group, not necessarily to outsiders. Another is the common tendency for religious people to produce a folk variant -- or as Xygalatas puts it,
... the beliefs and behaviors of religious people are not always in accordance with official religious doctrines. Instead, popular religiosity tends to be much more practical and intuitive. This is what religious studies scholars call "theological incorrectness."
Is it possible that both Barr and Boot don't pay enough attention to this "popular religiosity"? Barr wants to argue that the transcendent claims of religion impose limits on human waywardness that no laws or secular ideals can match. Is this in fact true? And maybe Boot's charts of religious and nonreligious nations also can't take into account whether the religions being cited all have comparable claims on the hearts and consciences of their adherents, or are often simply identity markers along with all other features of their cultures.

Cutting across all these arguments -- and especially Boot's and Cho's analysis -- is Robert Woodberry's research on the worldwide influence of those he calls "conversionary Protestants." His claim, documented in his paper "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy," is that these missionaries "heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracy around the world."

The resulting questions I have for both Barr and Boot are these: how can we argue these controversies based on vague and selective definitions of religion? Is there some factor that we ought to be paying more attention to, that might animate more actual, practical love of neighbor, and how might that factor guide the way we describe today's social pathologies and social improvements?

I'm intrigued by William Barr's reference to the secular values he compares unfavorably to our Judeo-Christian legacy. "What we call 'values' today are really nothing more than mere sentimentality, still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity." I'd like to challenge the "really nothing more" part of this charge, but it's true that the "vapor trails" of Jewish and Christian influence are evident everywhere in our definitions of private and public good.

Maybe Robert Woodberry's study documents a similar phenomenon. Is it possible that in the "least religious countries," the powerful legacy of "conversionist Protestants" proved more durable than any specific form of public religiosity? In other words, can we attribute any of those good social metrics in "least religious" nations to the "vapor" left by those faithful evangelists? If so, what were they preaching and practicing that went powerfully beyond conventional religion as described by Xygalatas ... that is, beyond "popular religiosity" and the divisiveness of "we are special"?

Related posts:

The golden age of evangelism

The atheist's gift

Meeting Jesus halfway

It's hard to believe in Jesus

Every knee shall bow

On loving our critics

The Canadian pipeline crisis was centuries in the making.
For decades, pipelines and other extractive industries, such as mineral and coal mining or logging, have legally pilfered Indigenous land by presenting members of a nation’s council and the citizenry with the same basic sales pitch: “We have money, and you do not.”
Umair Haque on fascism: what happens when a society can't speak the unspeakable?

Has the rising "religiously unaffiliated" tide started to slow?

When I snagged this link from The Guardian, it was #2 on the "read in the USA" list: the truth about why we wake up at 3 a.m.

Buddy Guy is still learning.

From my list of blues musicians I really really miss: Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:


Bill Samuel said...

There is undoubtedly a complex of factors playing into the how religious question and its relation to other factors. That things are much better off in less religious countries could be in large part because when people become comfortable and secure, many of them react by thinking we don't need religion because we're all right by ourselves without any reference to the divine.

This would also explain why the USA is more religious than other affluent countries. While on the whole we are a rich country, economic security is much lower in the USA than in our affluent counterparts. Because we lack a robust system of social supports, a large proportion of people are just one medical or other crisis away from abject poverty. This is not true in most other rich countries.

Bruce said...

When figuring up how religious a country may be, I wonder if we are talking about fundamentalist religion -- of any variety, not just Christian. Fundamentalism distorts the expression of any religion in predictable ways, which tend to be rigid and coercive. This is demonstrably the case in Iran, and among those Americans who want to insist that the US is a "Christian country."

And on another subject: I've been fond of Brownie and Sonny since high school, and got to see them up close and personal in a small venue in Cleveland Ohio in -- IIRC -- 1973. They were no more than ten feet away from the table where my friends and I were sitting. The opening act was a then-unknown Martin Mull. Interesting combination. Wonderful night of music and, in Mull's case, comedy. He is a fine musician as well as a funny guy. Brownie and Sonny were fantastic. We had a wonderful time.