Last week, there was an article in the Atlantic that shed light on an interesting trend. It’s old news that people, particularly liberals and millenials, are leaving churches. But what I didn’t realize before is that conservatives are also leaving churches, and as they do, they are becoming even more conservative and widening the political partisan gap. Let’s see what’s happening.
Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.
Interestingly, Trump won among Evangelicals, but he didn’t win the regular church-goers; he won the ones who don’t attend church, who are secular in practice. It’s one reason they could look past his lack of Christian awareness and adherence (hello! serial sexual assault!) and instead affiliate with his nihilistic message of nationalism and white supremacy. Cruz beat Trump handily (a 15 point lead) among church-going Evangelicals, but Trump killed Cruz (a whopping 27 percent lead) among those who sleep in on Sundays. Why is this? White conservatives who quit attending church tend to suffer economically, leading to disillusionment with the direction the country is taking, and without hearing Christian messages of tolerance and love on a weekly basis, these feelings crystallize in resentment toward immigrants and minorities. So, much as we may find conservatives at church irritating (and I find them very irritating at times), we want them in those pews; we need them in those pews. Turning them loose without Jesus’ message is a much worse alternative.
Since the early 1970s, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, rates of religious attendance have fallen more than twice as much among whites without a college degree as among those who graduated college. And even within the white working class, those who don’t regularly attend church are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress. As 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.”
Or as another friend put it, conservatives don’t ever think of themselves as poor people. They think of themselves as temporarily embarrassed rich people (by circumstances or setbacks). Consequently, they don’t want to create systems to help the poor, and they don’t identify with other “poor people,” including minorities and immigrants. They help the rich and blame the (other) poor. With that outlook comes a real disillusionment with the American dream because their own lives are evidence that the American dream has been co-opted by others and doesn’t work for them personally.
Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation. Trump is both a beneficiary and a driver of that shift.
Many in the alt-right blame Christianity for being too universalist in preaching acceptance and tolerance of minorities and immigrants.
Secularization on the left has also created more polarization. Those who backed moderate Clinton were far more likely to attend church services weekly (by 26 points) than those who backed Sanders. Non-religious democrats backed Sanders by a 13 point margin.
As we see from these shifts, the non-religious opted for the more incendiary candidates, whether on the left or the right. This is a political revolution of the non-religious that doesn’t look much like the 1969 summer of love, and with so many continuing to shift out of church, that means that increased polarization is the new normal.
Among the black churches, secularization has a similar effect as well. Secular movements like Black Lives Matter are not interested in approval from whites or in collaborating with their enemies. They want change, and they aren’t going to say please.
Reformists focus on persuading and forgiving those in power. Revolutionaries don’t.
And without any religious influence, political forces are more revolutionary than ever.