What the shifting religious landscape means for American politics

Religious observance is on the decline in the U.S. What does that mean for future elections?

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Recent surveys show that the religious landscape of the United States is in flux, with attitudes shifting in parts of the country critical to future elections. The importance of religion in the lives of Americans is declining, according to a new report from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Only 16% of people surveyed said that religion is the most important thing in their lives, a 4% drop from a decade ago.

Melissa Deckman, the CEO of the PRRI, told NPR that the data reflects another growing trend in American religious life. "Americans are becoming increasingly likely to be religiously unaffiliated," she said. The rise of "nones," or people who identify as atheists, agnostics or "nothing in particular" when asked about their religious identity, has stirred discourse about what this could mean for politics in the U.S. going forward.

Politicians should pay attention

The shift away from religion in America is "a development of tremendous impact, one that will ripple across the political landscape at every level," especially in the presidential election, Ryan Burge said in Politico. Both Republicans and Democrats have reasons to worry and celebrate as voters' mentalities about religion change in different critical parts of the country. Burge notes that the 2020 Religious Census showed that religion is "taking a beating" along the Rust Belt in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Conversely, religious observance has increased in Florida and Texas. Still, both sides "have been slow to react to this changing religious landscape" and "are ignoring these changing dynamics at their own peril," Burge added.

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Tina Wray, a professor of religious and theological studies at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, said that the rising number of "nones" will affect the influence of the evangelical voter base. "The interest of the nones will soon outweigh those of the religious right in just a matter of years," Wray said in a statement to CNN. They will "vote as a bloc, and they're going to be pretty powerful." At some point, white evangelicals will "be eclipsed by the unaffiliated," Wray posited.

Religion is changing, but its influence remains

Regardless of the apparent downward trend, "declining church membership doesn't automatically translate into declining influence,' John Blake said in an analysis for CNN. White evangelicals helped former President Trump get elected. The recent passage of state laws targeting the transgender community and the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe V. Wade are seen as victories for conservative Christian groups.

"Christianity still holds a lot of capital in this country," Lee M. Jefferson, an associate professor of religion at Centre College in Kentucky, told Blake in an interview. Some assume "that a religious community's strength or influence is connected to numbers and attendance," Jefferson said. Despite dwindling attendance, "Christianity will still hold some strong relevance in different landscapes in the US."

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Theara Coleman

Theara Coleman is a Staff Writer for The Week. A New York native, she previously served as a contributing writer and assistant editor for Honeysuckle Magazine, where she covered racial politics and cannabis industry news. Theara graduated from Howard University and New York University, receiving her BA and MA in English Literature, respectively. She has a background in education as a former High School English teacher. She brings her passion for reading, writing, and all things nerdy to her work as a journalist.