For centuries, American evangelical Protestants have been obsessed with religious ‘revival.’ Fear of ostensible societal, moral, and religious ‘decline’ is the other side of the same paranoid Christian coin.
The United States, deeply influenced by early Puritan settlers and other assorted Christian fanatics, has been slow to secularize relative to European countries. In fact, the rapid increase in the proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans at the expense of Christianity—a trend that has generated significant buzz in recent years—can be traced back only to the 1990s. Since then, however, the shift has been stunning.
I’ll put my cards on the table here: I consider that a good thing, given that frequent church attendance consistently correlates with voting Republican, especially among White Americans. At the same time, I understand that religion is far more diverse than Christianity alone, and that even Christianity—despite its heavy imperialist baggage—comes in pro-social forms. I advocate embracing pluralism and emphasizing shared values rather than shared beliefs in building coalitions to work for the common good.
In order to understand American secularization, however, it is necessary to understand that because of Christian dominance and pervasive Christian privilege, many Americans’ primary association with religion is Christianity, and that shapes their responses to the questions about ‘religion’ they encounter in public opinion polls.
Some polling over recent years has suggested the trend toward disaffiliation might be slowing down or leveling off, but its continuation seems highly likely given that more and more children are growing up in non-religious families. And one of the primary factors driving the secularizing trend—the close association of Christianity with the cruel and anti-democratic politics of the Republican Party—is still very much in play, with intriguing findings about American attitudes toward religion and secularism from the latest Ipsos Global Religion report suggesting that this association continues to have an impact.
I’ll get to the details, but first, some context. Decades before the phenomenon we’ve come to call Christian nationalism became a defining feature of the Republican Party, the U.S. Christian Right’s push for political power was part and parcel of its members’ faith. As someone who was raised evangelical in the 1980s and 1990s, I know this all too well. At my Christian elementary school, we recited not one but three pledges every morning—to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible. In our milieu, ‘liberal’ was a synonym for ‘godless’ that was frequently pronounced with a sneer; and supporting Republican politics, with a focus on banning abortion and ‘getting prayer back in schools,’ was an extension of our Christian practice.
Although the Southern Baptist Convention itself supported legal abortion in some cases as late as 1974, by the time I was born in the summer of 1980, the now highly organized Christian Right was denouncing abortion as ‘murder’ and using the goal of overturning Roe v Wade to win elections. That autumn, Republican Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in the presidential election, with the crucial support of White evangelicals, cemented that demographic’s place in the reactionary GOP coalition they’ve now come to dominate.
Meanwhile, in the 1990s, the Christian Right’s very visible and vicious involvement in the Republican investigation and impeachment of President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, led many more moderate Americans to associate Christianity with meanness, hypocrisy, and reactionary politics. As a Christian school kid at the time, I remember hearing ‘jokes’ about Clinton’s death and sincere speculation about whether he might be the Antichrist.
Incidentally, if you’re wondering why I’m an atheist today, the illiberal Christian dogmatism that surrounded me as a sensitive child is undoubtedly a major factor. As it turns out, that’s no coincidence.
In 2002, sociologists Michael Hout and Claude S Fischer first floated the thesis that politics was playing a key role in the religious disaffiliation that was by then showing up in surveys every year. They noted that religious affiliation was holding steady among American conservatives but declining among American moderates and liberals, and argued that “this political part of the increase in ‘nones’ can be viewed as a symbolic statement against the religious right.”
Subsequent events seem to have borne the thesis out, with the American population becoming more politically and religiously polarized. Since the early 21st century, the Christian Right—a mostly White coalition of evangelicals, traditionalist Catholics and Mormons—has fought vigorously (and increasingly successfully) to assert dominance and control over the rest of the population, abusing state law and the court system to do so. They made major gains under Donald Trump’s presidency, when the Supreme Court was stacked with the right-wing Catholic ideologues that made possible the dramatic step of actually overturning Roe.
Ipsos finds that since 2017, when Trump came into office, Americans’ attitudes about religion have shifted in ways that to me look telling. According to the new Global Religion report, the proportion of Americans who agree with the statement “people with a religious faith are better citizens” has fallen six points, to 39%. The percentage who “lose respect for people when I find out that they do not have a religious faith” also dropped six points, to 14%. Further, the proportion of Americans who agree with the statement “my religion defines me as a person” is down a full eight points and now stands at 41%. Interestingly, the percentage of Americans who believe “religion does more harm in the world than good” has held steady at 39%.
One should always be wary of drawing sweeping conclusions from such bird’s eye view data, but given that these shifts took place between the beginning of Donald Trump’s Christian nationalist presidency and the present, they certainly look like confirmation of Hout and Fisher’s thesis. That is, since the proportion of Americans who see religious faith as important for good citizenship and for their own identity declined across this period along with religious affiliation, the decline likely has something to do with rising identitarian Christian nationalist politics. Christian nationalism has become increasingly explicit among Trump supporters and the Republican Party’s base over the past few years, as Trump and other Republican leaders like Florida governor Ron DeSantis have shattered political norms and vigorously pursued the culture-warring objectives of the raging Christian Right.
That marriage between conservative, mostly White Christianity and a Republican Party gleefully trampling the rights of queer people and women seems unlikely to end any time soon. And so long as that continues, we will probably continue to see empathetic Americans who grew up Christian deciding they no longer care to be religious in increasing numbers.
This article first appeared at openDemocracy and is republished under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 4.0.