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You Do Love God, Right?

Ryan Greis

There are two subjects on which no half-bright person should ever take an opinion poll seriously. And of the two, I suspect people these days are quite a lot more honest about sex than they are about religion. No other subject is freighted with so much doubt, ambivalence--and, this being a Christian nation, fear--on the one hand, and on the other so much cultural coercion to say the right thing. In front of God and Gallup, Americans whose lives bear no practical connection to any religious institution or creed tend to mark themselves down as believers. What's more, the age of Bush and permanent wartime has cranked up the pressure toward collective piety to levels surpassing even the 1950s, when God was dragooned into serving on the front lines of the Cold War.

So if anything, it's a little surprising that only 78 percent of Minnesotans proclaimed themselves believers in God in last month's Star Tribune poll. In the relatively more tranquil days of 1987, the number was 84 percent. There's no point in puzzling over the discrepancy, given how little polls like this have to tell us about the real makeup of American religionists. But that's not the same as saying perceptions like these don't matter. As the election cycle approaches, the notion that America harbors a vast silent horde of dour religious conservatives is taken for granted by political strategists, candidates, reporters, and pundits. And numbers like these only seem to highlight the supremacy of religion (even though the Strib, it should be said, did not put much political spin on its results).

Even Howard Dean, who proclaimed just a few months ago that religion had no place in politics, has started babbling about his relationship with Christ. But he may have spoiled the gig by telling a reporter that his favorite New Testament story was that of Job. Oops. I spent my formative churchgoing years sitting in the back row composing bawdy lyrics to all the popular hymns with Bobby Staley, and I knew the Book of Job was not in the New Testament. Dean would do better to point out that W's favorite book of the New Testament appears to be Revelation. He then could offer himself as the candidate of those Americans and those Christians who do not care to go swimming in a lake of fire anytime soon.

But back to the poll. There are a handful of numbers in it that give away the game where public professions of faith are concerned. First, consider that 69 percent of Minnesotans affirmed God to be very important in the conduct of their lives and 46 percent said they frequently use religious principles to solve problems; then consider that, to any serious religious person, these two questions are essentially the same question stated in different terms. So why did half again more respondents say yes to the first version of the query? Because it mentioned God, and--as a matter of cultural manners, first and foremost--Americans aren't supposed to say no to God, openly anyway. (Remember that we are "one nation under God" according to the Pledge of Allegiance, even though He was only added to our political catechism and our paper money in the 1950s.)

That 46 percent figure does, however, come close to the 48 percent who identify themselves to the Strib as "intense, practicing believers." So do we have a reliable bit of data at last? No. It isn't hard to believe that roughly half the populace considers itself attached in some fashion (usually upbringing) to one denomination or another, but try applying the most mundane commonsense measure to that number. Minnesota religionists are overwhelmingly Christian, and the majority of Christian services are on Sundays. If nearly half the state were packing off to church on that day, we would routinely see Sabbath traffic jams on streets and secondary roads to rival what we see on rush hour freeways. Yet apart from the entrances to a few suburban mega-churches, these traffic problems don't materialize--because 40-plus percent of the population does not materialize on Sunday mornings, either.

But the Strib's poll includes a built-in retort to this reasoning, averring that 83 percent of the state's populace believes you can be a good Christian without going to church. Here is the Great Loophole question, the one that lets respondents have their cake and eat it too--and thus, probably also the one that elicited the most honest answers. It bespeaks a tolerance that is diametrically at odds with the position of W Bush's supposedly vast army of fundamentalist Christian soldiers.

Apparent contradictions such as these arise regularly in religion polls. They ought to spur questions about the Christian right's actual size and fervor, but somehow it never happens. The fundamentalist electoral army is both a potent myth and a useful one. It isn't tough to see why a cursory look at the political landscape makes them seem so formidable. For about 20 years now, the Christian right has done an extraordinary job of mobilizing its forces to fight localized battles over abortion and education and gay rights. Their successes give the impression that their numbers are greater than anyone has yet shown them to be. Their premier national organization, the Christian Coalition, has about 2 million members. By comparison, the AARP has 35 million. And even as membership in labor unions continues to decline, the AFL-CIO stands at 13 million.

Such figures are seldom cited, though, because the fundamentalist masses are a very useful foil for selling reactionary and otherwise unpopular policies and, more vitally, distracting the public from the real dollars-and-cents business of governance. This is the religious right's true role in the American political economy; as a sheer numeric force in elections, their reach is invariably overstated. None of this is meant to deny that George Bush is quite popular with the people who identify themselves as most religious (and what the Star Tribune notes of Minnesota is probably true in most places: They tend to be older, and women). But it's a mistake to suppose that most are dogmatic about it, I think.

One reason the "religious right" is so misconstrued and overestimated lies in the rural roots of most fundamentalist movements. The fire-breathing hordes are understood to be Out There Somewhere in the sticks, and most politicos and pundits know as much about the courtship rituals of cannibal tribes in the South Sea islands as they do about rural America. Great whopping mystifications naturally ensue. One is that "they" are an ignorant, monolithic lot that marches in lockstep to whoever has his or her hands most tightly round Jesus' neck. In fact, rural folk are no more ignorant than the average American (which is to say, profoundly) and they are not monolithic about their religion or much of anything else.

It so happens that in the hinterlands, where my one and only birth to date occurred, church is still a locus of social life for a much larger share of the populace than in cities. And many of those churchgoers are indeed Bush supporters. They are as susceptible to flattery as anyone, and Bush has surely flattered them. But this doesn't mean they all see life wholly or even mainly through the lens of religious strictures, or that they can only be swayed by a candidate who spends even more quality time with Jesus than George W. Some of them follow politics, read papers, go days at a time without pondering the Rapture; a few even speak a smattering of proper English.

Poor God-impaired Howard Dean is certainly right that you can't run for president without genuflecting to the Almighty, but the mere gesture is all that most Americans require. It will be left to the Republicans and the pundit-provocateurs of our de facto right-wing broadcast media to savage him and all the other infidels for their transgressions, and you can be sure they will. God bless America.

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