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Professor examines political implications of rising secularism in the United States

| Wednesday, October 25, 2017

NDVotes hosted this semester’s first installment of Pizza, Pop and Politics on Tuesday night, exploring the political causes and consequences of the rapid increase of non-religion and secularism in the United States.

The discussion was led by Geoffrey Layman, a political science professor at Notre Dame.

Students attend "Pizza, Pop and Politics" in the Geddes Coffee House. Professor David Campbell discussed the political implications and causes of rising secularism in the United States.Anna Mason | The Observer

Students attend “Pizza, Pop and Politics” in the Geddes Coffee House. Professor Geoffrey Layman discussed the political implications and causes of rising secularism in the United States.

Layman began by giving a brief background on the research he conducted alongside professor David Campbell, a professor of American democracy and chairperson of the political science department at Notre Dame, and professor John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron.

As a general trend, wealth leads to secularization within a country, Layman said. Compared to other economically developed nations, the United States is much more religious, and that has long been the case, he added.

“The United States has always been known as the great exception to secularization,” Layman said. “But over the last 25 years, we have seen what has become known as the rise of the ‘nones.’”

The term “nones,” Layman said, refers to the group of people that, when asked their religious preference on surveys, don’t answer as Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or another religion; they answer “none.” From 1972 to 1992, the percentage of Americans saying they had no religion or no religious affiliation was quite low, at somewhere between 5 and 8 percent, Layman said. Around the early 1990s, this began to change, and there has been a sharp increase in non-religion since. Layman said 22-23 percent of Americans today fall into this category, which is now competing with Evangelical Protestantism for the position of largest “religious group” in the U.S.

Layman’s research examines the possible political causes and consequences of America’s secular turn by asking two questions: What accounts for the rapid increase in non-religion? And what are the consequences of growing non-religion and secularism for American political life?

Politics — particularly the growing associations in the U.S. between religion and the Republican conservative — may be partially responsible for increasing secularism in the United States, Layman said.

“Over the last three or four decades, as the so-called ‘religious right’ has emerged and mobilized conservative Evangelical Protestants into politics and has become increasingly influential within the Republican party — and the Republican coalition has become increasingly religious — people may have begun to associate religion with the Republican party and political conservatism,” he said.

Layman said his research supports this theory.

“Americans associate religious people and non-religious people more with one party than the other,” he said. “When surveyed, about 45 percent of people said that religious people are mainly Republicans … but virtually no one said that religious people are mainly Democrats. Just the opposite when it comes to non-religious people; almost 50 percent said non-religious people are mainly Democrats … but no one said they’re mainly Republicans.

“So there does appear to be a pretty clear sense, at least among some Americans, that being religious means being Republican and being non-religious means being a Democrat.”

The increasing association of religion with the Republican side of politics may have alienated Democrats and liberals from religion itself and helped drive an increase in non-religion, Layman said. He said the most obvious implication of this is that political parties in the United States will continue to grow more polarized along religious and cultural lines, largely affecting how they view American culture.

“The Republican America is very traditional, very religious,” Layman said. “The Democratic America is becoming increasingly secular. [They are becoming] two incompatible forces that can’t talk to each other, much less compromise with each other.” 

But Republicans are included in this pattern of secularization, too, Layman said; as society grows less religious, so do they. Layman said this creates the possibility for intra-GOP conflict along religious lines.

Layman said there also exists the possibility of a “new culture war,” as described by Peter Beinart in his article, “Breaking Faith: The culture war over religious morality has faded; in its place is something much worse.”

“We might think that as religion declines and the percentage of ‘nones’ grows that this a positive thing, because it gets us away from the old culture war between religious people — who are very pro-life, opposed to same-sex marriage, more conservative on traditional family roles — versus less religious people, who are more liberal regarding those things,” Layman said. “But, as Beinart writes in his article, it’s possible that this culture war is only being replaced.”

Layman said Beinart argues a new culture war has emerged that is not based on religion or morality. It is founded on the basis of what he refers to as “tribe,” which involves race, ethnicity, and nationality instead. And this culture war, Layman said, could be an even nastier one.

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About Kara Miecznikowski

Kara Miecznikowski is a Notre Dame sophomore majoring in biological sciences with minors in journalism and science, technology & values. Originally from Chesterton, Indiana, she currently lives in Howard Hall.

Contact Kara