THIS week, for the fourth year in a row, President George Bush broke from affairs of state to address the Southern Baptist Convention. He promised the strict evangelical group, which has 16m members, that he would work hard to ban gay marriage and abortion, and that their “family values” were his values, too.
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Why is the religious right as powerful as it is? The question puzzles even Americans. Their country, as a whole, is not getting more religious. The gap between it and European countries has increased, but largely because of Europe's growing godlessness. Most Americans say that religion is very important (60%) or fairly important (26%) in their lives, but Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, points out that the figures were 75% and 20% in 1952.
What has changed is, first, the make-up of Protestant America and, second, the realignment of religious America's politics. The generally liberal mainline churches have declined, while harder outfits like the Southern Baptists have spurted forward. White evangelicals, who see the Bible as the literal truth (or darned close to it), now make up 26% of the population.
It is not just a matter of numbers but of confidence. Born-again Christians are no longer rural hicks; they are richer and better educated than the average American.
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Religious America's switch to the right is rooted in two things: liberal over-reach and conservative organisation.