The Political Dominance of Fundamentalism

Last week, Alex Knapp and I got into a friendly debate on Twitter about whether it’s fair to stereotype conservative and fundamentalist religion as representative of religion generally. I wanted to flesh out some of my arguments there with additional data.

I wish it were true that the religious left and the religious right were equally influential. If they were, they’d usually balance each other out, and there would be little reason for atheists to worry about undue religious influence in politics.

But that isn’t the case. Poll after poll has shown that, in America at least, religious affiliation predicts voting patterns. The more committed a believer is, the more frequently they attend church, the more likely they are to be conservative and to vote Republican. The states where the highest percentage of people describe religion as “very important” to their daily lives are all solid red states. The 2012 election bore this out, with Protestants continuing to support Republicans by lopsided margins. If religious fundamentalism wasn’t politically dominant over religious liberalism, none of this would be the case, and knowing a person’s depth of devotion or level of church attendance wouldn’t tell you anything about which candidates they were likely to support. But it does.

Further reinforcing this picture, the “mainstream” Protestant churches, which are the most theologically liberal Christian denominations, are suffering from severe demographic decline, plummeting from over 50% of the population to a mere 8% in just a few decades. (Note this isn’t solely affecting liberal churches – America is becoming more secular in general, which is affecting all denominations. Conservative churches are shrinking and consolidating as well, although not quite so dramatically.)

In response to stats like these, Knapp argued that religious devotion is impossible to measure accurately, and that surveys of church attendance or self-reports about the importance of religion don’t tell you anything useful about it:

I suppose you could argue that there’s a large number of people with strong yet completely hidden religious faith which they don’t express by going to church or doing anything else in particular. But this is entirely unfalsifiable. There’s no reason I can see to throw out the usual methods of measuring religious commitment, except that taking these metrics into account points to a conclusion that religious liberals might be trying to steer clear of.

There’s one interesting outlier in this pattern, which is Catholicism. I’d agree that Catholics as a whole are more moderate than other Christians, or rather, that they tend to vote in step with the general population. But this isn’t because of the church’s religious teachings, far from it. I’d argue the opposite: Catholics as a whole are just less religious. A large majority of nominally Catholic people pay little or no attention to what the church hierarchy says; they use contraception, they get divorced and remarry, they support marriage equality and LGBT rights. (As of 2012, 62% of American Catholics considered themselves “not very strong” believers.)

This is probably because the church is too large to consistently and effectively police ideological unity, although the bishops are trying their hardest, and millions of liberal and moderate Catholics have been heading for the doors as a result. But this just goes to prove the point: when it comes to the question of who’s politically dominant, there’s no contest. The ultra-conservatives are firmly in control of the church hierarchy. They control the purse strings, and they have the power to silence or expel dissenters, as they’ve been doing with gusto.

The fact is that the religious left has nothing anywhere near the money, numbers, organization, or media savvy of the religious right. The progress we’ve made, like the advance of marriage equality, isn’t happening because an equally pious set of religious liberals is effectively advocating it; it’s because people are becoming less religious, because the reach and influence of religious thought is declining, and because nonbelievers are an increasingly large and important demographic.

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