US press: pick of the papers

The ten must-read opinion pieces from today's US papers.

1. Memo to Mitt: The Safety Net Needs Fixing (Wall Street Journal)

Texas ranchers are saving exotic wildlife. Anti-hunting groups want to put them out of business says Alan S. Blinder.

2. Different liberal camps divide progressives (Washington Post)

Conservatives are getting the attention as they duke it out in this GOP primary season. But on a surprising range of issues, there's an important, if quieter, conflict between two progressive camps, wries Fred Hiatt.

3. Severe Conservative Syndrome (New York Times)

Mitt Romney has a gift for words -- self-destructive words, says Paul Krugman.

4. Barack Obama's religion problem (Politico)

I find disquieting parallels between the way Obama handled the recent dust-up with the Catholic Church and contraception and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process a year ago, when he talked about returning to pre-1967 borders, argues Martin Frost.

5. The Strange Career of Voter Suppression (New York Times)

The 2012 general election campaign is likely to be a fight for every last vote, which means that it will also be a fight over who gets to cast one, says Alexander Keyssar.

6. It's rough being the front-runner (Chicago Tribune)

Mitt Romney's recent losses to Rick Santorum in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota revealed a truism that Romney might want to study -- but not too much! Says Kathleen Parker.

7. Super-PAC politics drags in the Obama campaign (Detroit Free Press)

t's a damned if you do or don't situation, but we'd really prefer President Barack Obama did not indulge the super-PAC madness unleashed by an awful 2009 Supreme Court decision, says Kurt Strazdins.

8. A positive grade for integration aid plan (Star Tribune)

Task force strikes good balance between support, accountability, says this editorial.

9. Our make-believe federal budget (Politico)

Many people inside the Washington Beltway will be pouring through President Barack Obama's Fiscal 2013 budget proposal to find out what he proposes to cut, what initiatives he plans to invest in and what new policies he might propose, writes David M. Walker.

10. Immigration, deportation -- and no right to return? (Los Angeles Times)

The Justice Department says that deported immigrants who win their cases on appeal can return to the U.S. But it appears that's not true, says this editorial.

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The first godless US election

America’s evangelical right has chosen Donald Trump, who hardly even pays lip service to having faith.

There has never been an openly non-Christian president of the United States. There has never been an openly atheist senator. God, seemingly, is a rock-solid prerequisite for American political life.

Or it was, until this year.

Early in the 2016 primaries, preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum – both darlings of the evangelical far right – fell by the wayside. So did Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the son of a preacher.

Ted Cruz, once the Republican race had thinned, tried to present himself as the last godly man, but was roundly beaten – even among evangelicals – by Donald Trump, a man whose lip service to religion was so cursory as to verge on satire.

Trump may have claimed in a televised debate that “nobody reads the Bible more than me”, but he demurred when pressed to name even a verse he liked. His pronouncements show a lack of any knowledge or interest in faith and its tenets; he once called a communion wafer his “little cracker”.

The boorish Trump is a man at whose megalomaniacal pronouncements any half-hearted glance reveals a belief in, if any god at all, only the one he sees in a mirror. The national exercise in cognitive dissonance required for America’s religious rightwingers to convince themselves that he’s a candidate with whom they have anything in common is truly staggering.

But evangelicals don’t seem troubled. In the March primary in Florida, Trump carried 49 per cent of the evangelical vote. He won Mississippi, a state where fully three-quarters of Republican primary voters are white evangelicals.

In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish candidate ever to win a presidential primary – though he has barely once spoken about his faith – and Hillary Clinton has spoken about god on the campaign trail only occasionally, without receiving much media play. In fact, when the question of faith came up at one Democratic debate there was a backlash against CNN for even asking.

The truth is that Christian faith as a requisite for political power has drooped into a kind of virtue-signalling: the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” bumper-sticker; the crucifix tattoo; the meme on social media about footprints in the sand. It is about identity politics, tribal politics, me-and-mine versus you-and-yours politics, but it hasn’t really been about faith for a while.

What the hell happened?

Partly, there was a demographic shift. “Unaffiliated” is by far the fastest-growing religious category in the US, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, which also showed that the total proportion of Americans who define as Christian dropped almost 9 percentage points between 2007 and 2014.

There is no doubt that America is still a fairly devout nation compared with the UK, but the political mythos that developed around its Christianity is a relatively late invention. The words “under god” were only implanted into the pledge of allegiance – between the words “one nation” and “indivisible” – in 1954, by President Eisenhower.

The ascendance of the political power of the Christian right in America happened in 1979, when a televangelist called Jerry Falwell founded a pressure group called Moral Majority.

Moral Majority’s support for Ronald Reagan was widely credited for his victory in the 1980 election, which in turn secured for them a position at the top table of Republican politics. For three decades, the Christian right was the single most important voting bloc in America.

But its power has been waning for a decade, and there are greater priorities in the American national psyche now.

Trump’s greatest asset throughout the primary was what makes his religiosity or lack thereof immaterial: his authenticity. His lack of a filter, his ability to wriggle free from gaffes which would have felled any other candidate with a simple shrug. This is what not just religious voters, but all of the Republican voting base were waiting for: someone who isn’t pandering, who hasn’t focus-grouped what they want to hear.

They don’t care that he may or may not truly share their belief in god. Almost all voters in this election cycle – including evangelicals, polling suggests – prioritise the economy over values anyway.

On top of that, the Christian right is facing the beginnings of an insurgency from within its own ranks; a paradigm shift in conservatism. A new culture war is beginning, fought by the alt-right, a movement whelped on anarchic message boards like 4chan, whose philosophical instincts lean towards the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist, and to whom the antique bloviation of Christian morality politics means nothing.

Trump doesn’t pander, an approach only made possible by social media, which amplifies his voice six millionfold while simultaneously circumventing the old establishment constructs – like the media – which had previously acted as gatekeepers to power.

The Christian right – now personified in Jerry Falwell Jr and Liberty University, which Falwell senior founded in the Seventies – found itself another of those constructs. They were forced to choose: jump on board the Trump Train or be left behind.

They chose Trump.

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.