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Editor’s Note: In Part III of this series, Jon Witt considers the implications of his research into the relationship of the rise of the religious Nones and the Religious Right.

Part Three

Conservative Backlash

The research presented in Part I and Part II supports the hypothesis we started with: Nones are opting out while religious groups are doubling down. In doing so, each makes the other more likely. Or, as Burge puts it, “…as secularism in the United States has increased, there’s been a deepening of religious intensity among those who still go to church.”

As mentioned in Part II, sociologist Ruth Braunstein discussed Counter Backlash as a probable outcome of the rise of the Nones. In doing so, she points to previous research that found that subcultural identity “has long been strengthened through perceptions of persecution and embattlement with the broader society” (p. 311). She highlights two primary manifestations of the Counter Backlash. The first is “Digging In” and the second is “Joining In.” She defines Digging In as “the purification and further radicalization of the radical group” (p. 311). Here, activism in pursuit of core ideals increases, facilitated in part by the loss of those who might provide brakes to more extreme beliefs and practices. The lukewarm either depart or dive in and what’s left is a religious community of “true believers” that feels stronger and more affirming, even if smaller.

Groups facilitate Digging In through the twin processes of boundary maintenance and gatekeeping. Boundary maintenance entails a clear articulation of organizational identity, including a more explicit delineation of the values, beliefs, and practices that are unique to those who are part of the group as distinct from those who are not. Gatekeeping involves the power to define who’s in and who’s out, who counts and who does not. The American Medical Society provides a classic example. Early on, members carved out social space as the sole legitimate arbiter for who should count as a medical doctor, and they were ridiculously successful in monopolizing that space. In terms of U.S. religious trends, our related questions are these: What does it mean to be a Real Christian? Who gets to decide?

In my childhood, being a Real Christian meant accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior (being born again) and then living life accordingly (going to church, praying, reading the Bible, sharing the Gospel so that family, friends, and neighbors don’t go to hell, along with a whole host of No’s: no drinking, no smoking, no swearing, no tattoos, no premarital or extramarital sex, etc.). There was little to no talk about sexual orientation or political affiliation. While the inversion isn’t complete (and it’s easy to explain away the elevation of sexuality as a consequence of broader cultural shifts), I cannot help but say, “My how the tables have turned.” The pursuit of political power for the sake of cultural domination seemed foreign back then. If the world was to be saved, it was through personal faith in Jesus Christ one believer at a time, not through the ballot box.

The second manifestation of Counter Backlash is “Joining In,” which is “the infusion of participation and support from sympathetic radicals in adjacent fields” (Braunstein 2022: 311). It turns out that the pursuit of political power in service of ideological purity can produce strange bedfellows. I’m so old I can remember a time when an alliance between Evangelicals and some of their current religious and political fellow travelers seemed impossible.

We have apparently entered a time when, for some, adherence to political identity trumps commitment to core Evangelical beliefs and practices when it comes to identifying as an Evangelical. For me, Joining In helps to explain the seemingly awkward alliance between Evangelicals and Donald Trump. It’s not exactly that this started as “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” but given Trump’s past lifestyle and language, it feels like it’s in the neighborhood. And then, over time, differences decline to the point of insignificance while commonalities unify in pursuit of shared goals.

The Social Self and the Power of Groups

One of the obstacles to understanding these processes is an incomplete appreciation of identity. So often we treat the self as if it is an isolated, atomistic entity that exists independent of any external impacts. Sociologically, however, there is no meaningful sense of self that can be understood in isolation. We are social beings who exist in communities that help us define who we are, what we believe, and how we should act. If that’s true, then we need to take group memberships seriously when understanding why individuals think and act as they do.

I have found the work of social psychologist Henri Tajfel helpful when it comes to the role groups play in shaping individuals, especially as it relates to oppositional stances. Tajfel conducted experiments to better understand the impact group membership has on individual identity. He randomly assigned people into groups and found that membership alone led people to identify with each other, privilege each other, and seek to deny benefits to outsiders. As part of his Social Identity Theory, he described each of these outcomes as follows:

  1. Social Categorization: The simple recognition of differences between groups; Any difference can serve as a marker of difference (e.g. occupation, tastes, age, religion); What matters is the recognition of the us/them difference.
  2. Social Identification: Tying our sense of self to a particular group; we adopt the group’s expected cultural practices by following its norms, embracing its beliefs, using its language, and otherwise seeking to fit in; As a result, group membership becomes part of our identity.
  3. Social Comparison: Ranking groups in a way that privileges your group, highlighting the hierarchical contrast between “us” and “them”; building up our own group while tearing down other’s groups.

Together these three steps produce both a stronger sense of collective identity (“Who are we?”) and an elevated sense of individual identity (“Who am I?”).

In other words, a natural tendency exists for groups to tend toward internal homogeneity and external opposition. What was remarkable about Tajfel’s results was its seeming inevitability. This wasn’t something that might happen; it’s something that happened over and over again and did so without regard for history, ideology, or any particular group commitments. It wasn’t shared truths that bound the group together that mattered; it was the groupishness itself.

If we were to add values, ethnicity, history, etc., to the mix, it feels obvious that the tendencies toward exclusion and opposition would increase, especially when the group is unified by its exclusive understanding of Fundamental Truth. Of course, such value commitments break both ways depending on which side of the political aisle you are on. Saying you are heading to Chick-fil-A for lunch will be received very differently, though perhaps no less strongly, on one side versus the other. Liberals are more inclined toward pluralism and inclusion, but that creates its own challenges when it comes to a shared set of core values and practices that serve as a strong foundation for collective and individual identity. Conservatives recognize the importance of a singular commitment to shared beliefs and practices, but in doing so erect high walls that limit entry to those who think and act alike. Each criticizes the other for their exclusive and judgmental ways.

Of course, it’s ever been thus. People have been gathering together into groups for as long as there have been humans (and your answer to that length of time might not be irrelevant in this context). What’s different now? To be honest, I’m not sure. But it feels like the overt marriage of religious truth with political power has been a powder keg throughout human history.

Where does that leave us? Sociologist Emile Durkheim, one of sociology’s founders, argued that humans are fundamentally social creatures. We need each other. In pre-modern times, limited division of labor meant we shared more experiences with each other which served as the foundation for social solidarity. However, in modern society, according to Durkheim, the division of labor segmented human activity into distinctly separate spheres. As result, we no longer do as much together. As a result, we need each other more, but we realize it less. In coming to terms with the decline of solidarity, Durkheim, over 100 years ago, predicted increases in suicide rates, and today we are observing a suicide crisis in the United States.

Compounding things, it appears that we now participate less in groups that had transcended those boundaries. Political scientist Robert Putnam, in his now classic book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, argues that we have experienced a substantial decline in social capital. We are much less likely to engage in social activities with others (e.g., entertain friends, hang out with neighbors, host card clubs, join bowling leagues, have family dinners). As a result, we lose opportunities to establish network relationships that both build more bridges and produce deeper bonds. Presently, we appear to be in the midst of a Friendship Recession, which weakens community ties, which reduces our number of friends, which weakens community ties, and on and on.

In the United States, church was one of the places where building connections happened (and I say that with all the appropriate caveats about race, class, and gender in mind). It now appears that the place where, for example, socioeconomic mixing is most likely to happen is full-service restaurant chains such as Olive Garden, Applebee’s, and Chili’s. Churches are well down the list (though not nearly as far down as schools).

As culture critic Neil Postman put it in a lecture at Calvin University way back in the early Internet days of 1998, historically, community meant figuring out ways to get along with people who weren’t like you. According to Postman, “The word community has traditionally referred to those who have different and even opposing interests but who find common ground for the sake of political or social harmony. Internet communities are strangers to this conception. They begin in harmony and make no demands on one’s capacity for negotiation and tolerance, which is the essence of how communities are formed and sustained” (C-Span link). While this does seem like an overly idealized conception of community, it raises some interesting questions about what happens at a time when we are more likely to engage through social media with people around the world who share our perspectives than we are to know about and care for our physical neighbors.

Perhaps, in pursuit of relief from anxiety, isolation, and loneliness, people seek to fill their innate need for social connection by finding comfort in isolated, homogenous social groups, many of which are virtual and facilitated by social media.

To Will and To Do

Finding ways to engage in community with others who are not our functional clones looks like an uphill fight. We are not inclined to reach out and do things together in ways that allow us to share experiences and build relationships across these divides. If Tajfel is correct that our inclination is toward homogenization, it will take intentional efforts to cross divides.

Religious communities should be ideally situated to bring together diverse groups of people. In an article titled “What Churches Offer That ‘Nones’ Still Long For,” New York Times columnist Jessica Grose points toward community as one of the primary functions religion provides: “…the one aspect of religion in America that I unquestionably see as an overall positive for society is the ready-made supportive community that churchgoers can access.” How might churches do a better job of providing that support? In their conclusion, Hout and Fischer raise the provocative question, “If some churches were to diversify their message, appealing to issues beyond sexual politics, perhaps the alienated liberals might think about church again” (p. 444). Perhaps.

Ryan Burge, wearing both his political scientist and pastor caps at the same time, suggests a shift in strategy among churches. He writes, “Houses of worship would thus be ideal spaces for social contacts to flourish. If churches, synagogues, and mosques were once again full of people from across the economic and political spectrum, it would help build bridges not just in the congregation but in the larger community.” True, but it appears that historical forces are working in the opposite direction. One helpful tool he provides is to emphasize the difference between the horizontal (“individuals building relationships with each other”) and vertical (“individuals strengthening their relationship to God”) dimensions of religion. Burge suggests that religious groups work to “create space for people to get to know each other and create social bonds without any real agenda or time constraint. The theology can (and should) come later.” This might take the form of fewer Sunday School classes and more community potlucks and summer lunch programs for kids.

Prioritizing belonging over believing as an intentional outreach strategy and creating some local cultural space for the possibility that not all will express their faith in the same way might be a path forward. Contrasting these two dimensions, Burge writes, “The belief facet of religion is often caustic. It drives division and eschews compromise. It says, ‘I’m right and why should I tolerate your wrongness?’ The behavior facet of religion (should) put us in contact with people who are different than us. Economically, politically, educationally, and racially. That builds bridges and cultivates tolerance.” When it comes to matters of Fundamental Truths, it’s hard to imagine congregations not running up against walls that some find insurmountable. But maybe, in the context of community, there might be some space for grace?

A related possible pathway is to practice empathy. It’s easy, and more satisfying, to launch grenades at “those people” on the other side of the aisle. Plus, if Tajfel is right, doing so actually enhances “our” identity and solidarity. But, if we are to find a path out of what feels a bit like Mutually Assured Destruction, it’s also important for us to understand how it is others come to believe and act the ways they do. Sociologically speaking, this necessitates taking into account their positions, experiences, and access to material, social, and cultural resources. In the words the literary classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Source: Tom Gauld

What might this kind of understanding look like? For religious folks, their struggle is not just about politics and power. It’s about the consequences of declining faith not just for their nation or their congregation, but perhaps even more importantly for their children and grandchildren. But when the stakes are eternal, it’s easy to understand that their love for family and community might drive what seems to outsiders like a radical theological or political turn. For those on the more secular side of the divide, they see religious extremists forcing their faith onto others in ways that undercut pluralism and diversity and democracy, values they are equally committed to for the sake of their children, their communities, and the world. Might it be possible to find common ground on things that both sides value, especially as it relates to community?

As it stands now, I don’t see much reason for hope. As today’s younger Nones grow up and become parents, they will produce more Nones. At the same time, the older, more religious generations of yesteryear will give way to the already less-religious generations of today. And, if current trends continue, religious groups will double-down on exclusionary beliefs that produce stronger, though smaller, communities of faith.

And yet, as the old saying goes, “Hope is a choice.” What tomorrow, next year, decade, or century might look like, we do not know. The current trends point toward more animosity and broader culture wars. But I am confident that we have the capacity to make choices that produce better outcomes than we see today.

One of my all-time favorite sociology quotes comes from Emile Durkheim, who, in his classic sociological work Suicide, wrote: “The individual alone is not a sufficient end for his activity. He is too little” (p. 210). We need each other. And the others we need aren’t only those closest to us who think and act just like we do. We always have. We always will.

Select References

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: NYU Press.

Braunstein, Ruth. 2021. “A Theory of Political Backlash: Assessing the Religious Right’s Effects on the Religious Field.” Sociology of Religion 83:293-323.

Brockway, Mark, David Campbell, and Geoffrey Layman. 2016. “Secular Voters Didn’t Turn Out for Clinton the Way White Evangelicals Did for Trump.” The Washington Post November 18.

Burge, Ryan. 2021. “Think US Evangelicals Are Dying Out? Well, Define Evangelicalism…The Conversation January 26.

________. “Evangelicalism Isn’t Dying, and Catholics Are Going Republican.” Religion News March 8.

________. 2022. “Nondenominational Churches Are Adding Millions of Members. Where Are They Coming From?Christianity Today August 5.

________. 2023. The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, And Where They Are Going, 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

________. 2023. “Gen Z and Religion in 2022.” Religion in Public April 3.

________. 2023. “Did the Election of Donald Trump Drive People from the Pews?” Religion Unplugged May 5.

________. 2023. “The 2022 Data on the Southern Baptist Convention Is Out.” Graphs about Religion Substack May 10.

________. 2023. “Religion as a Cultural and Political Identity.” Graphs about Religion Substack July 17.

________. 2023. “Does Religion Cause More Problems Than It Solves?Graphs about Religion Substack July 20.

________. 2023. “The Future of American Christianity is Non-Denominational.” Graphs about Religion Substack July 24.

________. 2023. “Houses of Worship Shouldn’t Mirror the Class Divide.” The Wall Street Journal August 17.

Campbell, David E., Geoffrey C. Layman, and John C. Green. 2021. Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Campbell, David E., Geoffrey C. Layman, John C. Green, and Nathanael G. Sumaktoyo. 2018. “Putting Politics First: The Impact of Politics on American Religious and Secular Orientations.” American Journal of Political Science 62:551-565.

Cox, Daniel. 2023. “America’s ‘Friendship Recession’ Is Weakening Civic Life.” American Storylines Substack August 24.

Djupe, Paul A., Jacob R. Neiheisel, and Kimberly H. Conger. 2018. “Are the Politics of the Christian Right Linked to State Rates of the Nonreligious?: The Importance of Salient Controversy.” Political Research Quarterly 71:910-922.

Djupe, Paul A., Jacob R. Neiheisel, and Anand Edward Sokhey. 2017. “How Fights Over Trump Have Led Evangelicals to Leave Their Churches.” The Washington Post April 17.

________. 2018. “Reconsidering the Role of Politics in Leaving Religion: The Importance of Affiliation.” American Journal of Political Science 62:161-175.

Durkheim, Emile. [1897.] 1951. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Egan, Patrick J. 2019. “Identity as Dependent Variable: How Americans Shift Their Identities to Align with Their Politics.” American Journal of Political Science 64:699-716.

Fischer, Claude. 2023. “The Southern Baptist Convention Displays the Clash of Politics and Religion.” Made in America Blog June 20.

Grose, Jessica. 2023. “What Churches Offer That ‘Nones’ Still Long For.” The New York Times June 28.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67:165-190.

________. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science 1:423-447.

Margolis, Michele F. 2017. “How Politics Affects Religion: Partisanship, Socialization, and Religiosity in America.” The Journal of Politics 80:30-43.

________. 2022. “Reversing the Causal Arrow: Politics’ Influence on Religious Choices.” Advances in Political Psychology 43:261-290.

Perkins, Tom. 2022. “Conservative Muslims Join Forces with Christian Right on Michigan Book Bans.” The Guardian October 16.

Pluta, Anne. 2016. “The Rise of the ‘God Gap.’FiveThirtyEight January 31.

Postman, Neil. 1998. “Technology and Society.” Lecture, The January Series of Calvin College. C-Span video. January 12.

PRRI. 2021. “The 2020 Census of American Religion.” Public Religion Research InstituteJuly 8.

Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Putnam, Robert D. and David E. Campbell. 2010. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Rampell, Catherine. 2023. “Where Do Socioeconomoic Classes Mix? Not Church, but Chili’s.” The Washington Post August 22.

Saunders, Heather and Nirmita Panchal. 2023. “A Look at the Latest Suicide Data and Change Over the Last Decade.” Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) August 4.

Smith, Gregory A. 2021. “About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults are Now Religiously Unaffiliated.” Pew Research Center December 14.

Tajfel, Henri, M.G. Billig, R.P. Bundy, and Claude Flament. “Social Categorization and Intergroup Behavior.European Journal of Social Psychology 1: 149-178.

Jon Witt

Jon Witt is married to Lori, who together have the world’s two most amazing daughters: Emily and Eleanor. They are joined by Molly, the world’s best Corgi. If that’s not enough good fortune, he also teaches sociology at Central College in Pella, Iowa, where he particularly enjoys exploring religion, social stratification, and sociological theory with some amazing students.