Next door to the parsonage of the small Christian church (Disciples of Christ) congregation, of which I am a member, live a militantly progressive couple who are estranged from their conservative religious upbringing. For years they exchanged pleasantries with the pastor, before stumbling into a political discussion in which they discovered he was not, to their surprise, a right-winger. “Oh, I get it: You’re not those Christians,” the husband exclaimed. The couple soon became regulars at our church.
I mention this anecdote in connection with new research showing that the political views of conservative Christians — notably the militant Christian right composed mostly of white Evangelicals though with some Catholic “traditionalists” in harness with them — are pushing people who strongly disagree with them away from Christianity (or any other religious faith). Amelia Thomson-Deveaux and Daniel Cox explain:
Researchers haven’t found a comprehensive explanation for why the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has increased over the past few years — the shift is too large and too complex. But a recent swell of social science research suggests that even if politics wasn’t the sole culprit, it was an important contributor. “Politics can drive whether you identify with a faith, how strongly you identify with that faith, and how religious you are,” said Michele Margolis, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania … “And some people on the left are falling away from religion because they see it as so wrapped up with Republican politics.”
This isn’t just a hunch, by the way. The data on who is falling away from religion and why is becoming pretty compelling:
[W]hen two sociologists, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, began to look at possible explanations for why so many Americans were suddenly becoming secular … conventional reasons couldn’t explain why religious affiliation started to fall in the mid-1990s. Demographic and generational shifts also couldn’t fully account for why liberals and moderates were leaving in larger numbers than conservatives. In a paper published in 2002, they offered a new theory: Distaste for the Christian right’s involvement with politics was prompting some left-leaning Americans to walk away from religion.
It hasn’t helped, of course, that politically active conservative Christians get enormous attention from secular media. It often seems they are the only “real” Christians, as they so often profess. To the extent that Christianity is identified with hostility to equality for women or LGBTQ folk, it has a particularly lethal effect on younger Americans — an effect that snowballs when their parents are secular liberals as well:
It’s no coincidence then that the youngest liberals — who never lived in a political world before the Christian right — are also the most secular. “It’s very, very unlikely that a kid raised in a nonreligious liberal household would suddenly consider going to church,” Margolis said.
A majority of self-identified Democrats, to be sure, are still religiously affiliated (particularly among African-American and Latino Democrats), but the trend toward non-affiliation is strong and unmistakable — enough so that the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution this summer proclaiming the party’s welcoming attitude toward the nonreligious (a stance Republicans are not about to emulate). The polarizing force of politicized religion got a little bit stronger when the very prominent Trump-loving Baptist minister Robert Jeffress went on Lou Dobbs’s show on Fox to declare the Democratic Party “godless.”
This dynamic is obviously troubling to religious folk who are politically progressive, and/or who would like to see religious leaders speak a bit less confidently about what God wants to do. As the New York Times reported recently in a piece on Rutgers Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, some mainline (i.e., non-Evangelical) Protestant churches are trying to get ahead of the curve by appealing to the religiously unaffiliated on the basis of a common commitment to progressive causes:
Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary. Instead, the community there has been cobbled together by a different code of convictions, pulled in by social justice efforts, activism against climate change, meal programs for the homeless and a task force to help refugee families.
Houses of worship — including Christian churches from a range of denominations, as well as synagogues — have positioned themselves as potent forces on progressive issues, promoting activism on social justice causes and inviting in the L.G.B.T.Q. community. But religious scholars said that Rutgers was reaching a new frontier where its social agenda in some ways overshadowed its religious one.
You could argue that such pioneers are simply engaged in the time-honored practice of missionary outreach — or you might fear they are following their conservative cousins in focusing so much on secular political goals that religion does become secondary. But at least they are helping to challenge the stereotypical Christian right and secular view that if you love Jesus, you must hate gays and legalized abortion and environmental “paganism” and those sneaky and sinister Muslims. The more non-religiously-affiliated Americans think Robert Jeffress or Mike Pence or (shudder) Donald Trump speak for God in this country, the less likely they will ever darken the door of a church, where it is assumed those Christians are stewing in their cultural pathologies.