How Changes In Americans' Religious Views Are Cornering the GOP

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How Changes In Americans' Religious Views Are Cornering the GOP

Just yesterday, I wrote a critical post about Jeb Bush's recent speech at Liberty University in which he essentially made a case for Christianity as the greatest of all religions ("Consider a whole alternative universe of power without restraint, conflict without reconciliation, oppression without deliverance, corruption without reformation, tragedy without renewal, achievement without grace, and it's all just a glimpse of human experience without the Christian influence"). I pointed out that while Republican primary voters might be eager to hear that message, it wouldn't go over as well among the broader population, where Christians are declining as a proportion of the population and the group sometimes referred to as the "nones"—a combination of atheists, agnostics, and people who just say they aren't part of any religion—is growing rapidly. Well today the Pew Research Center is out with its latest report on Americans' religious affiliations, and the results are not only striking, they demonstrate the point I was making even more clearly (so nice when things work out like that).  

There are lots of fascinating things in the report, but I'll just highlight a couple. First, not only has the absolute number of Christians declined since they last did this study in 2007 (and by the way, it's a huge survey with a sample of 35,000), they've declined as a proportion of the population from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. That decline is most concentrated among Catholics and mainline Protestants. All the non-Christian faiths like Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists showed an increase. But the most dramatic rise is among the "nones," who went from 16.1 percent of the population in 2007 to 22.8 percent now.

It's important to understand that the nones are a diverse group; within them you have committed atheists, people who just say religion isn't important to them, and those who sometimes call themselves "spiritual but not religious." That diversity means it would be a stretch to say they all share a worldview in the same way that a group like evangelical Christians do (even though there's a good deal of ideological diversity within evangelicals). Nevertheless, there are now more of these unaffiliated Americans than there are Catholics or mainline Protestants, something that would have been unimaginable not long ago.

What jumped out most to me was the differences across generations. Pew didn't include a graph of this particular finding, so I made one myself:

We obviously don't know what will happen in the future—there could well be a religious revival in America, and we're still far and away the most religious of the highly developed countries. But unless there's a dramatic shift in the opposite direction from where we're now moving, simple generational replacement will produce a country that is more religiously diverse overall, less Christian, and less religious.

To return to where we began, this is yet another way in which the Republican Party is bound to the past. Their base is white and Christian in a country that's steadily becoming less of both, and they need to hold on to that base while expanding their appeal beyond it. Part of the problem is that the more diverse the country becomes, the more embattled and oppressed conservative whites and Christians feel. Republican politicians respond to those feelings by reinforcing their victimhood narratives and emphasizing identity politics. That then further alienates non-whites and non-Christians, hardening the limits of the GOP's appeal and making it more difficult to "reach out" to those voters they're going to need to stay competitive. It's a vicious cycle, and one they can't quite figure out how to break out of.

How Changes In Americans' Religious Views Are Cornering the GOP

Just yesterday, I wrote a critical post about Jeb Bush's recent speech at Liberty University in which he essentially made a case for Christianity as the greatest of all religions ("Consider a whole alternative universe of power without restraint, conflict without reconciliation, oppression without deliverance, corruption without reformation, tragedy without renewal, achievement without grace, and it's all just a glimpse of human experience without the Christian influence"). I pointed out that while Republican primary voters might be eager to hear that message, it wouldn't go over as well among the broader population, where Christians are declining as a proportion of the population and the group sometimes referred to as the "nones"—a combination of atheists, agnostics, and people who just say they aren't part of any religion—is growing rapidly. Well today the Pew Research Center is out with its latest report on Americans' religious affiliations, and the results are not only striking, they demonstrate the point I was making even more clearly (so nice when things work out like that).  

There are lots of fascinating things in the report, but I'll just highlight a couple. First, not only has the absolute number of Christians declined since they last did this study in 2007 (and by the way, it's a huge survey with a sample of 35,000), they've declined as a proportion of the population from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. That decline is most concentrated among Catholics and mainline Protestants. All the non-Christian faiths like Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists showed an increase. But the most dramatic rise is among the "nones," who went from 16.1 percent of the population in 2007 to 22.8 percent now.

It's important to understand that the nones are a diverse group; within them you have committed atheists, people who just say religion isn't important to them, and those who sometimes call themselves "spiritual but not religious." That diversity means it would be a stretch to say they all share a worldview in the same way that a group like evangelical Christians do (even though there's a good deal of ideological diversity within evangelicals). Nevertheless, there are now more of these unaffiliated Americans than there are Catholics or mainline Protestants, something that would have been unimaginable not long ago.

What jumped out most to me was the differences across generations. Pew didn't include a graph of this particular finding, so I made one myself:

We obviously don't know what will happen in the future—there could well be a religious revival in America, and we're still far and away the most religious of the highly developed countries. But unless there's a dramatic shift in the opposite direction from where we're now moving, simple generational replacement will produce a country that is more religiously diverse overall, less Christian, and less religious.

To return to where we began, this is yet another way in which the Republican Party is bound to the past. Their base is white and Christian in a country that's steadily becoming less of both, and they need to hold on to that base while expanding their appeal beyond it. Part of the problem is that the more diverse the country becomes, the more embattled and oppressed conservative whites and Christians feel. Republican politicians respond to those feelings by reinforcing their victimhood narratives and emphasizing identity politics. That then further alienates non-whites and non-Christians, hardening the limits of the GOP's appeal and making it more difficult to "reach out" to those voters they're going to need to stay competitive. It's a vicious cycle, and one they can't quite figure out how to break out of.