The dangers of the great American unchurching
Americans are abandoning religion in droves.
That's the clear takeaway from two crucially important polls released earlier this week — one from the Public Religion Research Institute and another from the Pew Research Center.
The Pew poll shows that since 2012 the share of Americans who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" has surged from 19 percent to 27 percent, while the share of those who call themselves "religious and spiritual" has declined from 59 percent to 48 percent. That's a dramatic change for a mere five years, and it builds on longer-term trends.
The PRRI poll, which is far more ambitious, places the Pew findings in a broader context, showing that white Christians now comprise less than half of the population; that the relative size of the white evangelical Protestant, white mainline Protestant, and white Catholic populations is declining rapidly; that 24 percent of the country is religiously unaffiliated; that the share of young people (aged 18-29) in that unchurched group is 38 percent; and that nearly all of the growth in the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated has taken place since the early 1990s, when their share of the population consistently averaged a comparatively paltry 8 percent.
Add up the findings and assume current trends continue and we're left with a picture of the United States as a country in which established religious traditions and institutions are in sharp decline — and therefore in which culture and politics are rapidly secularizing.
Liberals, who are often secular in orientation, will likely respond to the news by rejoicing. With the religiously unaffiliated flocking in much greater numbers to the Democratic Party than the GOP, this would seem to be another confirmation of the "emerging Democratic majority" thesis that has captured the imaginations of so many on the left over the past decade and a half.
But the enthusiasm is unwarranted. Whatever the left's electoral gains following from the increasing secularization of the country, they are likely to be balanced out by other changes that may well prove to be far more pernicious. There is no guarantee that the transition to a more purely secular culture and politics will proceed smoothly — or that the resulting post-religious culture and politics will even end up being especially liberal.
More traditional religious believers already feel under siege from the federal government and an often overtly hostile surrounding culture. Liberals tend to dismiss this as paranoia and whining. But as we saw with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein's harsh questioning on Wednesday of judicial nominee Amy Barrett, a devout Catholic, the impression isn't wholly without foundation in reality. (Back in June, Bernie Sanders posed similarly accusatory questions to a conservative evangelical nominee for the Office of Management and Budget.) The message conservative believers hear from liberals and the left is clear: If you hold traditionally religious views, you will be treated as an unwelcome outsider in American public life.
This hostility has provoked a shift in the goals and outlook of traditionalist Christians. Where once they thought of themselves as a "moral majority" that might retake political and cultural institutions and transform them in their image, now they merely want to ensure that the government's power to persecute them is restrained. (Hence the emphasis of the dwindling religious right on religious liberty protections.)
Hence also the strategic (some say cynical) alliance many evangelicals forged with Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. There is abundant anecdotal evidence that the alliance may well backfire, hastening the exit of young (overwhelmingly anti-Trump) evangelicals from the faith. But those evangelical leaders who supported and continue to stand by Trump would likely say that this eventuality makes it even more essential to establish a strong presidential protection racket for religious institutions. The smaller and less powerful the church becomes, the more persecution it is likely to face in an increasingly secular (and sometimes even explicitly anti-religious) common culture.
In this respect, the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency was driven in part by a precipitous collapse in the power of the churches in American public life.
And that brings us to a second and even more troubling consequence of America's growing secularization.
Liberals tend to assume that those who have left religious traditions and institutions behind will end up being … secular liberals, which is to say paragons (in their own eyes) of liberal tolerance and moral virtue. But not only is this belied by the occasionally harsh anti-religious fervor of many secular liberal pundits and public officials. It's also contradicted by the rise of the post-religious right.
There is no guarantee at all that those who leave religious institutions and traditions behind will end up on the liberal left. As Trump's strong support in the GOP primaries among non-religious Republicans attests, a significant number of the post-religious (especially those who are less well educated) could well end up on the nationalist alt-right.
Ross Douthat, Peter Beinart, and The Week's own Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry have all noted the ominous emergence of a post-religious right, and have made the point that the left's most vociferous critics of the old religious right (of which I was once one) may well end up ruing the decline and fall of their former opponents.
A post-religious America will be very different from the country we've known up until quite recently. Not all (or even many) of the changes will be improvements.