Robert Jones of PRRI has an insightful column in the New York Times about the unraveling of a unified American identity, which he defines as a “set of core political beliefs enshrined in founding ‘sacred texts,’ like the Declaration of Independence.”
According to Jones:
…recent survey data provides troubling evidence that a shared sense of national identity is unraveling, with two mutually exclusive narratives emerging along party lines. At the heart of this divide are opposing reactions to changing demographics and culture. The shock waves from these transformations … are reorienting the political parties from the more familiar liberal-versus-conservative alignment to new poles of cultural pluralism and monism.
Jones is absolutely right about this growing divide. But it’s important to note that this cleavage, while spurred by long-term demographic and cultural changes, was neither accidental nor inevitable. Long before Trump harnessed the angst of white Christians about a society over which they no longer could claim was homogeneous, other actors on the right were exploiting fissures over sensitive areas at the intersection of sexuality, gender and personal identity to divide the nation into two warring camps.
Nowhere is this tactic, and it’s long-term corrosive effects, more clear than in a decision this week by the Archdiocese of Kansas City to sever all ties with that embodiment of all things evil and secular—the Girl Scouts of America. Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann said Monday that the Girl Scouts were “no longer a compatible partner in helping us form young women with the virtues and values of the Gospel,” and that the organization’s programs and materials are “reflective of many of the troubling trends in our secular culture.”
The Girl Scouts have been the victim of a long-term assault by right-wing activists who have exploited the organization’s membership in the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), which has advocated for sexual and reproductive rights at various UN events, to suggest the organization is actively promoting a pro-abortion ideology.
And, in the type of take-no-prisoners, fact-free rhetoric that has become all-to-familiar in the age of Trump, anti-Girl Scout activists have spread the rumor that the proceeds of sales of Girl Scout cookies go to fund Planned Parenthood. The national Girl Scouts organization says it takes no position and provides no materials on issues of human sexuality, abortion or contraception, and has no relationship with Planned Parenthood.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops conducted a two-year investigation of the organization based on the thinly-sourced accusations of right-wing activists which concluded that the local troops were largely parent-directed and that the national organization had only “limited” authority over local troops. It also concluded that local troops were free to offer programming on human sexuality, including “chaste living and sound education in human sexuality” from a Catholic perspective and to distance themselves from WAGGGS events or fundraising. Nonetheless, the USCCB left it up to individual bishops to decide the fate of Girl Scout troops in their dioceses.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis has urged parishes to drop the Girl Scouts and individual churches have dropped the organization, but Naumann, who claims the diocese has spent “hundreds of hours researching concerns” about the Girl Scouts, is the first Catholic prelate to mandate the removal of the Girl Scouts from all Catholic parishes in a diocese.
But by buying into the alarmist rhetoric of one-woman groups like Girl Scouts, Why Not? that conflate anti-abortion-rights positions, fears about an increasingly secular society, and fundamentalist conceptions of women and purity into the bogeyman of the Girl Scouts, the Catholic Church contributes to an us-against-them mentality that paved the way for Trump. Like dioceses around the country, Kansas City is funneling girls into American Heritage Girls, a “Christ-centered character development program for girls” that puts a premium on active opposition to abortion, including having girls participate in protests at abortion clinics.
It’s in this way that opposition to abortion has become, for so many, a cultural marker of what’s good and bad, right and wrong in American society. This goes a long way to explain why economically struggling voters in recent focus groups of Obama voters, who either switched to Trump or stayed home rather than vote for Hillary Clinton, viewed the Democrats as being more contrary to their economic interests. An increasing swath of the electorate has been culturally conditioned to oppose whatever the Democrats do, even if it’s in their own best interests, by powerful cues like opposition to abortion that signal the moral acceptability of Republican candidates who would take away their health insurance and funnel massive tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans.
And by promoting organizations like American Heritage Girls, conservative Catholic leaders can ensure that tomorrow’s parishioners stay in their hermetically sealed cultural and political bubbles and that our national identity will be more divided than ever.