There’s no question that conservative Christians are engaged in a desperate political effort to keep America the religious and traditional nation they believe it was decades ago. But what if that very effort was what was actually accelerating the changes that they are fighting against?
That’s the premise of a new book by political scientists David Campbell and Geoffrey Layman of the University of Notre Dame and John C. Green of the University of Akron. Their book, Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics, argues that the religious right’s tight embrace of politics is essentially driving people into the arms of secularism.
Over the past several decades, Americans are increasingly likely to identify as having no particular religion. These “nones,” as pollsters have dubbed them, have been growing at a phenomenal rate. More than a quarter of American adults say they have no religious affiliation, according to the Pew Forum. Thirty years ago, that number was about five percent.
Moreover, the trend is for the “nones” to keep growing. A 2018 Washington Post/ABC News poll of 170,000 Americans found that more than a third of 18 to 29 year olds did not have a religious denomination.
At the same time, the number of white evangelicals is shrinking. The Pew Forum puts their size at about 16 percent of the population, down from 19 percent a decade ago.
Of course, that’s why white evangelicals were so enamored of Donald Trump. They felt he was protecting them from being overwhelmed by modern life. From their perspective, Trump being a bully was a feature, not a bug.
The authors of the new book tested the thesis that the right’s willingness to conflate religion and politics was driving people away from faith in general. After asking people about their religious identity, they then presented them with a single story where religion and politics were closely linked.
Republicans had no problem with talking about God and politics in the same breath. But for Democrats, it was a major issue. When asked again about their religious affiliation, they were found to be 13 percentage points more likely to say they had no religious affiliation.
“That’s one story at one point in time, and we can get that effect,” Campbell told the Religion News Service. “Imagine what happens when people are exposed to hundreds of stories over many, many years.”
“It would only reinforce that idea that religion and the Republican Party go together, and that if you’re not sympathetic to the Republican Party, you don’t want anything to do with religion.”
In short, the very people who are pushing religion in politics the most are ensuring that more people are hostile toward religion.
That’s a high price to pay for getting three Supreme Court justices.
However, aversion to religion is not solely a positive thing for Democrats. A significant block of Democratic voters, especially Black Democrats, are much more likely to be religious than white Democrats, 40 percent of whom are “nones.”
If secular Democrats denigrate religion generally, they also risk alienating believers who otherwise agree with them.
There are Democrats well positioned to handle that problem. Chief among them is President Biden, a Catholic who attends Mass weekly. Another is Pete Buttigieg, who has made a point of talking about his faith. Biden and Buttigieg prove that progressives don’t have to cede religion to the Republican Party.
For many Americans, right-wing Christians have given Christianity a bad name, enough to drive them from religion altogether. A strong counterbalance from progressive believers would show that the right doesn’t own religion enough to destroy it.