Did the Religious Right Lose 10 Million Christians?

In the 1990s, a seismic shift occurred in religious America. During that period, the percentage of Americans who did not affiliate with any religion more than doubled. In the 1980s, about 7% of Americans reported being religiously unaffiliated, and by 2000, this was up to 14% (and has since increased to about 17%). To be clear, many of these religiously unaffiliated still believe in God, but they don’t associate with any particular religion or denomination.

What happened, and why did it happen in the 1990s? Micheal Hout and Claude Fischer, sociologists at Berkeley, published a study that links part of this substantial drop of religious affiliation to politics. They examined what type of people left religion in the 1990s, and they found it closely tied to political beliefs. Unaffiliation among liberals increased 11 percentile points; among political moderates it increased 5-6 points; and among political conservatives it increased an insignificant 1.7 points.

So, why would liberal or moderate politics move people away from Christianity in the 1990s? Well, that was a time in which the Religious Right held considerable sway in American politics, and the linkage of a Republican agenda to Christianity served to politicize Christianity. This repelled people who accepted Christianity but not the Republican party. As a result, many people who would otherwise affiliate with Christianity perhaps moved away from it as a reaction against this Christian-Republican linkage. Hout and Fischer summarize:

Our conjecture is that the growing connection made in the press and in the Congress between Republicans and Christian evangelicals may have led Americans with moderate and liberal political views to express their distance from the Religious Right by saying they prefer no religion.

(I’ve had the chance to correspond with Michael Hout on this issue, and in more recent work, he has found that the reaction to the religious right started even earlier, in the mid-1980s, when the Religious Right was becoming well-known).

How much of an effect did the politicization of Christianity have? A very large effect. Hout and Fischer estimate that more than half of the people who disaffiliated from religion in the 1990s did so out of political concerns. As such, had American Christianity not become so politicized, the percentage of Americans preferring not to affiliate with religion would have risen only 3 or 4 percentage points instead of 7 points.

To appreciate the magnitude of this effect, let’s put some numbers to it. In 1990, there were about 250 million adults in United States, and let’s say that three-quarters of them were Christians. This gives us 187 million Christian adults. If 3.5% of them turned away from their faith due to the politicization of religion, that works out to be 6.5 million Christian adults lost in the 1990s due to politics.

This is a big number—a really, really big number. It appears that the work of the Religious Right—which was intended to advance the Kingdom—actually lost over 6 million Christians in the 1990s. Assuming that these unaffiliated adults in turn raised their children differently as a result of pulling away from Christianity, it’s entirely likely that we would have 10 million more Christians in America today had it not been for the previous work of the Religious Right.

Hout and Fischer found that the people who left Christianity in reaction to conservative politics were, on average, less committed than those who stayed, but this is not grounds for nonchalance.  Many of those who left were committed to their faith, they just had very strong feelings about politics.  Even for those who were less committed, it seems easier to reach them when they are already sometimes attending church and peripherally involved in the faith than when they disengage altogether, and so that too is a lose.

Politicizing Christianity in the liberal direction is also problematic. From personal experience, I have observed that churches or denominations that affiliate with politics to the Left lose many of their more-conservative members and the vitality that they bring to the faith. This fits with the conventional wisdom that the liberalization of Mainline Protestant churches has lost them considerable share in their religious marketplace. Based on data from the General Social Survey (which asks respondents in which religion they were raised), I estimate that in 1920, over 40% of Americans affiliated with a Mainline Protestant denomination. Now, that is down to less than 15%. Undoubtedly there are multiple factors undergirding this decline, but it seems reasonable to assume that liberal politics played a part.

Last week I posted my own thoughts about religion and politics.  Perhaps some overlap between religion and politics is inevitable, and maybe even good can arise from it.  I have little to add to how this should be done other than to point out that when we link our faith with a particular brand of politics, we will probably lose many believers.

Thanks Tim for the input!

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  • Perhaps a key question would be whether the people who became unaffiliated were fully committed and dropped out or whether they were already nominal or on the fence and just needed politics to give them a shove out. I know that’s probably impossible to measure. I just wonder if those committed to the faith could have found an alternative to the religious right and kept the faith. I was just a kid during the 1980’s and a distracted teen during the 90’s, so I don’t have a clear perception of Christianity and politics back then. Was the right a powerful enough force to unhinge committed believers?

    • I wonder if that question if framed wrong. You could also frame it as, ‘did the political issues prevent people from becoming more devout Christians?’

      Christianity Today had an article about Baylor study that said that people’s political leaning didn’t really move that much from before and after they were Christians. And assuming that people need time to discipleship to really be fully integrated into a church, how many of those that left were people that left during that time of discipleship.

      Personally, I am a committed Christian (I have an MDiv, worked for a denomination, etc.) But I stopped attending our men’s morning prayer group at our church in large part because of the overwhelmingly politically conservative leadership of the group. I expressed concern to the leaders of the group. I expressed concern to the pastoral staff that oversaw the group. Nothing was ever changed so I stopped leaving my house at 5:30 in the morning to go participate. If I were not as committed to my church as a whole or less committed to my faith as a Christian, this might be enough for me to just stop attending.

      As we have less strong community commitments to church, small issues can be enough to cause people to leave (and in a large church) no one probably knows that they have left.

      • That makes sense, Adam, that politics can keep people from getting more involved, as well as pushing them away. If so, then maybe among those who stayed, some are simply less involved, and this would be another potential cost of affiliating with politics in the name of the Church.

    • Hello Ed, Hout and Fischer found that those who left tended to be less committed overall, so there was probably a mixture of committed and less-committed, with an emphasis on the latter. A good question is what happens to the committed when they leave. Presumably some found other Christian groups, I hope. Seems, though, that politically-liberal or -moderate, but theologically-conservative Christians might be in a bind, with fewer churches serving them.

  • I’ve wondered how much of this outcome can be explained by the decline and aging of mainline denominations. If mainline Christians find their churches too politically liberal, that can probably find active alternatives in more conservative/evangelical churches. But if evangelical Christians find their churches too politically conservative, they may be less interested in joining declining mainline alternatives. This seems congruent with Hout and Fischer’s paper, but would also predict a simultaneous shift of mainline protestants into evangelical congregations. (I haven’t tested this with data, so this is just conjecturing on my part.)

    • Good point, Pat. Since mainline churches have been declining for many decades now, it’s would be interesting to know more about where they all went over the years.

  • Valerie Lewis

    So, I’ve done quite a bit of work on this following up Hout and Fischer’s GSS analysis (sadly still unpublished!). Those same push factors that have created more nones have also lowered attendance among those still claiming an affiliation (that is, these political things have also made some folks less frequent church attenders, a quantitative validation of what Adam has said).

    • Very interesting, Valerie! Can’t wait to see it in print, and thanks for commenting. Adam, looks like you were right.

  • Larry

    Damn lies and statistics … from Berkley no less. What of the religious Left? I find the study less than convincing and more than questionably motivated. The increasingly liberal bent of the mainline churches has demonstrably (http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/08/001-the-death-of-protestant-america-a-political-theory-of-the-protestant-mainline-19) driven declines. Indeed, growth continues to occur within Catholic, COGC and AOG churches … not largely considered politically neutral or liberal (theologically or politically) bodies.

  • Dan K

    I think there may be a little bit of truth here (but I stress the “little”). As more people in the culture came to associate Christian faith with people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, I am sure it became easier for a lot of folks to tune out and dismiss Christianity. I can say firsthand, as someone who was poltically moderate and agnostic in my early adulthood, that the strong association in my head at the time between Christianity and silly Creationist theories, gay-bashing and the like may have affected and delayed my willingness to call myself a Christian later in my late 20s and early 30s.

    However, the main culprit here in my opinion has been mainline Christianity itself. It responded to the rise of the religious right in the 80s largely by going the other way, and embracing the rhetoric and assumptions of the left. They should have been offering a prophetic corrective, placing the holy above any factional political agenda; instead, they committed the same errors as the Religious Right, only more feebly and ineffectively — because the language of the left doesn’t jibe very well with theological clarity and spiritual vitality. Some would even say it lifts up alternate authorities (the state) in a way that leaves little room for the church as anything but a quaint, cultural encrustation from days gone by. So we saw the rise of the mainline left, and the beginning of a slow death spiral for many great churches and traditions.

    I myself, now in my mid-30s, am a member at an old mainline (Disciples of Christ) congregation, trying to do what little I can as a lay leader to bring our focus back to the focus of the Disciples movement at its beginnings, and away from the “Religious Left” focus that has been steering our great, uniquely American theological tradition into the rocks over the last few decades. All the Religious Right did was to present a challenge to which our churches and leaders responded badly. Whose fault is that?

  • Dan K

    Just one more bit…
    “Hout and Fischer estimate that more than half of the people who disaffiliated from religion in the 1990s did so out of political concerns.”

    And we know that those who disaffiliated from religion were disproportionately leaving mainline churches. The argument that people left mainline churches citing political concerns and it’s Ralph Reed’s fault seems rather specious. The real answer is likely much more direct and obvious.

  • Robert

    Good post, Dan. However, you may not know that the liberal/Marxist church was on the rise well before the advent of the “religious right”, beginning with the priorities of the Federal (now National) Council of Churches in the early part of the 20th century and solidifying in the old mainline in the late 1960’s. The conservative Evangelical church movement in the 1980’s was largely a response to these realities.

    Where else would such a campaign of misinformation come from than from two sociologists from Berkeley? Obviously, the loss of church membership in the US has been overwhelmingly from liberal mainline churches in the wake of their abandoning orthodox/traditional theological priorities and replacing them with political correctness, universalism, “social justice” (Marxism couched in religious language), and tax and spend political priorities. That anyone takes this study seriously shows that they are either ignorant of American Christian history or politically motivated, which really goes without saying when you’re talking about either sociologists or Berkeley.

  • Robert

    What’s up with this forum? I “published” my post nearly an hour and a half ago and it’s still awaiting moderation. Why bother?

    • Sorry for the delay, Robert.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Robert, not every blogger can wait at the computer for comments to come in! I know I can’t, and I don’t even blog here. They may change the commenting settings here, but in the meantime please have patience as Brad has a thriving job in academia and lots of responsibilities. Thanks!

  • So if we just drop our opposition to abortion and sign up for gay marriage we’ll have more people? Great! And if we drop the”Jesus is the only way” stuff we can get even more!

    • John Haynes

      Homosexuality is genetically derived in the vast majority of cases I
      believe. I know a wonderful very-conservative Christian couple that
      adopted a baby who now has declared he is gay. I’m quite sure there
      was nothing in his environment that promoted this orientation. It has
      caused tremendous heartache in this family and I can’t believe anyone
      would willingly choose this path if he had a real choice.
      Besides, this is the USA not some totalitarian regime. If gays want to
      get married, the government should at least recognize civil unions. I
      think even George W. Bush supported this right.

      • EVA-04

        I’m willing to argue that the son became homosexual BECAUSE of his parents’ religious affiliation. I’m noticing among homosexuals that many of them in fact have a common story: either the mother or both parents are highly religious. Some are Catholic, some are Evangelical, many are Jewish, but in all cases there’s something like that in their background.

        • PB

          I would agree. If you want to rebel against conservative, Christian parents/culture, while still having the sympathy of other communities, declaring yourself gay is the most drastic way to do that. As an aside, Christian parents really can be bad at encouraging individuality to their children, which might be the cause of their rebellion against the conformity in church and family.
          But I really tire of this “genetic” argument. First, it has YET to be scientifically proven. Second, even if it was, it doesn’t justify it if homosexual behavior is in fact sexual deviancy. The desires would simply need to be controlled, perhaps through counseling. For pete’s sake, some have argued most men are genetically driven toward polygamy; they could well be right, but again, that doesn’t make it justified.
          For the record, George W. Bush opposes gay marriage. His wife and one daughter support it though. Goes to show it is a controversial issue!

  • Dan K

    “Good post, Dan. However, you may not know that the liberal/Marxist church was on the rise well before the advent of the “religious right”, beginning with the priorities of the Federal (now National) Council of Churches in the early part of the 20th century and solidifying in the old mainline in the late 1960′s. The conservative Evangelical church movement in the 1980′s was largely a response to these realities.”

    Well, sure, and you can trace it back farther than that, to Fosdick and the fundamentalists and the Scopes trial in the 20s. The history is rich and complex. But I do think that with the swift and overwhelming rise of the Religious Right, the old denominations responded badly by retrenching with the (now largely countercultural) political left. That particular response seems, to my eyes, to be most responsible for the sharp mainline decline starting around the same time.

  • Thanks for this Brad. It raises another reason why we should be concerned about radical Christian groups like New Apostolic Reformation beyond just their numbers. Because they are expert at grabbing media attention through provocation and symbolic practices they are shaping perception’s of Christianity. Yet Christian media ignores and fails to refute them because they consider it the margin. This study suggests the influence of perceptions on religious identification and calls for greater vigilance by Christian media in confronting these groups. Here is one of my attempts. http://debatingobama.blogspot.com/2011/10/wagner-and-rushdoony-what-wagner-says.html

  • PB

    Interesting article, but I doubt that many people deliberately leave faith in Christ because of varied views of politics. I would interpret this data to mean that nominal churchmembers left, or perhaps chose to not affiliate their faith in Christ with any “organized” religious denomination.

    In any case, it is still disturbing that people left churches over views that are very minor from a theological standpoint. I’m probably in the “religious right” with my oppostion to abortion, voting Republican most of the time, etc., but will not marry my faith with one political party. Being Democrat or Republican doesn’t necessarily affect your salvation or daily walk with God, though it can in very negative ways. I hope this election will see more caution on our part.

  • Jennifer

    I am a committed, evangelical (MA in Bible from an excellent conservative seminary, currently working on a PhD, worked as a missionary for several years in a developing country). I also tend to lean conservative politically, but do so with the assumption that the Church, under the empowerment of the Spirit of Christ, ought to be moving to help the poor and widows rather than the government. To the author of this piece, I would say that we need to be more historically reflective. It was the strong evangelical commitment to Scripture that gave Wesley, then Newton, then Wilberforce the capacity recognize the evil of the slave trade and to speak to a society that had willingly abdicated to it. Wesetern civilization can arguably be understood to have risen because of the impact of Christianity and Christ on the society. For Christians to fail to speak to the issues of their time seems like an egregious error…and that goes not only for the individual, but for the collection of believers who follow hard after Christ. If folks are willing to leave Christ that easily over politics, then I would question whether the term “Christian” truly applies in any real sense. But I was also distressed that so many of the commments to your article (especially by conservatives) went so quickly to the same old tired political arguments instead of addressing the classical, biblical concerns of our faith…whether the sin is abortion, homosexuality, or the greed of out of control corporate business and basic indifference to the poor, the issue is we need the power of Christ to be on the move in our society, and all of our arguments are not nearly as vital and important as our prayer and compassion and actual transformed lives. We have gotten so far from the message of the Gospel itself that we sound harsh and ugly, and it is gross.