Religion’s death will be at the hands of politics
Blake Ziegler | Thursday, April 27, 2023
Religion is dying in the United States. When Gallup first began surveying religious membership in 1937, 73% of Americans identified as members of a church, synagogue or mosque. That figure remained roughly the same for the next six decades until the new century saw a steady decline. As of 2020, less than half of Americans belong to a monotheistic tradition. Analysis from Pew Research Center suggests that by 2070, Christians may comprise as low as 35% of the American population. As expected, a steady decrease in worship attendance, belief in G-d and trust in holy scriptures joins the decline in religious membership. COVID-19 exacerbated trends that had been ongoing for decades.
The decline in religious affiliation coincides with a rise in religious “nones” — those with no religious affiliation. Researchers discovered a significant number of these individuals in the 1990s and tracked their rise since. A 2021 survey by Pew Research Center found that nearly 30% Americans identify as religious nones. This group isn’t necessarily a monolith, as some secular Americans endorse humanist beliefs as if they were religious, while others are genuinely non-religious. There are nuances to this group, but the main takeaway is that the rate of religious disaffiliation is rising significantly.
One may wonder about the cause of religious disaffiliation. While there are many factors, ranging from college education to clerical sex abuse, a significant contributor is the politicization of religion. Beginning in the 1980s, the rise of the religious right featured a marriage between religion and political conservatism. Although religiosity had been associated with conservative political beliefs in decades prior, explicit coordination between pulpits and politicians’ lecterns was an innovation. Operatives in the Republican Party worked closely with evangelical Christian leaders to spur their lay members to vote Republican. In exchange for their support, Republican leaders assured their church counterparts of the reversal of Roe v. Wade and other social policies aligned with their religious teachings. As time passed, other faiths joined the religious right, signifying that the religious divide in America is not by one’s faith, but how much one participates in the faith. One should note that while religious groups like Black Protestants and Muslims feature high levels of religiosity, they tend to vote Democratic.
One only needs to look at today’s Republican Party to recognize its close ties with religion. Republican candidates regularly employ Christianity and religious rhetoric in their campaigns. For instance, one can find praise music, prayer and other religious worship practices at their rallies and fundraisers. This behavior isn’t superfluous. Republicans regularly call for the end of separation between church and state, the declaration that America is a Christian nation and other policies to integrate religion more into governmental affairs.
Scholars can point to the rise of the religious right and the perceptions that religion has become politicized as a driving factor for religious disaffiliation. In the early 2000s, sociologists Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer introduced the backlash hypothesis, which suggests that “politics shapes religious views” and “politics takes priority over religion.” They found that many of the religiously disaffiliated were moderates and liberals who disavowed the social agenda of the religious right. Rather than religion defining one’s political beliefs, politics precedes religion. Hout and Fischer’s results have been affirmed again and again, as researchers find a Newtonian reaction between the rise of the religious right and the departure of non-conservative religious folk. The evidence is clear: mixing religion and politics is a leading cause of the death of American religion.
In addition to religious disaffiliation, politicized religion also threatens the integrity of religion itself. Religion is meant to be a spiritual experience that supersedes the concerns of the material world. It’s a commitment to justice and human dignity for all people, recognizing the call to combat persecution and advocate for the least fortunate. Every religion, no matter its particular tenants, shares the role of moral compass for individuals, leading a path through an increasingly chaotic world. We might rely on religious teachings when we’re unsure and need guidance, especially when facing tough moral issues. Religion can often help us address injustice. We should be able to trust religious leaders in their commitment to truth and justice, not self-serving policies. Martin Luther King Jr. exemplified this phenomenon, as his commitment to racial justice was grounded in sincere religious beliefs.
Politicized religion threatens the prophetic nature of religion. When religious leaders are increasingly associated with politics and not justice, their prophetic power is lost. We find a distorted version of religion no longer grounded in faith but instead in self-interest and discriminatory policies. Instead of the pursuit for justice, we find the reinforcement of injustice. The moral compass of our nation becomes broken. That is the issue we face with politicized religion.
Luckily, not all hope is lost. Parts of religious America retain a commitment to justice. Amidst the expulsion of two Black Tennessee state representatives, many clergy members have spoken against the gun violence crisis in the United States. We’ve also seen faithful work to combat poverty and other noble causes. This is the kind of prophetic witness that we need in today’s America. This is the kind of religiosity we should endorse, not the perverted sense of religion found in the religious right.
Some may perceive this column as antagonistic towards religion or Christianity, but that can’t be further from the truth. I am a proud, devout Jew who is the product of 11 years of Catholic education. I have sincere respect for Christianity and religion in general, and it’s for that reason my heart breaks at the perverted sense of religion presented in the religious right. Politicized religion is driving people away from faith and undermining the role of religion itself. We must do better.
Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or [email protected].
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.