Editor’s Note: In Part I of this series, Jon Witt presented evidence that the rise of those claiming no religious affiliation is related to the rise of the Religious Right. In this second installment, he drills deeper in this question as well as presenting evidence that Americans choose their religious affiliation based on their politics instead of choosing their politics based on their religion.
In 2002, sociologists Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer published a groundbreaking article on the association between the rise of the Nones and the politicization of religion. At that point, Nones had doubled, from 7 percent in 1972 to 14 percent in 1998. They conclude that “the increase was not connected to the loss of religious piety, and that it was connected to politics. In the 1990s many people who had weak attachments to religion and either moderate or liberal political views found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian Right and reacted by renouncing their weak attachment to organized religion” (pp. 165-166). They reach this conclusion having considered several alternative explanations for this trend.
One rejected explanation for the rise of the Nones is secularization, a favorite of sociologists from the discipline’s earliest days. Secularization is an insufficient explanation because two-thirds of the Nones maintain some level of religious faith and practice (p. 173). Hout and Fischer use the label “Unchurched Believers” to describe these Nothing in Particulars who continue believe in God, life after death, and more. They also report that 93 percent of those with no religious preference pray sometimes and 20 percent pray daily (p. 175). As Hout and Fischer put it, “The most distinctive fact about the people with no religious preference is their lack of participation in organized religion” (p. 174).
Hout and Fischer turn instead to the correlation between political affiliation and Nonehood. They show that the post-1992 rise in self-identification as a None occurs primarily among those who identify as liberal, leans to liberal, and moderate (p. 180). As they put it, “…the significant increase in no religious preference was confined to liberals and moderates…and the magnitude of the change increased with political distance from the right” (p. 181). They conducted multivariate analysis to test the degree to which the political dimension impacts this trend. They conclude, “Organized religion linked itself to a conservative social agenda in the 1990s, and that led some political moderates and liberals who had previously identified with the religion of their youth or their spouse’s religion to declare that they have no religion. Had religion not become so politicized, these people would have gone on identifying as they had been and the percentage of Americans preferring no religion would have risen only 3 or 4 percentage points” (p. 188).
Hout and Fischer revisited this hypothesis a dozen years later to see whether or not the trends they observed at the turn of the century still held true. By 2012, the percentage of Nones continued to rise, going from 14 percent to 20 percent. They again conclude that secularization doesn’t explain the rise of the Nones because the percentage of Unchurched Believers continues to expand. As they put it, “Americans continue to believe in God but suspect churches” (p. 431; emphasis added).
Their conclusion regarding the impact of politicization is even more definitive than in their previous research: “the relationship between religion’s greater public presence and weaker personal identification was, in fact, causal. Organized religion gained influence by espousing a conservative social agenda that led liberals and young people who already had weak attachment to organized religion to drop that identification” (p. 423). The political difference becomes more pronounced over time. “By 2012,” they report, “36 percent of liberals preferred no religion; just 7 percent of conservatives preferred none” (p. 427).
Based on a series of complex equations and some impressive statistical analysis, they conclude that politicization and generational transition—in which more unbelieving generations are replacing those with greater religious identification—explain the rise of the Nones. On the political front, they point to the religiously-inflected “politics of personal morality” (p. 437) as particularly alienating for liberals and moderates in their turn away from organized religion. When it comes to generational transition, they foresee the likely possibility that the children of these Unchurched Believers will eventually become Unchurched Unbelievers as adults.
To better understand the mechanism by which religious disaffiliation works, numerous researchers followed-in the footsteps of Hout and Fischer. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 provided a catalyst for this research. Sociologists, political scientists, and others wanted to understand how it was possible that 81 percent of White, Evangelical Christians voted for Trump, a result they perceived as incongruous given the contrast between Trump’s personal history relative to presumed Evangelical teachings.
Political scientists, Paul A. Djupe, Jacob R. Neiheisel and Anand E. Sokhey, tracked 957 people, from late September before the 2016 election to mid-November just after, to test the impact the election might have on church membership. They found that 14 percent of their respondents left their churches at that point. When analyzing patterns among the Leavers, they identified two trends among those most likely to go: “Trump supporters who felt their clergy didn’t support him…and those who felt cool toward Trump but thought their clergy strongly supported him.” This was especially true for those with weaker connections to the church: “Marginal attenders leave churches when they sense political disagreement.” In other words, it’s not just liberals leaving conservative churches, it’s also conservatives leaving liberal churches. The result is an increase in internal congregational homogeneity regardless of the political and theological leanings of the congregation.
Though this study represented a relatively small sample over a short period of time, Djupe and colleagues continued to find support for their findings through additional research. In another study, also following religious adherents over time, they were quite blunt about the role of politicization in conservative Christianity: “We also find that the Christian Right is driving congregants out of the pew” (p. 162). Through this study, they were able to show that it’s not just politicization at the macro or national level that matters. It’s conflict at the micro or local level. People become uncomfortable worshiping with their fellow churchgoers who have differing political views.
In addition to these congregational-level effects, Djupe, Neiheisel, and Kimberly H. Conger, explore the impact the political context at the state level had on religious disaffiliation. They conclude, “Our findings suggest that Christian Right influences in state politics seem to negatively affect religion, such that religious attachments fade in the face of visible Christian Right policy victories.” (p. 911). They again use statistical analysis to test their hypotheses, contrasting the growth of Nones in states that did-versus-did-not have same-sex marriage bans in place. They conclude, “when a ban on same-sex marriage is not in place, Christian Right influence has very weak to no association with the rate of Nones” (p. 915). They then raise the question whether or not this same circumstance may make it more difficult for evangelical Protestant churches to grow. They find that “evangelical adherence is estimated to be lower when they had some same-sex ban in place” (p. 917). They point out that increased politicization leading to religious disaffiliation is not without precedent. Something similar, but on the Religious Left, happened in the 1960s when “clergy involvement in the civil rights and antiwar movements precipitated losses in membership” (p. 918).
Political scientist David Campbell and colleagues similarly conducted experiments and explored panel data across time to better understand politically-caused religious disaffiliation. They found, “The impact of party identification on change in identification as None, passive secularism, or active secularism is never statistically significant unless individuals believe that evangelical Christians are ‘mainly Republicans’ or perceive ‘a lot’ of talk about religion in politics” (p. 563). In other words, it’s the perceived political dimension of conservative, Christian faith that serves as the trigger. They point to the cognitive dissonance Democrats experience between their politics and their conservative, Christian faith, which many resolve by becoming Nones. This process results in increased polarization between religious Republican and secular Democrat communities. As Campbell and colleagues put it, this process “may spur an ‘increasing returns’ process in which Republicans and conservatives grow more deeply religious and Democrats and liberals become more committed to secularism” (p. 552). Campbell and colleagues further explore the growth of secular communities, and the attendant challenges to such growth, in their book, Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics (2021).
The secular surge is also explored in detail by Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith in their book American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems in which they refer to the rise of the Nones as the “Great Abdicating” (p. 75), an ironic homage to the Great Awakening. They write, “Over time, the so-called culture wars led many Americans who were nominally religious to reject formal ties to organized religion. The sentiment of many former nominally and liberally religious individuals was effectively: ‘If that’s what it means to be religious, then I’m not religious’” (p. 75; emphasis added). Like Campbell and colleagues, they claim, “In an ironic self-fulfilling prophecy, the Religious Right decried America’s purported secularity, ultimately leading to an increase in the number of Americans who were secular, and diminishing organized religion’s standing among large segments of the public” (p. 87). They conclude that “the political meaning of religion, particularly among conservative Christians, and its corresponding politicization have driven this [secular] transformation” (p. 211).
Sociologist Ruth Braunstein builds on such previous research to build “A Theory of Political Backlash.” She accepts as established fact that the rise of the Nones is due to political backlash against the Religious Right. She identifies three factors driving this backlash:
- How: the perception that the Religious Right engages in activism in ways that are “relatively extreme and uncompromising”;
- Who: the perception that members of the Religious Right consist primarily of a “racial and religious minority seeking to impose their will on others”; and
- What: the perception that values and interests the Religious Right is promoting (e.g. anti-abortion, against same-sex marriage, pro-white supremacy) are “radical, intolerant, and undemocratic” (p. 295).
In her analysis, Braunstein perceives a fundamental difference in how conservative and liberal groups present themselves:
- “Conservative religionists today tend to be more radical than liberals, in the ‘intensity’ of their affiliation and practice…, in the uncompromising and anti-pluralist nature of their public religious expression…, and in their polarized perceptions of others” (p. 302)
- “[L]iberal religion is typically associated with moderation, in terms of how people affiliate and practice within liberal faith communities…, in its relatively ‘quiet’ mode of public engagement…, and in its embrace of moderate and pluralistic vision of religion’s role in politics that carves out a middle ground between radical theocratic and radical secularist visions” (p. 302)
She points out that, consistent with sociology’s Thomas Theorem (what’s perceived as real is real in its consequences), when it comes to such distinctions, perception is key. If people perceive the Religious Right as radical, they are likely to act on the basis of that perception, even if those among the Religious Right do not see themselves that way.
Braunstein explores the question of the degree to which the backlash is to religion more generally versus just to the particular form represented by the Religious Right. Why, for example, do Evangelical Democrats seem more inclined to become Nones than to seek out more liberal-leaning congregations? As she puts it, the former represents a “Broad Backlash” from the entire field of religion, while the latter represents a “Narrow Backlash” from the religious group that is perceived as radical while remaining within the field of religion. She also raises the possibility of a “Counter Backlash” in which those within the religious group double-down on their beliefs and practices that are perceived to be radical.
She points to the rise of the Nones as evidence for the Broad Backlash thesis. Evidence for the Narrow Backlash, which would provide a ray of hope for Mainline Protestants, might take multiple forms and the results are mixed:
- Rise in moderate religious organizations or affiliation: There’s no widespread evidence this is happening, but recent data suggests that mainline religious decline may have bottomed out and some degree of rebound may be occurring, though it’s too early to say so definitively;
- Rise in “spiritual but not religious” identification: The rise of those Nones who continue to believe in God, heaven, and the afterlife provide support for this claim, however it’s also possible that a significant portion of believers who self-identify this way may still support the Religious Right;
- Rise in positive attention given to the Religious Left: This could take the form of an equal-and-opposite organized religious mobilization by the Religious Left, something that does not seem to have occurred. Braunstein suggests that this outcome is due to the character of these Religious Left communities as “champions of a more moderate, pluralistic, inclusionary, and globalist religious presence in public life” (p. 308). She points out that, since Trump’s election, this group has been much more engaged politically in visible ways.
- Rise in depoliticized religion: This would include people who reduce the dissonance by presenting their public religious activities as disconnected from politics and vice versa. Liberal churches are presented with a challenge given their commitment to inclusivity and their overt claims that “all are welcome,” something conservative members of their religious communities might question. As a result, they may seek to carve out space in which “many religious liberals are politically motivated. They are just not politically motivated as religious people” (p. 311)
I find Braunstein’s hypothesis of a Counter Backlash to be particularly intriguing. She defines it this way: “a feedback effect in which the radical group perceives the backlash against them as illegitimate and thus doubles down on the activities that have drawn public ire” (p. 311). I will turn to it in more detail in Part III of this series.
The research on the impact the politicization of the Religious Right has on the rise of the Nones seems quite clear. Sociologists and others continue to explore the mechanisms by which this process operates. To understand the rise of the Nones, it is necessary to consider the broader cultural impact of the rise of the Religious Right in producing a broad backlash, but it is equally important to explore how these processes operate at a congregational level in which people who have worshiped together for generations find themselves having to make the difficult choice of leaving a congregation that has been an important part of their and their family’s identity. That said, it is important to recall that the bulk of the Nones are those who have been nominally attached to their religious bodies, making disaffiliation a perhaps easier step. In future research, it may be helpful to better understand how that nominal attachment develops in the first place.
The Malleability of Religious Identity
These findings about the role politics play in shaping religious belief and practice raise an important question. Most previous sociological research was based on the assumption that religious identity was a foundational variable, more or less solidified by adulthood and not subject to significant change. In other words, religion was typically treated as a causal or independent variable used to explain other beliefs and practices. Now researchers are asking whether or not religion is an effect or dependent variable, something that might be modified by other more foundational factors. They posit the hypothesis that political identity gives rise to religious identity. Or, as Ryan Burge put it, “people are picking their religion based on their politics, not their politics based on their religion.”
Political scientist Michele Margolis raised this possibility in a 2017 article titled, “How Politics Affects Religion.” Here she concentrates on lifecycles and how they have changed over time. She questions the old, taken-for-granted assumption that children will return to the religion of their youth as they marry and have children. She argues that the chronology for the passage to adulthood has changed. Marriage and childbirth now happen when people are older but people still firm up their young adult political identities during college and/or early career life. In other words, political identity now solidifies earlier in adulthood than does religious identity. As she puts it, “For some, the hiatus from religion in young adulthood becomes permanent” (p. 31). For those who do return to religion, she finds that Democrats do so at lower rates than do Republicans. She concludes, “politics helps produce this [God] gap on account of partisans selecting into (or out of) organized religion based on their partisan identities” (p. 40).
Margolis returned to this hypothesis in her 2022 article, “Reversing the Causal Arrow: Politics’ Influence on Religious Choices,” in which she provides a comprehensive review that is so rich and full that I cannot do justice to it here. Her primary hypothesis remains the same: “Rather than bring their political outlooks into alignment with their religious faith, Americans bring their religious faith into alignment with their political outlooks” (p. 262). She points out that this partisan God Gap emerged starting in the 1980s and took off in the 1990s. She returns to the lifecycle hypothesis and reiterates the fact that “partisan identification solidifies during a time when religion is a less important feature in life” (p. 271). Those who already have solidified religious identities are less likely to change them as a result of political identity.
In seeking to explain why people make these choices, she points to the challenges that cognitive dissonance can have at the personal level: “individuals do not want to feel politically isolated while at church, do not want to deal with the tensions stemming from holding two identities that seem to be at odds with each other, and would rather not cope with discomfort stemming from actions or beliefs going against group norms” (p. 269).
When it comes to the interplay between politics and religion, part of what’s interesting here is the way the levels of engagement vary by party identification. Among Democrats, it’s the non-attending who are the most politically engaged. Among Republicans, as attendance goes up, so also does political engagement (p. 277). There’s also a racial dimension here which may help to explain why “people of color opt for non-White churches” (p. 282). Interestingly, people appear more likely to turn to religion when their political party is not in control: “…partisans of both stripes become more religious, on average, when they are in the political minority and less religious when they are part of the party in power” (p. 284).
A key point is that people are adapting their identities to match those of the people around them. Political scientist Patrick Egan, in his article “Identity as Dependent Variable,” explores this phenomenon of identity switching, including changes not only in religious identity, but also race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and social class. He reports, “When group identity is salient, conforming to the prototype makes individuals better liked and more popular with other in-group members” (p. 702). Typical switches vary by political identity. Liberal Democrats are more likely to “…switch into claiming identities as Latino, LGB, non-religious, lower class, and being of African, Asian, or Hispanic national origin” (p. 707); Conservative Republicans are more likely “…to identify as Protestant and born-again Christian” (p. 707). When it comes to religion, he concludes, “identification as a religious ‘None’ is also heavily infused with politics” (p. 713).