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Parallel universes

Darwinism favors evangelicals' survival over secular neighbors

Cultures evolve as well as species, and that's what we saw with the religious vote on Nov. 2, says Ed Larson, a history professor at the University of Georgia. Larson won the Pulitzer Prize for examining the collision of religion and science in his book Summer of the Gods, an unconventional look at the 1925 Scopes "monkey" trial.

In an interview with CL Group Senior Editor John F. Sugg, Larson had more than a few provocative thoughts on the unleashed power of religion evident in last week's vote.

Creative Loafing: Explain the Darwinian nature of the religious right.

Larson: There are survival characteristics associated with being an evangelical.

Are you talking about natural selection?

Who are the people having kids today? Immigrants, yes. That's one group. But among white, middle-class Americans, religious people are having children at a much higher rate. More and more and more children percentage-wise than non-religious people. There's a survival value in religious beliefs. They have a sense of purpose. They feel their mission in life is to multiply and be fruitful. The whole Darwinian concept — evolution — is on the side of evangelical Christians. They're growing by any measure.

What about the rest of society?

Take a look at Europe. The native Europeans are almost totally secularized. They're experiencing a negative growth rate. But their countries are flooded with immigrants with strong religious orientations, many of them Muslim. The demographics in Europe are changing. Over there, the replacement population looks different. In America, they look the same as the rest of us. But it's the same phenomenon. You see the rise [of religious fundamentalism] in Europe among the immigrant population.

Here, the growth of evangelicals has been tremendous, but since they look the same, no one noticed. The evangelism, it's not happening on the street, but at workplaces and on campuses. At the University of Georgia, there's a much higher percentage of evangelicals than when I came here 17 years ago.

The media all seemed astounded at the religious vote.

A century ago, newspapers reported on what the sermons were on Sunday. People knew what the preachers were preaching. That changed. A number of events — the Scopes trial, abortion, prayer in school — evangelicals withdrew. They talked among themselves, but they weren't evident to secular Americans except on rare occasions.

Is this something new in American history?

America never was a true secular society. There have been times in the past when religion grew stronger. Ben Franklin wrote about ... what was called the "Great Awakening." Later, in the 1820s, there was the "Great Revival." Those movements changed politics. The South was one of the least religious regions of the nation until the Great Awakening. That transformed the South.

How did that impact society?

The secular element in America is also deeply entrenched. There are two tracks developing parallel universes. They're living together but they don't see each other. One house on a street is evangelical, another house is secular. They're not truly neighbors.

Do we ever meet in the same space and time?

The most painful point of common culture is the election. Every four years, or every two years, these two parallel universes bump into each other. There are areas of overlap — concerns over jobs, fighting terrorism. But there are areas of profound conflict — abortion, gay rights. The sharpest conflict is likely to be over abortion. Roe vs. Wade could be reversed.

Why were Republicans so successful at motivating evangelicals?

The GOP was incredibly good at turning out the vote among evangelicals, something they didn't do four years ago. Gay marriage was clearly a motivating factor. The media has given it a lot of publicity. The ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Court tied the issue to the Democrats' candidate from the same state.

And ...

There's the tremendous cultural comfort evangelicals feel with George W. Bush. He has as similar story and experiences as do the evangelicals. His personal testimony resonates with Pentecostals and evangelicals. Even Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush couldn't match George W. Bush in that regard.

George Bush speaks of his miraculous turnaround. Jesus turned his life around. The story just fits with them.

Are we headed for a theocracy? Is this a defeat for the Enlightenment that guided the nation's founding fathers?

No. The Great Awakening was parallel to the Enlightenment during the late 18th century. At the time of the founding, there were a lot of backwoods, unenlightened people in America. People overreact. Evangelicals want government that reflects their values. But that doesn't mean they want a theocracy. Most definitely don't.

Where do the Democrats go from here?

I don't see the trend lines changing much. Ever since the revival took hold in the 1970s — well, the Democrats have won two times. Jimmy Carter was a natural for evangelicals, whereas Gerald Ford didn't speak to them. Bill Clinton told the account of coming forward at a Billy Graham revival. He spoke in a voice to the religious that neither George H.W. Bush nor Bob Dole could match. Clinton was able to neutralize the evangelical [vote for Republicans] even though Reagan had been able to move them.