Commentary

The United States has more non-religious people than evangelicals for the first time

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One of the more important changes in recent American society has yet to get much attention. It’s something that is contributing to some of the best (or worst) political impulses in the country: The trend is the acceleration of America as a secular society.

A just-released survey finds that one in three Americans now identifies as a “none,” someone who is an atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” That number has grown by six percentage points in just the past five years. Should that same rate of change continue, in 20 years, most Americans would be “nones.”

Related: Facebook is working with an anti-gay megachurch to monetize the “future” of religion

On the surface, the just-released Pew Research Center survey would seem to mean America would be a more liberal society and more accepting of LGBTQ rights. “Nones” are much more likely to identify as pro-LGBTQ. A previous Pew survey found that 83 percent of “nones” agreed with the statement “homosexuality should be accepted.” Only Buddhists had a higher rate of agreement that time around.

At the same time that “nones” are growing, the number of religious Americans is shrinking. A decade ago, three-quarter of Americans identified as religious. Now, it’s less than two-thirds.

The biggest decline is among Protestants. Being a society where Protestants were once considered the ruling class, America is a country where only 40 percent of citizens are Protestant.

The decline has been sharpest among the mainstream denominations, but evangelicals haven’t escaped it either. Just under a quarter of Americans identify as evangelical or born-again, down six percentage points since 2007.

Still, evangelicals and born-agains are now the dominant Protestant sect.

Again, on surface, these trends would seem to point to a much more liberal America. But demographics aren’t always destiny. Like any and everything, the trend to a more secular society has fueled furious reactions from the right. Evangelicals and conservative Catholics are threatened by implications of a society that doesn’t resemble the one they want to live in.

Moreover, the political deck is stacked in favor of Republicans, who have embraced the religious right as a critical part of its base. The electoral college gives southern and rural states an outsize say in presidential elections, and GOP gerrymandering has given conservatives an unfair advantage in Congressional elections.

Meantime, the Supreme Court seems poised to recreate the long-gone America that conservative Christians crave. A majority of justices seem willing to overturn Roe v. Wade, and at least two justices have also signaled that they’re ready to overturn marriage equality as well.

The tension between the demographic reality and the political reality within the country couldn’t be more extreme. A shrinking group of people are trying to reshape America in a way that doesn’t resemble what more and more Americans want. Yet, the political and judicial machinery is favoring the minority. The challenge is not just a matter of protecting the rights of the minority, but ensuring that their rights come at the expense of others’.

No wonder the right sees this as a holy war. It’s a fight to the finish. The problem is that it’s a never-ending war. As the demographic trends keep moving in the same direction, the stakes will only become higher for the right. How much more are they willing to ratchet up the warfare?

We only need to wait until 2024 to find out.

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