The Rise And The (Ostensible) Fall Of The Religious Conservatives In the U.S.
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September 8, 2016
In 2014, Pew showed that 72% of Americans think religion is losing its influence in public life and that there's been a recent slight uptick of Americans who say religious institutions should express views on political matters (49%). It further showed that a growing minority (32%) say religious institutions should come out and support political candidates, and 59% think it's important for members of Congress to have religious beliefs. As expected, Republicans lean more towards wanting more religion in public life.
Furthermore, 56% of Americans who think religion is losing its influence think it's a bad thing, and only 12% think it's a good thing. I'm definitely one of those 12 percenters who think it's a bad thing. I think religion needs to recede from American cultural and political influence and the faster that happens the better the nation will be as a whole.
But the main question I want to address is whether or not opinion of the majority of Americans is correct: Is religion losing its influence in cultural and political matters?
To answer that we have to look at the recent presidential election as well as demographic data and polls on social issues. The largest and most powerful religious influence in the US has without a doubt been that of white evangelical Christians. Almost all US presidents have been Protestant with just a few exceptions. Even so, and despite a recent uptick of those who think religious institutions should get more political, data indicates that the influence of this large and mostly Republican demographic is shrinking and losing influence.
When it comes to demographics, the first and most important factor in the decline of white evangelical Christians is that the country is getting less white. The US is only 63% white, down from 69% in 2000, and 80% in 1980. As the white population shrinks, the white evangelical population shrinks. Second, the country is getting less Christian. The US is only 70% Christian, down from 78% in 2007, and 90% in 1963. In just the past 20 years the percentage of both Christians and the religiously affiliated began to rapidly decline. And just like with the white population, as the Christian population shrinks, the white evangelical population shrinks—along with their influence. Protestants now make up less than half (46%) the US population. Thirdly, there is a large generational gap with respect to Christian religiosity indicating what's to come. Only 56% of millennials are Christian, whereas 70% of generation X, and 78% of baby boomers are Christian.
Just about everyone sees the writing on the wall: White evangelical Christian America is doomed. Even a new book, The End of White Christian America, spells it out in obituary form. Given the inevitable demise, what have we seen recently? Well, we saw in the 2016 presidential primaries that Republicans elected one of the least religious persons ever to win their nomination in a long time. Although Donald Trump says he's religious, anyone with a brain knows he's not. And yes while it is true that many Republicans, including evangelicals, believe Donald Trump's a religious man (a truly faith based belief), it was surprising to see how little religion played a role in the deciding factors of the Republican primary. Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio each put on a stellar public performance expressing just how deep their love for Jesus is, but the thrice married, foul mouthed, ego-maniacal New York billionaire who couldn't name a single biblical verse he liked, and who spoke of "Two Corinthians" to everyone's amusement, won the nomination. This indicates that increasingly Republicans care more about illegal immigration and the outsourcing of jobs than the authenticity of one's religiosity. This marks what is perhaps a pivotal moment in the importance of religion's influence in the party of Jesus. The newly coined "alt-right" and its focus on nationalism, trade, and immigration may be a sign of what the Republican party will become: a party less focused on religion and the traditional divisive social issues like same sex marriage and abortion.
Culturally, Americans are moving more to the left on many traditional social issues. Support for same sex marriage continues to grow almost every year, as well as marijuana legalization. And although the numbers for abortion are less dramatic, a majority (56%) think it should be legal in all or most cases. The Religious Right has lost the culture war and they know it. These social issues divide Americans less and less every year, and with that the main weaponry in the arsenal of religious conservatives misfires.
In the Democratic party you can already see what is to come. Candidates rarely wear their religion on their sleeve, and in the 2012 convention the party was accused of removing god from their platform altogether. This time around Bernie Sanders became the first openly non-religious person to almost win the primary of a major party. On the democratic side at least we're ready for an openly non-religious candidate. I'd say that in the Green and Libertarian parties the same is true as well, as neither candidates are particularly religious. As time marches on, we will see more and more of this. Open religiosity among candidates will increasingly become a taboo as it has been in socially secular countries like England for years, and you will see it marginalized to a few soundbites, or not mentioned at all. I'm still waiting for the day when America will get its first viable openly atheistic presidential candidate. I wonder if he or she will be a millennial, or generation X.
Until then, secular liberals like myself will continue to rejoice in the fall of the religious conservatives and their influence in the US.