Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Un-Religious Right

Another intellectual worries about what is happening in American politics as religion becomes less salient, this time Peter Beinart:
When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.

Why did these religiously unaffiliated Republicans embrace Trump’s bleak view of America more readily than their churchgoing peers? Has the absence of church made their lives worse? Or are people with troubled lives more likely to stop attending services in the first place? Establishing causation is difficult, but we know that culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful. . . . As sociologist Bradford Wilcox explains, “Many conservative, Protestant white men who are only nominally attached to a church struggle in today’s world. They have traditional aspirations but often have difficulty holding down a job, getting and staying married, and otherwise forging real and abiding ties in their community. The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives.”

The worse Americans fare in their own lives, the darker their view of the country. . . .

But non-churchgoing conservatives didn’t flock to Trump only because he articulated their despair. He also articulated their resentments. For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Knoll noted that among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and born-again Protestants, the less you attended church, the more anti-immigration you were. (This may be true in Europe as well. A recent thesis at Sweden’s Uppsala University, by an undergraduate named Ludvig Broomé, compared supporters of the far-right Swedish Democrats with people who voted for mainstream candidates. The former were less likely to attend church, or belong to any other community organization.)
As I have said before, I worry that a less religious America is going to be a harsher, less forgiving society. Of course this has not really happened in Europe – at least not until lately – but it may be happening here.


pithom said...

Hey; I'm a fan. I'm atheistic; I accept inequality both among individuals and groups of such.

G. Verloren said...

These people aren't "un-religious", they're just not classically devout.

They aren't "religiously unaffiliated", they're quite clearly self-identified Christians who just don't belong to a church community or attend official services.

These people aren't "less religious" than their compatriots, they're just less religiously organized, adhering instead to a set of personal folk beliefs and traditions without the structure or restrictions of church leadership.

You can't even begin to compare these people to the truly non-religious.

John said...

G., yes, there is a big difference between proud atheists and those who are nominally Christian but can't make religion real in their lives. Part of their despair may come from hanging in between, positing religion as a good and happy thing but being unable to really join it. The thing is, that's a really big group, I would guess at least 50 million people.

Anonymous said...

Surely a non-religious, nationalist right focused on exclusive ethnicity and admiration for the use of force is not a new thing in the world. It may be a worrying thing for America, but I catch a tone of surprise and bereft puzzlement in Beinart's essay that seems misplaced to me. The US may be about a century behind Europe in developing a powerful non-religious right, but I'm not sure there's a big mystery here.

G. Verloren said...


I'm not discounting the size nor significance of the group, but I am insisting that the terminology being used to talk about it is the wrong terminology.

I will admit, I'm not quite sure what the most appropriate term for these people would actually be. Maybe "Churchless" instead of "Un-Religious"?


I agree that this is nothing new historically, but changes in local conditions always seem surprising to locals.

We're also behind on other things - socialized healthcare, women as heads of state, et cetera.