Radical Conservatism Is Killing American Religion

How right-wing religious leaders are trying to conquer the world even if it means losing their souls.

American organized religion is facing a downward spiral crisis of its own creation. The latest effort by conservative Catholic bishops to use abortion as a cudgel to deny President Biden communion is a perfect example of this self-sabotage:

The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States, flouting a warning from the Vatican, have overwhelmingly voted to draft guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist, advancing a push by conservative bishops to deny President Biden communion because of his support of abortion rights.

The decision, made public on Friday afternoon, is aimed at the nation’s second Catholic president, perhaps the most religiously observant commander in chief since Jimmy Carter, and exposes bitter divisions in American Catholicism. It capped three days of contentious debate at a virtual June meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The measure was approved by a vote of 73 percent in favor and 24 percent opposed.

It’s honestly astonishing. President Biden is devout Catholic who attends church with uncommon regularity. He wears his faith on his sleeve and uses it to guide his moral decisions. He has suffered personal tragedies that would break many people, and somehow maintained an almost maddening optimism about America, his fellow human beings (even his Republican opponents) and the Divine itself. A religious organization suffering dramatic declines that was serious about maintaining its influence on this earth should be elated to have such a person as arguably the most powerful person in the world.

But not the leadership of the Roman Catholic bishops, which stands well to the political right of the laity. They aligned themselves strongly with Donald Trump, one of the most personally reprobate men imaginable, an inveterate avoider of church with a personality so far from that of the textual Jesus Christ that conservative Christians had to rationalize their support for him as an “imperfect vessel” or a modern-day Cyrus—the unbeliever who nonetheless helped the faithful. It would be difficult to imagine a more cruel, mean-spirited, narcissistic and vainglorious person than Trump, a more perfect icon of the seven deadly sins.

They took no action to attempt to sanction Trump despite his offensive personality and his heresies on nearly every point of Christian doctrine in the New Testament–including, notably, the death penalty. But they’ve decided to draw the line against Biden on abortion, an issue that famously does not actually appear in the Bible and requires tortured textual interpretations to justify doctrinal enforcement. This despite the fact that Catholics split their votes for Biden and Trump almost evenly.

The decision by the bishops to take greater offense to a fellow Catholic over abortion than, say, the abuse of migrant children or the the state murder of prisoners by a grinning philanderer illustrates their real motivations. The bishops are not acting in the interest of their faith or their flock; they’re acting as agents of the warped moral morass that is American Conservatism, Inc. They are prioritizing control of women’s bodies over every other spiritual or secular importance. In so doing, they are rapidly alienating at least half of what remains of the American church’s adherents.

Relatedly, protestant pastors are struggling to control the growth of QAnon conspiracies in their congregations. The QAnon cult is partly just the latest gloss on Satanic panic and Great Awakening movements in the past. But it is also a form of apostasy, a bizarre heretical substitution of Donald Trump for the avenging Jesus of the Book of Revelation, come to punish the wicked in a fallen world, vindicate the ostracized true believers, and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.  In the case of the Q faithful, the flaming sword of Jesus wreaking havoc against the devotees of the Antichrist has been replaced with the mass executions of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and fellow liberals at Gitmo by secret military tribunals.

Much like the conservative Catholic bishops, QAnon adherents substitute their profane racial and sexual insecurities and temporal partisan allegiances for authentic spiritual connection and compassion. But the pastors of America’s white evangelical churches largely have only themselves the blame: they have allowed their culture to become dominated by the hard right with little pushback. White evangelical America is now a very distinct subculture on social and economic issues from most of the rest of America, including even other Americans of faith. It was only a matter of time before lashing their beliefs to the altar of partisan culture wars would end up with the sacrifice of their faith itself to the golden idol of Donald Trump.

It is no surprise, then, that an increasingly progressive America has recoiled in horror, fleeing churches and abandoning the religious organizations that have set themselves squarely at war with multicultural democracy.

Religion could find a footing even in a socially liberal world where science and technology have supplanted so much of what was previously the mystery of the divine. Young generations beset by existential environmental and economic crises in the face of an intransigent political system have little secular grounding for hope in the future. Faith could provide some irrational courage in the face of despair, much as it has done for President Biden.

But that would require religious leaders to abandon the American revanchist conservative project. For the time being, however, it appears they would prefer to take a Hail Mary pass at an authoritarian theocracy to gain the world even if it means losing their soul—and their faithful—in the bargain.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist, and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” and president of the Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.