Godless Millennials Could End the Power of the Religious Right
The 2014 midterm elections are drawing near, and it appears that the Democrats may well lose the Senate, since they’re fighting on unfriendly territory – a large number of seats in red states are up for grabs.
But if you look deeper than the national picture, there’s a more interesting story. In southern states like Georgia and Kentucky – which in the past would have been easy Republican holds - the races are unexpectedly tight. In fact, the only reason that the questions of which party will control the Senate in 2015 is unsettled at all is that an unusual number of races in dark red states are toss-ups, despite an overall political climate that generally favors conservatives.
What we’re seeing may well be the first distant rumblings of a trend that’s been quietly gathering momentum for years: America is becoming less Christian. In every region of the country, in every Christian denomination, membership is either stagnant or declining. Meanwhile, the number of religiously unaffiliated people – atheists, agnostics, those who are indifferent to religion, or those who follow no conventional faith – is growing. In some surprising places, these “nones” (as in “none of the above”) now rank among the largest slices of the demographic pie.
Even in the deep South, the Republican base of white evangelical Christians is shrinking – and in some traditional conservative redoubts like Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky, it’s declined as a percentage of the population by double digits.Even Alabama is becoming less Christian. Meanwhile, there’s been a corresponding increase in the religiously unaffiliated, who tend to vote more Democratic.
While the effect on evangelicals is new, the general pattern isn’t. The Catholic church, the largest single religious denomination in America, was the first to feel the pinch. Church leaders and Catholic apologists have been fretting for years over the problem of aging and shrinking congregations, declining attendance at Mass and fewer people signing up to become priests or nuns – although their proposals for how to solve the problem all consist of tinkering around the edges, or insisting that they need to try harder to convince people to believe as they do.
America’s next-largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, held out a bit longer but has now come down with the same affliction. Membership has been declining for the last several years – to the point where half of SBC churches will close their doors by 2030 if current trends persist. And as with the Catholic church, the SBC defenders with the biggest platforms have insisted that they don’t need to change anything if they just double down on their existing policies and pray harder for revival.
What’s driving the steady weakening of Christianity? The answer, it would seem, is demographic turnover.
As older, more religious generations fade away and younger generations replace them, the societal midpoint shifts. And this trend is going to accelerate in coming years, because the millennial generation is big. They’re even bigger than the baby boomers.
The influence of the millennials showed in the (by historical standards)remarkably rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage, which in just a few short years has become legal in more than half the country. Millennials view religious demands for the oppression of LGBT people to be a bizarre and offensive anachronism. And as the major denominations vocally assert that opposing equal rights for LGBT people is a nonnegotiable condition of membership in the Church of Not-Gay, young people are driven away in greater and greater numbers. This may well be a self-reinforcing cycle, as people turned off by constant homophobic rhetoric leave the churches, which results in diluted power for religious conservatives, who then bear down even harder on the anti-gay message. The same arrogance and institutional blindness that got them into this spiral make it almost impossible for them to see the problem and pull out of it.
But even if this secularizing trend continues, it’s likely that there’s a hard core of believers who will persist no matter what: no one is forecasting the total extinction of the religious right in politics.
Still, for progressives, the eroding power of the churches is a most welcome development: the religions right can no longer claim to be the sole source of morality and virtue, nor can they expect to assert their will in political matters and be obeyed without question. Instead, they’ll have to muster evidence and make their case in the marketplace of ideas like everyone else.
In other words, the religious right will finally have to fight fair, and I’m willing to bet that, in the long run, that’s a fight they’ll lose.