How the Religious Right is Shrinking Itself: Overzealous Christianity is Driving People Away

New study suggests that as the religious right grows ever more radical, it drives ever more people out of church

The story of the religious right and political power seems a straightforward one: White evangelicals, by using religious guilt and white identity politics, have organized in a way that allows them to punch above their weight. Only about one in four Americans identify with this group, and yet they control the Republican Party and played a huge role in electing Donald Trump president. In effect, they have gotten their hands on the levers of power.

But does the religious right's apparent success have unintended consequences? For years now, some political scientists have argued that there's a backlash effect to all this conservative Christian organizing: It's causing many people, especially young people, to get fed up with religion and quit altogether. Last year, for instance, Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute told Salon that it's "young, white people leaving Christian churches that is driving up the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans."

Now there's more evidence that Jones is right: By organizing politically, the Christian right may be winning elections in the short term, but it's also driving people out of the pews, which is likely to lead to long-term defeat.

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In a paper published late last month in Political Research Quarterly, researchers were able to narrow down the question of the backlash effect. They performed a state-by-state comparison between states that had a strong religious right organizing presence, specifically around the issue of same-sex marriage, and those that did not. What they found was that the more the religious right organized to stop same-sex marriage, the more people in that area started identifying as what social scientists call "nones," that is, people who have no religious identity at all.

"Rising none rates are more common in Republican states" in the years between 2000-2010, researchers write. "Moreover, when the Christian Right comes into more public conflict, such as over same-sex marriage bans, the rate of religious nones climbs."

Paul Djupe, the lead author and an associate professor at Denison University, told Salon that this period was “so perfect," because “we have the Karl Rove-driven pattern of enacting same-sex marriage bans to help the Republican Party in 2004 and 2006. So here’s a really salient, very controversial event."

What the narrow focus allowed the authors to show was that in states where the Christian right was especially active in trying to ban same-sex marriage, the number of people in the state who stopped identifying as Christians rose more rapidly than in other states. The rise in these red states was so rapid, Djupe said, that "the rate of the nones on average starts to look like what it does in blue states across this [same] time period."

The story might just be a little more complicated, however than saying that a lot of loyal, churchgoing Christians suddenly lost faith after confronting homophobia in the pews.

"The people that end up leaving were pretty marginal to begin with," Djupe said, noting that this isn't "affecting those that are deeply committed to their churches."

A lot of people join a church because it's "socially desirable" in their communities, he explained, but attend infrequently. "The more that religion is out there doing things that some people disagree with," the more likely such marginal congregants are to cut all ties and make the once-taboo declaration that they have no religion at all. That means, of course, that the churches are left with the true believers. 

In that scenario, Djupe explaned, among those people who are still religious, "There are actually more people that go to church a lot more. There are people that don’t go and there are people that go pretty frequently, and not as many marginal members as there used to be.”

Still, for the Christian right, this backlash effect could create long-term political damage. As long as people in a given community feel social pressure to claim affiliation to conservative churches, even if they don't often show up, they are significantly more likely to go along with the conservative Christian agenda. But if they stop identifying as members of a church or a denomination, they will also feel less pressure to espouse the political values of the religious right.

It's an interesting cycle: The more that the religious right engages in politics, the more people get fed up and abandon a Christianity. And the more they do that, the easier it is for them to embrace socially liberal policies. Certainly, this cycle is starting to show up not just in the rising number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, but in opinions among young people on social issues. Three-quarters of millennials now support same-sex marriage, compared to 62 percent of Americans overall. Young people are also more pro-choice, with 65 percent supporting legal abortion in most circumstances, compared to just 51 percent of those over age 65.

The question now is whether Donald Trump — or more specifically, the white evangelical support for Trump — will accelerate these trends? Will young people see the hypocrisy of Christian leaders embracing a man who pays off porn stars and brags about how he grabs women "by the pussy," and leave the church in even greater numbers?

Djupe believes that answer is currently unknowable, but says he could see Trump playing the same role that opposition to same-sex marriage has in the past: Giving people who already have one foot out the church door an excuse to leave completely. Preliminary data clearly suggests this may be the case. If trends hold, we might see people leaving churches because of Trump, but also churches that support Trump only becoming fiercer in their loyalty.

Ultimately, what's happening are twin trends. On one hand, the Christian right is becoming ever more radical. It's also getting smaller at the same time, in no small part because moderating forces within the evangelical churches are being driven out. How long will it take for the movement to shrink so much it finally loses its political clout?

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte.