Politics in Post-Christian America

The American Conservative recently ran a fascinating article that raised the question: what will become of a Republican Party that only speaks to (certain) Christians? (Granted, after the most recent food fight…er, GOP debate…there are other reasons to question the  continued viability of the party…)

We all know that demographic changes are creating a more racially and ethnically diverse America. Indeed, there is substantial evidence for the proposition that it is the growth of that diversity that has triggered the rise–and rage–of a bigotry that had been suppressed (albeit not eliminated) over the preceding few decades. What demographers are now beginning to recognize is the emergence of what the article calls “post-Christian” America.

And as the article notes, that reality hasn’t yet penetrated to the current crop of Presidential candidates

Judging solely from the rhetoric and actions of the Republican presidential candidates this cycle, you would be hard-pressed to tell much difference between 2016 and 1996, the year that the Christian Coalition was ruling the roost in GOP politics. Sure there’s a lot more talk about the Middle East than before, but when it comes to public displays of religiosity, many of the would-be presidents have spent the majority of their candidacies effectively auditioning for slots on the Trinity Broadcast Network.

Even Donald Trump, the thrice-married casino magnate turned television host, has gone about reincarnating himself as a devout Christian, despite his evident lack of familiarity with the doctrines and practices of the faith.

If Americans are moving away from Christianity–if even the people most likely to vote Republican are moderating their connection to the version of Christianity that has been most congruent with political conservatism–the GOP will need to significantly expand its appeal to non-Christians and those who describe themselves as “spiritual” rather than religious.

That isn’t happening.

While the process of secularization has been slower-moving in the U.S. compared to Europe, it is now proceeding rapidly. A 2014 study by Pew Research found that 23 percent of Americans say they’re “unaffiliated” with any religious tradition, up from 20 percent just 3 years earlier. The Public Religion Research Institute confirmed the statistic as well with a 2014 poll based on 50,000 interviews indicating that 23 percent of respondents were unaffiliated.

The trend away from faith is only bound to increase with time. According to Pew, about 36 percent of adults under the age of 50 have opted out of religion. At present, claiming no faith is the fastest growing “religion” in the United States. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of people claiming “nothing in particular” increased by 2.3 percent, those saying they were agnostics increased by 1.2 percent and those claiming to be atheists increased by 0.8 percent. No actual religious group has experienced anywhere near such growth during this time period.

The article provides analyses of vote shares from the last election cycle, demonstrating that as people move from church-based religiosity, they also move–in significant numbers–to the Democrats.

The conclusion?

In 2016 and beyond, Christian conservatives face a choice. They can embrace identity politics and become a small group of frustrated Christian nationalists who grow ever more resentful toward their fellow Americans, or they can embrace reality.

There are many things today’s GOP embraces, but reality isn’t one of them.


  1. This caused me to think of Pope Francis’message urging a return to spirituality, a far different religious place. He, too, sees the drift but addresses with a message of love and inclusion.

  2. This blog takes me directly to the gerrymandering (redistricting) problems plaguing all states today. The requirement is for Representatives is to have 33,000 residents to represent in the legislature; they use this to move district lines at their whim. NOT 33,000 Christians, 33,000 whites, 33,000 wealthy, 33,000 sexually straight, 33,000 higher educated; the list is endless and doesn’t include a specifically required square mile area to reflect their district. But the requirement is for 33,000 residents to represent.

    The reality of resident’s ethnicity, religious affiliation or none, stable or instability of neighborhoods, et al, is always in a state of flux due to today’s seemingly transient society. This seems to give Representatives a “reason” to constantly look for their best option to gerrymander or redistrict to gain votes NOT to provide the best representation for the constituents living in their currently designated area. Today it is white Christians they seek out; in previous years is was white anybody to encompass within their chosen district lines. The obvious reality of the number of people dropping away from organized religion isn’t of importance to the Republican party; it is the APPEARANCE of Christian alliance that matters. Primarily white Christian alliance.

  3. Other analysis I’ve seen suggests self identified evangelicals are splintering into groups. The newest and fastest growing being something called followers of the prosperity gospel. This group apparently don’t attend church regularly and are most likely to be Trump voters, yet they still self identify as evangelical. I really know nothing about any of this, but suspect it has little to do with religion and more to do with some (largely) suburban social construct.

  4. Chris; I copied and pasted the definition below from Wikipedia, the closest religious belief I could attach this to is to combine wealth with the Christian Science religion. Just my opinion but we have become blatantly aware of the control by “prosperity gospel” in this country today…known as the Tea Party.

    “Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success)[A] is a religious belief among some Christians that financial blessing is the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations (possibly to Christian ministries) will increase one’s material wealth. Based on non-traditional interpretations of the Bible, often with emphasis on the Book of Malachi, the doctrine views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver his promises of security and prosperity. Confessing these promises to be true is perceived as an act of faith, which God will honor.”

    The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God’s will for his people to be happy. The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith.

    This is believed to be achieved through donations of money, visualization, and positive confession, and is often taught in mechanical and contractual terms.”

  5. Are we witnessing something historic? When was the last time a major, national political party broke apart? I remember some realignments both among Democrats and Republicans, but nothing like this. The current Republican candidates have said they will support whoever wins. I can’t believe that will happen.

  6. JoAnne,

    “The obvious realilty of the number of people dropping away from organized religion isn’t of importance…..”

    As we both know, it’s more about RACE than religion in the Republican party. The “American Conservative” surely isn’t going to raize that “flag.” They are staying with the “false flag” of religion.

    As you pointed out, “….it is the APPEARANCE of Christian alliance that matters. Primarily white Christian alliance.”

  7. Stuff happens.

    It will take social scientists and anthropologists decades to analyze human culture’s evolution vis a vis the cultural influence of faith in – what we can’t yet know about the universe and life can be accepted as supernatural – what we’re familiar and comfortable with but on another plain of existence. (Seems like bad grammar but apparently out of reach of my limited editing skills.)

    We can’t explain much about where that faith came from millennia ago and less about where it’s going as it evolves culturally.

    Someone recently posted an article that concluded from research that the personality trait most highly correlated with conservatism is “authoritarianism”, the need to resist change – to control rather than accept reality.

    Assuming that research holds up it says that the liberal/conservative spectrum can be relabeled as a realist/authoritarian spectrum.

    The thing about that that seems plausible to me is that the sub cultural groups that huddle with the conservative team are those with a strong need to control culture and maintain or reinstate past cultures. Racism, religion, isolationism, sexism, cronyism, frontierism, creationism, etc. Those that huddle with the liberal team are those who tend to believe that as we discover reality and understand it we need to accept it for what it is because reality just doesn’t care what we want and we are powerless to influence it. Progressives.

    That also explains these times, times when the pace of discovery is such that reality is being revealed at a rate that changes several very consequential things per lifetime, a dizzying pace that really stirs up those addicted to control.

    That explains blustering Trump, the entertainer most closely associated with the power of personality, who promises those hiding from reality that he will huff and he will huff and he will blow down the house of what is and protect those who BELIEVE in the house of what they want. Control.

    Reality, once discovered and understood, is the constant of the universe. Culture is not human control but human adaptation to our environment – the stew of what is in which life exists.

    That why progress is unavoidable but always leaves in its wake the flotsam and jetsam of broken dreams.

    It’s tough to need control when you’re not in control.

  8. Humans have always sought answers to the questions of life. The Bible provided answers, guidelines, and a history of Israel and much of the middle east. Those answers may not have been correct, but it was satisfying to have some rationale provided for the mysteries of life.

    Today, we have a lot of facts that discount those old answers. The message that Jesus left for us is one of love and forgiveness, not one of rigid doctrine. The “Christians” who missed that message are those who still cling to the old answers. The thought that they might have both houses of Congress and the Presidency is frightening. While they are a minority, their fear of facts makes them highly motivated to vote.

  9. Prof K said:
    “In 2016 and beyond, Christian conservatives face a choice. They can embrace identity politics and become a small group of frustrated Christian nationalists who grow ever more resentful toward their fellow Americans, or they can embrace reality.”
    Based on their record since 1964, I expect they will go with the former.
    I expect no change, Unless and Until, they get their butt kicked all the way up and down the ballot.
    Then, MAYBE they can change.
    As long as this works for them, they will NOT be changing.

  10. I’m not sure that we can equate those who identify as “unaffiliated” with a trend away from faith or a move away from Christianity. There is a measurable difference between “claiming no faith” and “claiming no affiliation.” Pew’s data show that 70.6% still identify as Christian. It’s difficult for me to think of that as “post-Christian.” Did you notice that 70% of the “unaffiliated” have less than a college degree? And that 61% of the “unaffiliated” profess a belief in God?

  11. Religion promises to resist change up to and including the biggest change for anyone – death, ours or loved ones.

    Conservative politicians make the same promise and suffer the same failure.

    As the song says “change is gonna come”.

    Welcoming it may be hard but it’s so realistic. What’s hard is predicting and/or controlling it. Too many variables.

    Fortunately the odds favor progress, adaptation, better.

    Smart politicians try to stay in front of that and take credit for it and sometimes, not often, at least appear to have influenced it.

    More often though the best humanity can do is adapt to what comes.

    Evolution and natural selection don’t address what’s better. They try random change and reward what works better in the changing environment.

    We can’t do better.

  12. “There is a measurable difference between “claiming no faith” and “claiming no affiliation.””

    Right. Faith is the assumption one must make when knowing (yet) is impossible. It’s undoubtedly a necessary fill in the blank instinct of sentient life.

    “Affiliation” is subscribing to the faith of others, the assumptions that they made.

    Affiliation fulfills both the need to avoid something akin to ignorance and our social need to belong, faith just the former.

  13. EFK, 68% of Americans old enough to have one, don’t have a college degree. So if it’s true that your figure of 70% of “unaffiliated” don’t have one that means that having a college degree or not does not correlate with religious affiliation.

  14. I’ve been offline for awhile but since this thread more (I like) or less (I like less but understand) Me, I tend to agree with those above who draw a distinction between affiliation and absence of faith. But otherwise, I just want to wish Professor K a very speedy recovery from her recent fall. Even though she has serious reservations concerning my Existence outside of this comment thread, I’m charting her progress while keeping an eye out for the rest of the Universe.

    By the way, as to the discussion over certain anatomical size questions related to Donald Trump, of course I know (after all, I made that determination almost about 70 years and nine months ago) but think it highly inappropriate for Me to make such a disclosure. (I did do so to the editorial board of the New York Times…..but of course off the record).

  15. I thank God for the high-profile Christian examples of Pope Francis and Jimmy Carter. If my only knowledge or examples of religion were those evidenced by GOP presidential candidates and some of their ‘religious’ backers who hurl hate instead of love, I’d want nothing to do with religion. In the meantime, Sheila, you’re on my prayer list for recovery from broken bones.

  16. Pete, I was using the Pew statistics that Sheila pointed us to, and it sure looks like there is a correlation between education level attained and being unaffiliated (http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/unaffiliated-religious-nones/). The more education attained, the less likely a respondent was to be unaffiliated. It’s interesting to consider that, in light of the graph on educational distribution by religious group. The most highly educated affiliated groups are Hindus (77% with at least a bachelor’s degree) and Jews (60% with at least a bachelor’s degree). Affiliated groups with low levels of education are Jehovah’s Witnesses (63% graduated high school or less), Historically Black Protestant (52% graduated high school or less), Catholic (46% graduated high school or less ), and Evangelical Protestant (43% graduated high school or less ). There is some multivariate analysis just crying out to be done here.

  17. EFK, to show a correlation among those affiliated or unaffiliated with religion and college degrees would require a difference between that variable (affiliation) and the general population which there appears not to be. A random sample would show 30% with degrees.

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