Remember that old Chinese curse? “May you live in interesting times.”
Boy, do we ever!
I can’t help wondering what people living 40-50 years hence will think about this fraught time in America. (Actually, wondering about that is an exercise in optimism–it assumes climate change hasn’t eradicated what we call civilization…)
The multiple offenses of Donald Trump will of course receive treatment by historians, but I wonder how those future scholars will connect the various “dots” that led to his “election” and especially how they will view what may be the roots of a newly secular, evidence-based age. (Okay, I said I was an optimist…)
A month or so ago, FiveThirtyEight–Nate Silver’s blog–reported that Christian fundamentalists were driving more liberal people–especially young people– away from all religion, and as a consequence, away from the GOP.
A few weeks ago, the Democratic National Committee formally acknowledged what has been evident for quite some time: Nonreligious voters are a critical part of the party’s base. In a one-page resolution passed at its annual summer meeting, the DNC called on Democratic politicians to recognize and celebrate the contributions of nonreligious Americans, who make up one-third of Democrats. In response, Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor with close ties to Trump, appeared on Fox News, saying the Democrats were finally admitting they are a “godless party.”
This was hardly a new argument. Conservative Christian leaders have been repeating some version of this claim for years, and have often called on religious conservatives and Republican politicians to defend the country against a growing wave of liberal secularism. And it’s true that liberals have been leaving organized religion in high numbers over the past few decades. But blaming the Democrats, as Jeffress and others are wont to do, doesn’t capture the profound role that conservative Christian activists have played in transforming the country’s religious landscape, and the role they appear to have played in liberals’ rejection of organized religion.
A number of surveys, including those by Pew (the “gold standard” in survey research) have found the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans increasing substantially over the past few years . The reasons for that shift are complicated, but as the article notes, politics has been an important contributor.
“Politics can drive whether you identify with a faith, how strongly you identify with that faith, and how religious you are,” said Michele Margolis, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity.” “And some people on the left are falling away from religion because they see it as so wrapped up with Republican politics.”
Nearly one in four Americans today is religiously unaffiliated. Nearly 40 percent of liberals are, and that’s an increase of 12 percent since 1990, according to the 2018 General Social Survey. The number of self-identified conservatives and moderates who are unaffiliated has also risen, but less dramatically.
Social scientists were initially reluctant to entertain the idea that a political backlash was somehow responsible, because it challenged long-standing assumptions about how flexible our religious identities really are. Even now, the idea that partisanship could shape something as personal and profound as our relationship with God might seem radical, or maybe even a little offensive.
But when two sociologists, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, began to look at possible explanations for why so many Americans were suddenly becoming secular, those conventional reasons couldn’t explain why religious affiliation started to fall in the mid-1990s. Demographic and generational shifts also couldn’t fully account for why liberals and moderates were leaving in larger numbers than conservatives. In a paper published in 2002, they offered a new theory: Distaste for the Christian right’s involvement with politics was prompting some left-leaning Americans to walk away from religion.
Subsequent research confirmed the thesis. The newly political Christian right energized religious voters, but Christian conservatives’ social agenda prompted other people to opt out of religion entirely. “It’s like an allergic reaction to the mixture of Republican politics and religion,” said David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame.
Campbell also warned that increasing secularism is reducing churches’ ability to bring a diverse array of people together–something that, theoretically at least, helps to break down partisan barriers.
Add this social shift to the other massive social changes we are experiencing, and the ability of those future historians to make sense of it all looks pretty daunting.