What with all the hoopla about Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, it is a good time to explain how he did serious damage to popular religion in America without having a clue that he his procorporate socioeconomic policies would accelerate the rapidly growing secularization of these United States. Policies that the bulk of the religious right is still blindly following without understanding how they are shooting themselves in their theistic feet.
The idea that The Gipper of all guys would do harm to Amerofaith seems peculiar considering how he – personally a religious moderate – allied with the religious right and pushed to a certain extent their agenda for his electoral purposes. There is no doubt that Reagan was a mainstream Protestant who believed that godliness was and always would be integral to the success of America. The last thing he wanted to do was to injure religion, especially of the Christian flavor.
But since the Reagan presidency religion has been taking it on the chin. The portion of the population that is not religious has more than doubled, as has the segment who qualify as atheistic. Polls designed to overcome American’s reluctance to admit irreligiosity while exaggerating piety indicate that as many as a fifth are skeptical to a greater or lesser of degree about the existence of the gods. The minority who support the evolution of humans without the involvement of supernatural creator is edging up. A century ago nearly all Yanks were Christians, nowadays only three quarters are. The losses have occurred mainly among Protestants who were once a strong majority, but are now close to minority status. The Catholic church is also losing ground among American natives, Hispanic immigrants are preventing on overall decline. For a while it was moderate mainline churches that were in decline, but major conservative sects are in trouble too. A Southern Baptist report laments that the denomination is suffering "slow but discernable deterioration" because they are baptizing new members at the same absolute rate the did half a century ago when America’s population was half as large. Increasing reactionary motivation and organization has allowed the theoconservative minority to wield sociopolitical power well beyond their actual numbers, producing the illusion of expanding numbers. But Bible literalists have dropped from four in ten just before Ron and Nancy moved into the White House while Bible doubters rose equally fast. What strikes most fear into theists is how generations X and Y are the least religious yet seen, being twice as nontheistic as were young Americans when Reagan left the White House. It follows that church attendance is slipping, with just a quarter or less of the populace in church on most Sundays, and less than a couple of percent at them there megachurches we all hear tell about.
With things are going very badly for American faith the question is why. To get a hint of the driving cause consider the reappearance of Dana Carvey’s late 80s/early 90s super prudish Church Lady character on Saturday Night Live this weekend. The SNL writers had no problem finding a slew of current programming whose content makes the television fare circa twenty years ago look tame – 16 and Pregnant, Skins (a "sports center for pedophiles"). SNL itself can push the boundaries further than it used to. Not only do some of the most notable comedic news commentary programs like Real Time, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report feature profanities galore, conservative as well as main stream politicos feel it necessary and acceptable to appear on these programs – the Joint Chiefs of Staff was just on Stewarts show.
The theoconservatives have lost the culture war. A century ago the religious right owned the mainstream culture. Now they have been driven into a minority parallel culture that, although the most powerful in the prosperous democracies, is perpetually unable to regain its dominant status in a increasingly secular and materialistic culture. The shift began immediately after the Great War with the emergence of the Flapper culture, followed by the highly sexualized Pin Up culture of the World War, then the advent of the Rock and Roll youth culture of the 50s, culminating in the uber nightmare of the right, the Counterculture of the 60s that has never ended because the corporations didn’t want it too.
The Christian part of the Bible does not urge the followers of Jesus to acquire as much stuff as they can get their hands upon. Not only does it warn of the spiritual dangers of wealth – there’s that business about it being as hard for a rich guy to get to heaven as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle – it makes is clear that the ideal Christian society is so communistic that those who fall to turn over their property to the church are worthy of death (its right there in Acts 4). Catholicism has never promoted wealth for the masses (as opposed to the Vatican and its notorious bank) and is merely tolerates rather than embraces capitalism. American Protestantism used to be dominated by Calvinism that even though it favored acquiring money via private enterprise, demanded that doing so be done so in a dour, frugal manner that signaled piety and heavenly favor. Starting in the 1920s a growing wing of conservative evangelicism developed the concept of Prosperity Christianity that has increasingly promoted the idea that the creator of the universe for some reason not only blesses America most of all, but wants devout Americans to be as loaded with as much cash as they can acquire hopefully by means not illegal. This brought AmeroChristianity more in accord with the truth that the US was becoming a corporate-consumer society in which getting rich, or at least as much stuff as one can manage, is the capitalist American Way. The basic idea has been that each generation will enjoy more material comforts that came before it. No president dared challenge this All American thesis.
Until Jimmy Carter. Folks tend to forget that the pious Sunday school teacher gained the White House in part by running an evangelical friendly platform. But Carter was a Christian of the more austere Calvinist sort, so the successful peanut farmer responded to the energy and economic crises by telling Americans what they did not want to hear. To lower their expectations. To live in homes that were chillier in the winter and warmer in the summer, to drive smaller, fuel efficient cars. Carter gave the country solid, parsimonious advice. Big mistake.
Reagan knew Carter had downed political poison. The Gipper got himself elected and reelected by telling America what he believed and what the electorate wanted to hear. That the problem was not with voters’ excessive consumption. Just let the free market run free and it would all work out as it always had and always will. Never mind that the guru of this ideology was the wacky absolute atheist Ayn Rand whose adoring hangers on included Alan Greenspan. So you want that McMansion packed full of electron consuming electronics, surrounded by big heat shedding windows? And keep it as chilly as a meat locker in the summer and balmy as the tropics in the winter? If you can accumulate the big bucks you go right ahead. Is your oversize house not big enough to contain all the things you’ve bought and don’t actually need? Rent storage space. Want a fleet of gas guzzling SUVs to do your suburban errands, make the long commute to work, and take those road trips in? By all means, it’s the Godly American Way.
Until the Reagan presidency Republican conservatism had been about wealth via financial conservatism. You know. A penny saved is a penny earned. Keep debts personal and national to a prudent minimum. Reagan more than anyone else blew all that. Deep debt on the individual and governmental scale became the promised ticket to prosperity. At the grand level through the marvelous magic of supply side economics.
By courting the religious right and corporate capital at the same time within the umbrella of the Grand Old Party, Reagan cemented the alliance between theo and economic conservatives. This has worked out great for the capitalist elites, but for theocons the results of their deal with the corporate devil have been at best mixed.
One must wonder what sincerely believing theocons who embrace the corporate culture are thinking. Can the craving desire to magically combine Earthly riches with a Heavenly reward cause folks to be so psychosociologically obtuse? The guys who wrote the Christian Testaments knew enough to not get too entangled with matters material. So did William Jennings Bryan, the Bible believing, creationist Democratic populist – try to find that combination these days -- who warned against the risks hypermaterialism posed for spirituality as he railed against the excesses of corporate capital. So what was the allegedly astute and devoutly Catholic William Buckley doing when he constructed the pseudointellectual basis for the collaboration of the religious and financial right when his own church was cautioning against such depravity (www.dissidentvoice.org/2008/03/buckleys-big-mistake)?
Modern theoconservatives who think that capital is the friend of faith are as naïve as was Marx who imagined the same thing. Although full bore capitalism has become associated with conservatism, it is actually a new and radical system that is the enemy of traditional ways and values. It is not hard to figure out that it is the long term fiduciary interest of the corporations to convert the masses from frugal, contemplative, church going traditionalists into materialistic, hedonistic, time pressed, sex, violence, sports and celebrity obsessed consumers who transfer their wealth up the economic pyramid via interest payments on massive commercial debts in a never ending effort to accumulate lots of optional stuff and fluff. When the 1960s counter culture first showed up the corporations were at first as befuddled as the religious right was horrified. But the culturally attuned advertising people soon caught onto to the potential of exploiting the "me" of the Me Generation, and capital has succeeded spectacularly in capturing, perpetuating and exploiting for their own purposes the initially anti-establishment counterculture the theocons still condemn. Retailers killed the church friendly Blue Laws, freeing Americans to spend Sunday mornings at Wal-Mart and Home Depo, and suppressing church attendance by millions according to an MIT study. Because gays tend to have lots of disposable cash, the corporate suits court their business and have gone to great lengths to promote their acceptance – that’s why one of the two most popular women in the country is the lesbian spokesperson for American Express, Ellen DeGeneres (richarddawkins.net/articles/568418-the-gays-are-winning-and-the-religious-right-is-losing-what-nont heists-can-learn-from-the-success-of-the-homosexual-rights-movement).
There is not a single traditional religious themed entertainment program on the networks run by a set of ratings hungry corporate conglomerates made possible by the deregulation corporations love and theoconservative Repubs hand them. Not because Hollywood is obstinately liberal as conservative claim, but because not enough Americans watch religious programming nowadays. ABC’s unholy Desperate Housewives, popular in the heartland, bumped The Ten Commandments from its Easter Sunday perch. The ultimate media exemplar of the right wing contradiction is Rupert Murdoch. The conservative Catholic’s often salacious Fox entertainment empire is a leading agent of cultural secularization at the same time he rakes in more big bucks with his FoxNews where theocon pundits complain about how the mass media is secularizing the masses!
So do theocons really do not understand that cowboy style free markets cannot help but define the media culture downwards to the vulgarity of the inherently irreligious Reality TV that dominates the networks? As a result mercantile interests have created a lucrative "Sex in the City" first world pop society, driving the once dominant traditionalism into a parallel culture that is chronically unable to defeat the corporate-consumer popular counterculture that has become the establishment mainstream. Do they just not get that the fast paced change driven by wild west capitalism is antithetical to the spirituality promoted by the calmer, traditional life of the preindustrial era? The acme of modern technology, personal electronics, is a potent agent for separating youth from the social organization system that church going relies upon (articles.latimes.com/2010/oct/27/opinion/la-oew-paul-religion-secularism-20101027). The same technology is allowing the easy access to porn that has spread like wildfire among conservative Christian men to the dismay of their leaders. The Reagan presidency did nothing to slow down the secular friendly corporate beast, it’s policies only fueled the rise of the material over the spiritual.
The sociological research I and others are conducting is finding that the corporate-consumer culture appears to be the agent most responsible for deChristianing America (books.google.com/books?id=Z1hbaAHsAlUC&pg=PA149&lpg=PR5&dq=Atheism+and+Secularity+zucke rman+gregory+paul&ie=ISO-8859-1&output=html). The never-ending theoconservative project to reform the west for God has become the game they cannot give up, but cannot win because they lack viable options. If the right abandons its alliance with their corporate pseudofriends they will lose much of the political power they have. At the same time the churches lack the multitrillion dollar resources with which capital contributes to the western secularization process. No wonder the American right is so angry -- they see they have lost the cultural war and have no grand strategy to get it back.
Many myths, most perpetrated by the radical right, have arisen about Reagan. One of the least understood errant legends is that he helped boost the rise of the religious right. By encouraging America to embrace the no holds barred search for stuff Reagan did not do the churches a favor. Although the amiable dunce many think he was, there is little doubt that he lacked the intellect to fully understand how his beloved free enterprise was going to wound his beloved Christianity. But neither did the supposedly perspicacious Buckley. And most of the religious right remains in obtuse denial.