It is tempting to blame Donald J. Trump for being an amazingly bad president as he promotes the agenda of the religious Right and its defective policies (including elevating the rights of theoconservatives over other theists and secularists). But that hyper-materialist devotee of the amoral Christian Prosperity proponent Norman Vincent Peale literally does not know better. Two types of people are responsible for Trump being president of the United States. One cohort is obviously those who have supported him—whether it be while holding their noses or displaying head-over-heels enthusiasm. But I am not going to go on about them, first because you already know about those folks but more importantly because there is a matter that is much more urgent for secularism, yet it receives much less attention. That is the even bigger problem of the other clique of people who, without trying to, helped make The Donald the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
That would be the centrist, liberal, and progressive theists and seculars who did not vote in 2016—as they have not in a long string of elections going back decades. All too often a large portion of those who are not theoconservatives have, for assorted reasons, thought it unnecessary to behave as full active citizens of these United States of America and bother to vote.
The American religious Right does not make that mistake. After the embarrassing debacle of the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s, the hard theistic Right semi-retreated from politics for about a third of a century. But for reasons I have discussed in prior columns, including my previous one, American society’s massive secularization and liberalization—in particular, the second sexual revolution of the 1960s—inspired theocons to return powerfully to deep politics. Basically, the religious Right decided to be pragmatic and disciplined. It would be enough for them to put politicians into office—from local communities to the White House—who did a pretty good job of putting in place their godly agenda. That agenda includes regaining control of the culture, denying women their reproductive rights, limiting sex to married couples for purposes of reproduction, making divorce hard to get, keeping people of color in their proper places, supporting the “more guns the better” attitude, letting capital have its free-market way, keeping government as small as possible—except when it serves the theocon agenda, and so forth. Most important, don’t fret if those politicians’ lives fall well short of religious Right ideals. So Reagan was the first divorcee president who—like Trump and unlike Sunday school–teaching but liberal Carter—rarely attended church. The theocons did not care then, and they do not care now. Oh sure, it would be nifty to have a truly pious churchgoer as president—someone as clean-mouthed and unwilling to be alone with a woman not his wife as Mike Pence—but if being that picky means that secular liberals will control the government, such niceties can and must go by the wayside. Religious Right strategists don’t want their flock wasting votes on third-party candidates!
They had other factors in their favor also. It’s called organized religion, after all, so the religious Right tended to be well-coordinated from the get-go. Then there’s the fact that most theocons are older folks who are more prone to vote. Then there is how the Senate and the Electoral College are inherently skewed toward conservatives. The result has been a theocon political powerhouse that, despite being well outside the cultural mainstream, is punching way above its weight. We seculars grow by leaps and bounds, but the theoconservatives still wield too much control.
In contrast, a big chunk of the secular, theologically liberal, atheist center-left has seemed either lazy or just overly picky at the polls. Our rate of voting is well below that of theocons. It is part of the culture of the Left, in which voting is often seen as the nerdy, boring, establishment thing to do—compared to, say, street demonstrations that come across as dramatic and hip. (Never mind that if you have to demonstrate, it means you do not have actual political power!)
Moreover, left-leaning voters too often demand that candidates pass impossible purity tests. It’s said that on election day, those on the right fall in line while those on the left have to fall in love. Of course, we must not accommodate down to the level of another Trump, but perfect is the enemy of good enough. I remember liberal secular women who spat venom about Hillary Clinton, and look what they (and we) got instead. Too many on our side think voting is optional, something to do only when necessary. I have heard some whine about how they figured Hillary would win, so they did not bother voting—an abdication of personal responsibility much less often seen on the right. It does not help that youth are the most prone to be progressive, because they are also the least likely to vote (that’s a reason Bernie Sanders lost in the primaries). And finally, of course, getting seculars who despise organizations organized is, as the cliché goes, like herding cats.
We seculars roll our sophisticated eyes at how not-all-that-bright the theocons are. But they are way smarter than we are when it comes to running the country. They grasp that the way to control the reins of the nation above all else is to vote. Everything else is secondary. And by voting, they are being good citizens. Give them credit for that. As a result of their electoral discipline, the theocon minority has placed a bare majority on the Supreme Court. If not stopped this fall, they will pack a hardcore conservative court that can make abortion outright illegal while aborting progressive policies for decades, even if secular liberals begin to dominate elected offices. Think about it: had the Left voted at the same per capita rate as the Right in 2000, then President Al Gore would have filled the U.S. Supreme Court with center-leftists. The same would be true had a couple million more shown up for Hillary. In between, consider how the Right seized control of so many states in 2010—because so many who had voted in the first black president in 2008 had better things to do than vote in the boring midterm elections.
Instead of getting out and voting, most seculars today yield to an all-too-logical dread of a theocon autocracy, one made all the more fearful by the gross incompetence of Trump. So, no more excuses, secular Americans. Be a true citizen. Vote in 2020, 2022, 2024 … keep on voting until you are no longer able to drag yourself to the polls or complete a postal ballot. That includes you, millennials.