Is America Losing Its Religion?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Last weekend, hundreds of conservative churches participated in "Pulpit Freedom Sunday", during which pastors preached about electoral politics and sent recordings of their sermons to the Internal Revenue Service. It's a provocation: these pastors and their legal counsel hope to challenge the rarely-enforced IRS rule prohibiting candidate endorsements by tax-exempt organizations, including houses of worship, and take it all the way to the US supreme court.
A new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which confirms previously observed trends of Protestant decline, accompanied by a rise in religiously unaffiliated Americans, casts serious doubt on whether the self-styled church freedom warriors are fighting a politically popular battle. Among the survey's findings, two thirds of Americans (66%) believe churches shouldn't endorse candidates. And 54% say churches should stay out of political matters entirely. Even a majority (56%) of white evangelicals agreed that churches should not endorse candidates.
Would these data cause the churches clamoring for a legal war with the IRS to pack their bags and go home? Of course not. In fact, in spite of these trends away from organized religion and away from the entanglement of organized religion in politics, I would expect these culture war battles to ramp up – at least for the time being.
The religious right hasn't spent millions building up legal advocacy groups, pressing for conservative judicial appointees, and training lawyers and politicians to thump the Bible in legislatures and the courts for nothing. They've built an infrastructure to fight their battles, even as they lose public opinion wars. For their most ardent supporters, losing in the court of public opinion only serves as a call to redouble their efforts, to fulfil their call to carry out God's plan for America.
But a provocation for secularists might emerge from these data: can they match the organization and intensity of their political adversaries?
Looking at the Pew survey, one wonders how long the religious right can continue to use the same battle plan. Yet, the data shows they are clearly losing the public. Another survey last week from the Public Religion Research Institute showed that while Mitt Romney has the support of 80% of younger white evangelical millennials (aged 18 to 25), this is a small and diminishing constituency: white evangelicalscomprise only 12.3% of that age group. That's less than half their proportion of the 50 to 64 population. The Pew survey showed that while 32% of Americans aged 50 to 64 are white evangelicals, only 13% of those aged 18 to 29 are.
As Protestants have declined, percentages of Catholics have remained steady. While they are far less homogeneous politically than evangelicals (the Pew poll found Catholics favor legal abortion 50% to 45%, and same-sex marriage 53% to 37%), the generational trend lines might explain why religious conservatives are intensifying evangelical-Catholic alliances around issues like contraception coverage and same-sex marriage. This is further evidence that, despite demographic shifts, they're not giving up without a fight – instead, shifting their strategy to frame these concerns as ones of "religious freedom". If they're a minority, they hope to reap political benefits from arguing at least that they are a persecuted one.
The Pew survey also found there are now as many "nones" as there are white evangelicals – each makes up 19% of the US population. But the generational trends are traveling even more starkly in a non-theist direction: 32% of 18 to 29 year-olds are unaffiliated, and 42% of those describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. That's over ten points higher than the 21% of 30- to 49-year-old "nones" who describe themselves that way, and more than twice the 15% of 50- to 64-year-old "nones" who do.
That has to worry Republicans. White evangelicals are the most sizable segment of their base and the unaffiliated – in particular, the atheists and agnostics – are the most sizable part of the Democratic base. Still, Republicans maintain a party identification advantage among Christians as a whole (with the exception of black Protestants and all Catholics, which includes Latino Catholics). Because Democrats, overall, have a party identification advantage over the GOP (48% to 43%, according to Pew), will those numbers make each party intensify their efforts to make religious voters happy, or encourage them to present a less religious case for election?
With a tight presidential race, and each campaign trying to peel away as many persuadable voters in swing states as possible, appeals to religion – including from the Obama camp – are likely to continue, if only to targeted audiences. Oddly, 67% of all groups, including nearly a third of "nones", agree it's important for the president to have "strong religious beliefs". At the same time, though, 43% of all groups said it makes them uncomfortable when politicians talk about how religious they are.
The numbers are important, telling and potentially transformative for our politics. Yet, questions remain: there's nothing in the Pew survey on public attitudes about religious freedom, church-state separation or the secular nature of our government. These are the issues around which the "nones" can organize. The religious right, whose leaders maintain America is in the throes of a revival, has spent decades mythologizing a "Christian nation", denigrating and undermining church-state separation, and questioning the very American-ness of secularists.
While this is just one survey, and the "Christian nation" advocates retain their intensity and organization, there's evidence here that an opening exists for a new revival: a secularist one.