As we do around this time each new year, we at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC) are going to make some predictions for 2021. Even though the world seems pretty unpredictable of late. Well, actually, that doesn’t sound quite right. It was possible to foresee the political incompetence and malfeasance of the blessedly now-previous presidential administration, an outburst of racially inflected fundamentalist violence, resistance to science and the rise of American fascism. In fact, we predicted these events and phenomena last year, when we saw the early trends of the 2020s mirroring many of the cultural currents of the 1920s. Still, the dismal depth and shocking scope of those forces in 2020 (and the first days of 2021) were beyond our forecasting.
This year, we remain generally hopeful about the potential of human beings to work together toward common goals that benefit everyone. Still, the past year has also shown how petty, violent, oblivious and self-serving humans can be. The discord and tumult of 2020–which, by our reckoning, lasted through the first week of January, 2021–have left us with challenges that we must continue to confront and some tough choices for the new presidential administration beginning in Washington, DC. We should note that we often try to include some perspective on developments that we’ve encountered and followed outside the US, but the Covid-19 pandemic has grounded CRCC’s globe-trotting staff since last March. We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to unleash our wanderlust and resume our explorations by late summer or early fall.
In the meantime, we offer the following predictions for 2021, with both trepidation and cautious optimism:
The GOP Looks for a New Circus-master to Tame the Beasts in Its “Big Tent”
On Janury 6, a mob of White supremacists, Q-Anon devotees, pro-life Catholics, Trumpvangelicals, some Orthodox Jews, a few right-wing Mormons and even a smattering of flag-waving Hindu nationalists banded together to try to disrupt the certification of the Electoral College votes that would formalize Joe Biden’s presidential win. The insurrectionist storming of the Capitol included religious imagery to reinforce the narrative of divine destiny that animated this motley multifaith crew. Prior to the 1980s, many of these groups could hardly find common cause. Yet, Latinx evangelicals in Florida, including refugees from socialist regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, cast their lot with anti-immigrant racists and conspiracy-theorizing Q-Anon trolls.
What will the fallout be from this failed coup attempt? As the former president slinks sulkily away from the limelight and the Biden administration takes over, factionalism and bitterness grip the GOP. The Republican Party, fearing that many of their voters may find their way to a more authoritarian third party, is staving off attacks from within its own ranks. To avoid fracture and preserve its power, the GOP establishment will have to figure out how to find common cause with its restive right, as it did when the Tea Party movement rose in protest against the relatively modest government initiatives promoted by Barack Obama in 2009.
All of this points to Trump’s primary legacy as the GOP’s standard-bearer: tearing down the wall of decorum between white nationalist militias and mainstream Republicans. In the near term, radicalizing new political parties are likely to thrive if our national sense of crisis and uncertainty persists. In the longer term, the midpoint of the GOP’s coalitional spectrum will likely tilt right, pulling the rest of the country along with it—even as the GOP continues to preach against the dangers of creeping socialism.
Why Read Dystopian Fiction When You Can Live It?
Look for pushback from the Vatican against the Catholic religious institutes that openly campaigned for Trump. Images of conservative nuns wrapped in Trump scarves and standing next to Q-Anon supporters flooded social media and highlighted the alliance between right-wing pro-life groups and the Trump campaign. That vision out of “A Handmaid’s Tale” points to another trend we’re watching: women of the religio-political right who carve out positions of power within conservative, patriarchal systems.
As the hydra-headed movement that dispatched a mob to the Capitol on January 6 looks for new leaders and new targets, its animating spirit—a desire for the destruction of our pluralistic form of government—leads toward a pre-Hobbesian society defined by a war of all against all. We earnestly hope this dismal dream is not realized, though its presence in the zeitgeist will undoubtedly inspire some really outlandish art. We predict a new genre of apocalyptic fan fiction / graphic novels featuring right-wing Christo-shamanism. Think of the “spiritual warfare” tropes in conservative evangelicalism mixed with the Calvinist sense of destiny in Hal Lindsey’s “Late, Great Planet Earth” and the racist imaginary of “The Turner Diaries.” Oh the (end) times we live in!
Calling the Religious Left…Anyone? Anyone?
As the center of American politics continues to move to the right, the most prominent voter bloc at the midpoint in that spectrum will likely become…the LDS Church, also known as the Mormons. Mormons in the U.S. number about 6.5 million. Combined with iVangelicals—predominantly white, suburban megachurch members—Mormons could serve as a counterweight to the more extremist components of the GOP coalition. But we think it’s unlikely that this moderately conservative faction of the GOP will actively seek to influence the direction of the Republican Party. Rather, we anticipate a passive dismay from this group as right-wing nationalists and Q-Anon devotees persist in their bad behavior. Think of Willy Wonka’s hopeless, mildly exasperated plea as yet another spoiled child breaks the house rules of the chocolate factory: “No, stop, don’t.”
Some left-wing organizers and activists (Black Lives Matter, Clergy for Black Lives, and Mijente, for example) continue to work toward a sustainable movement of religious progressives to counteract the racist, anti-democratic tendencies that burst into the open during the Trump era. There are several capable leaders, trustworthy organizations, flourishing networks and unifying causes around which such a movement might coalesce. But we predict that if a movement of religious progressives does come together, it will be short-lived, mainly because the American left has a long history of fragmentation, and the more ideological members of the coalition will likely try to push the Biden administration further to the left than it wants to go. As always, American progressives know how to be the resistance during times of reactionary dominance, but have yet to learn how to claim and hold onto power when administrations like Biden and Obama provide opportunities for progressives to advance their cause.
This fragmentation on the left and apocalyptic infighting on the right will further deepen the moral vacuum in our country. Again, we hate to see the 1920s as a prologue for the 2020s, but…
Saved By the Titans of Tech–For Now
Calls from corporate America for political reasonableness around the outcome of the presidential election and the peaceful transfer of power came in the absence of real leadership from the federal government. Providing further evidence that our politics continues to shift to the right, corporations for the past two decades have repeatedly pulled American conservatism back toward the center by, for example, normalizing the presence of the LGBTQ community in the workplace and promoting public-relations nostrums that nominally support racial justice. Many of the titans of late-stage Capitalism will continue to make headlines—and profits—by casting themselves as The Reasonable Voice in the Room©.
Relatedly, as the Trump team’s efforts to subvert the results of the election in November became more alarming, the tech world finally saw the writing on the wall and started to label lies and snuff out incendiary speech—which social media giants themselves were complicit in spreading. The libertarian-leaning industry’s formerly hands-off approach to the free exchange of ideas has ground to a halt, for now. How long will that last? Our guess is, not long. Thanks to our addiction to social media, our attention spans are fleeting and our memories are ever shorter.
Yearning for Authority and Authenticity
Where will we find sources of moral authority in 2021? Last year brought an upsurge in the political activism of professional athletes, particularly in the WNBA and the NBA. We expect the trail most recently blazed by Colin Kaepernick to invite more fellow-travelers.
The spotty vaccine rollout may shine some light on an enduring but often taken-for-granted source of moral authority: faith communities. Our hope is that the rollout will improve, especially as we write from the hotspot of Los Angeles County. In order for that improvement to happen, public health officials will need congregations to get on board, but resistance to the vaccine and skepticism of big government create some big obstacles to overcome. Historically, the Black community’s memory of violations like the Tuskegee experiments means that there is little trust to be leveraged. Immigrant communities are scarred by government programs that have been used as cover for checking immigration status and surveillance, though perhaps President Biden’s DACA moves signal a new day on that front. And then there is the anti-science conspiracy world where the edges of the American right and left meet. Can the moral capital of religious institutions be leveraged there?
This is where we will see the competing contenders for authority come into conflict. Who will have the biggest impact in campaigns to convince wary people to take the vaccine? Will it be government policy that limits access to schools or airplanes to those who have been vaccinated, corporations requiring that their employees get vaccinated, the example of professional athletes in politically engaged sports franchises or the moral call of religious leaders? We see some combination of all of these sources of authority and authenticity in the mix, particularly at the grass-roots level (i.e., at the interface between local civic institutions and community-based faith actors).
Conclusion: The Hill We Climb
With all the turmoil, is hope on the horizon? Yes, of course. Americans have historically shown great resolve in working to right wrongs. Yet, the forces that delivered the White House to Trump in 2016 and that tried to subvert the election in 2020 are not going anywhere. “It’s not Trump #1 we have to worry about now,” according to James Lawson, a pastor-activist who was a theoretician of nonviolent action during the Civil Rights era. “Our worry is the emergence of Trump #2 and #3, who have the backing of political power and the forces of plantation capitalism behind them.”
If the vaccine succeeds in helping us past the current global health crisis, and our lives begin to return to normal (more or less), there is still much to be done. A return to normalcy will mean getting back to mass shootings at schools, congregations, shopping centers and government facilities. It will also mean the escalation of white supremacist militias who, having had a firm hold on the Executive Branch, will want to find a way back to the center of power.
We’ve not yet realized the full extent of the economic fallout from the pandemic, which will only deepen fear and uncertainty. The work of governance is slow, and the pace of change through our political processes will frustrate many.
One of the biggest casualties of recent memory has been the idea of independently knowable and verifiable truths. While the hunger for facts is great, the appetite for conflict and division makes better headlines. Still, while the road ahead is long and fraught with perils, this is the hill we climb. Voices like Amanda Gorman’s—clear-eyed and full of resolve—make us feel ready to get moving.