Some ask the question whether Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's success as a candidate means religion is losing its power in American politics.
Yes, says Eduardo Porter, a New York Times columnist who points to Trump's enormous popularity among evangelical Christians even though polls show he's viewed as the least religious candidate in the race. Even Democrat presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an avowed socialist in the European secular mold, appears more devout according to polls by the Pew Research Center.
But Porter hits on another aspect that goes right to the heart of Trump's appeal to evangelicals and working-class voters, the two pillars of his power base. Trump espouses a new brand of populism that, in Porter's words, identifies the real Achilles' heel in traditional GOP positions: "An economic policy built around tax cuts for the wealthy that has failed to deliver the goods to the Republican base for far too long."
This is why establishment conservatives can't stand Trump. It's why the National Review devoted an entire issue to bashing the real estate mogul as a fake conservative, and it's why the wealthiest conservative donors are pouring the equivalent of a medium-size country's GDP into stopping him. They need regular Americans to line up at the polls for their candidates in November, and Trump-style populism is leading middle- and working-class voters to defect from those candidates.
That kind of populism strikes fear into the hearts of Reaganites, the kind of people who consider Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged" their Bible, the kind of people who write for The Wall Street Journal's editorial page and the Weekly Standard.
Their ruse has worked for decades: Whip the plebs into a frenzy with fire and brimstone on social issues like gay marriage and religion in schools, then convince them that Reaganomics will trickle down from the fabulously rich to the average voter.
That strategy depends on convincing regular Americans that their interests are aligned with the investment bankers and corporate CEOs who play the markets without risk and employ superstar accountants who use every tax loophole known.
Maybe it's a cultural shift. Maybe it's the result of an uncensored Internet and the diminished roles of media gatekeepers. Maybe average Republican voters listen to all the talk of the one percent and have a new appreciation for populism.
More likely, it's the ever-widening gap between the rich and everyone else.
Whatever the reason, it's clear that regular, working- and middle-class Republican voters are no longer convinced that their interests and the interests of the super-rich are aligned. Trump's tapped into that with a populism unlike anything the Republican party has seen before, and it's upended the usual order of things.
That doesn't mean religion has lost its political power.
The Trump campaign is different. It's the kind of shakeup the nation hasn't seen in decades, and it hasn't been replicated by anyone else. All across the U.S., candidates for governorships, Congress and state legislatures are invoking God, quoting the Bible and proudly displaying their religious credentials.
Suimilarly, Pew's annual Religion in America survey shows that American voters still aren't keen on electing an atheist president, and that while there's a noticeable rise in the number of voters who don't have a religious affiliation, the vast majority of citizens still believe religion is the font of moral values and social integrity.
If religion wasn't still a powerful political force, lawmakers in Louisiana wouldn't try to force creationism into school curriculums, and their counterparts in Mississippi and North Carolina wouldn't be enacting laws that allow business owners to refuse service to gay customers.
That sort of legislation doesn't come from personal conviction so much as from a desire to pander to the deeply religious, and it's no accident that those measures have traction in states with long religious traditions.
Many of those same people find themselves supporting Trump not because they've suddenly decided religion isn't significant, but because they've realized the GOP doesn't have their interests at heart.