Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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Photo of the Day, You Look Mahvelous Edition

A staffer at Madame Tussaud's in London prepares Chewbacca for the wax museum's new Star Wars exhibit. I can only imagine the amount of conditioner it takes to keep all that hair shiny and manageable.

How Changes In Americans' Religious Views Are Cornering the GOP

Just yesterday, I wrote a critical post about Jeb Bush's recent speech at Liberty University in which he essentially made a case for Christianity as the greatest of all religions ("Consider a whole alternative universe of power without restraint, conflict without reconciliation, oppression without deliverance, corruption without reformation, tragedy without renewal, achievement without grace, and it's all just a glimpse of human experience without the Christian influence"). I pointed out that while Republican primary voters might be eager to hear that message, it wouldn't go over as well among the broader population, where Christians are declining as a proportion of the population and the group sometimes referred to as the "nones"—a combination of atheists, agnostics, and people who just say they aren't part of any religion—is growing rapidly. Well today the Pew Research Center is out with its latest report on Americans' religious affiliations, and the results are not only striking, they demonstrate the point I was making even more clearly (so nice when things work out like that).  

There are lots of fascinating things in the report, but I'll just highlight a couple. First, not only has the absolute number of Christians declined since they last did this study in 2007 (and by the way, it's a huge survey with a sample of 35,000), they've declined as a proportion of the population from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. That decline is most concentrated among Catholics and mainline Protestants. All the non-Christian faiths like Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists showed an increase. But the most dramatic rise is among the "nones," who went from 16.1 percent of the population in 2007 to 22.8 percent now.

It's important to understand that the nones are a diverse group; within them you have committed atheists, people who just say religion isn't important to them, and those who sometimes call themselves "spiritual but not religious." That diversity means it would be a stretch to say they all share a worldview in the same way that a group like evangelical Christians do (even though there's a good deal of ideological diversity within evangelicals). Nevertheless, there are now more of these unaffiliated Americans than there are Catholics or mainline Protestants, something that would have been unimaginable not long ago.

What jumped out most to me was the differences across generations. Pew didn't include a graph of this particular finding, so I made one myself:

We obviously don't know what will happen in the future—there could well be a religious revival in America, and we're still far and away the most religious of the highly developed countries. But unless there's a dramatic shift in the opposite direction from where we're now moving, simple generational replacement will produce a country that is more religiously diverse overall, less Christian, and less religious.

To return to where we began, this is yet another way in which the Republican Party is bound to the past. Their base is white and Christian in a country that's steadily becoming less of both, and they need to hold on to that base while expanding their appeal beyond it. Part of the problem is that the more diverse the country becomes, the more embattled and oppressed conservative whites and Christians feel. Republican politicians respond to those feelings by reinforcing their victimhood narratives and emphasizing identity politics. That then further alienates non-whites and non-Christians, hardening the limits of the GOP's appeal and making it more difficult to "reach out" to those voters they're going to need to stay competitive. It's a vicious cycle, and one they can't quite figure out how to break out of.

Photo of the Day, Adorable Monk Edition

A young boy participating in a ceremony at a Buddhist temple in Seoul, South Korea to honor the Buddha's birthday. 

What Really Matters in 2016

So over the weekend, Rick Perry reminded Republicans of what's really at stake in this election:

"Something I want you all to think about is that the next president of the United States, whoever that individual may be, could choose up to three, maybe even four members of the Supreme Court," he said. "Now this isn't about who's going to be the president of the United States for just the next four years. This could be about individuals who have an impact on you, your children, and even our grandchildren. That's the weight of what this election is really about."

"That, I will suggest to you, is the real question we need to be asking ourselves," he continued. "What would those justices look like if, let's be theoretical here and say, if it were Hillary Clinton versus Rick Perry? And if that won't make you go work, if I do decide to get into the race, then I don't know what will."

Perry is absolutely right, and what everyone focuses on when this topic comes up is just how long in the tooth the current Court is; by next year's election day, three of the justices will be in their 80s and another will be 78. What's really important in the short to medium term isn't just that the next presidency will see multiple retirements, it's that the next presidency will likely see a shift in the Court's ideological balance.

That's because the aging justices come from both wings of the Court. For instance, the two oldest justices are Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will be 87 when the next president finishes his or her first term, and Antonin Scalia, who will be 84. The next oldest is Anthony Kennedy, who will also be 84 by then. Imagine if all three were to retire some time in those four years. If the president were a Democrat, that would mean that the Court would wind up with a 6-3 liberal majority. If the president were a Republican, it would be a 6-3 conservative majority. Now for a real scare, add in Stephen Breyer (who will be 82 by the end of the next president's first term, and you could wind up with a 7-2 conservative majority.

Nothing is assured, of course, because you don't know how health, fatigue, or politics might keep any particular justice on the Court or make them leave. But the odds are quite high that the next president will be able to leave the Court with a strong majority leaning toward his or her ideology. That kind of shift hasn't happened in decades; the last time a retiring justice was replaced by someone appointed by a president from the other party was in 1991, when Clarence Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama only got the chance to replace a justice they liked with another justice they liked, leaving the Court's balance unchanged. But that streak will probably be broken by the next president. And the results for the country will be at least as profound as anything else the president does.

Should We Relitigate the Iraq War in the 2016 Campaign? You Bet We Should

(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images News)
View image | I f all goes well, in the 2016 campaign we'll be rehashing the arguments we had about the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003. You may be thinking, "Jeez, do we really have to go through that again?" But we do—in fact, we must. If we're going to make sense of where the next president is going to take the United States on foreign policy, there are few more important discussions to have. On Sunday, Fox News posted an excerpt of an interview Megyn Kelly did with Jeb Bush in which she asked him whether he too would have invaded Iraq, and here's how that went : Kelly : Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion? Bush : I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got. Kelly : You don't think it was a mistake? Bush : In retrospect, the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty. And in...