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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Machintelligence

    You have to watch out for correlations, since you can argue causality several different ways.

    The more committed a believer is, the more frequently they attend church, the more likely they are to be conservative and to vote Republican.

    You could just as easily frame it: the more conservative a person is, the more likely they are to attend church and vote Republican.

    Or even: in the USA, true believers are more likely to be religious Republicans, while in the former Soviet Union they were more likely to be atheistic socialists. I think what we have here is more the Authoritarian personality manifesting itself (see Bob Altemeyer’s book on the subject http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/ if you are not familiar with it.)

  • asonge

    The causality is likely in both directions here, though. Growing up in a fundie (charismatic non-denominational, to be exact) church, it was seen as a *religious* duty to vote. For many fundamentalists in the past 20-30 years, I don’t know if the political and the religious are easily separable, and I think I can probably say abortion was the greatest conservative ecumenical unifier in that regard. Remember that Michelle Bachmann got her start as a fundie activist helping Jimmy Carter!!! She voiced nothing but disappointment in him “as a Christian” as much as a politician. I think that is the start of the politicization of much of the right and the very religious.

  • Nicole Youngman

    Let’s not overlook the role of the religious left in creating positive social change, however. The civil rights movement is an obvious example, and there are lots of GLBTQ people active in MCC churches and the like. In Alabama over the last couple of years it’s been the moderate-to-liberal churches/synagogues that have done the most work sticking up for Hispanics after the state passed that horrid anti-immigrant law. You’re absolutely right when you point out that the religious right has way more power in terms of fundraising, electoral politics, cultural dominance in some parts of the country, etc., but the reality remains that they don’t always get their way, and at this point I think we can even say that they tend to lose in the long run when it comes to cultural issues.

  • L.Long

    The most important point is that BI (Before Infernalnet) atheist and VERY strong secularist did not have a strong voice because you had to stand up alone and give voice to your points and the very loud and mean religious voice could easily drown you out. At AI (After Infernalnet) the small atheist voices and secular voices started gathering strength and volume and as more and more of us started seeing and hearing more and more of us the volume and push we exerted onto the public caused both a gathering of push back from the ober-religious becoming the Religious Right (who are never right and always bigoted) and a weakening of the moderate liberal religious; who are not all that weak as the NONES are not growing all that fast.

    And although many liberal religious may say ‘let the gays marry’ they still have the ‘they are an abomination – so kill them in their moral guide.’ and they are a continuous breading ground for the fundys. And I will believe the ‘liberal religious’ are truly liberal when they PUBLICLY tear Leviticus and similar BS out of their ‘moral guides’; till then they are just religious hypocrites or truly thinking critically.

    So yes it is a feedback loop. Fundies think repukeian far right and repukeian far right is more fundie in religion.

    But the best you can say about moderates or nones is that they TEND to be a little more liberal and liberals who are religious TEND to be a little more liberal in their religion.

  • Eric

    A new book: “Where are the Christians: the Unrealized Potential of a Divided Religion” sheds a great deal of light on this subject of liberal and conservative Christians. Worth reading and consideration for future content. It is not atheists that are dividing Christianity, Christianity is dividing itself.

  • Jason Wexler

    The problem for the nominal to moderate liberal religious Christian, isn’t that they are hypocritical in their unwillingness to reject the bad parts of the Bible, but rather that they are ignorant to the existence of problem verses. Although I know that in some cases it is willful ignorance; an unwillingness to hear that the Bible is imperfect because it’s “perfection” is their justification for maintaining their continued belief however small it has become.

  • Azkyroth

    Let’s not overlook the role of the religious left in creating positive social change, however.

    We understand that. Do you understand anything else?

  • Azkyroth

    it is oh so chic to be atheist, or at least militantly secular.

    I’d also suggest atheists are programmed in their own way to discount and minimize

    to paint the religious as uniformly (or even primarily) troglodytes

    Not this shit again.

  • http://profiles.google.com/david.mike.simon David Simon

    Thus to paint the religious as uniformly (or even primarily) troglodytes is false and contrary to history.

    This is just a strawman. I’d personally really appreciate it if you’d address the points we atheists actually make.

  • http://profiles.google.com/david.mike.simon David Simon

    I’d actually argue that [religious devotion is] unquantifiable!

    Adam, you’re giving Alex the benefit of the doubt here by assuming that by “unquantifiable” they mean “difficult to measure”. Whenever I get this argument, it usually means something to the effect of: “This aspect of my personality is very special to me, and for it to be measurable would somehow decrease that specialness, so therefore it is not measurable”.

  • Azkyroth

    Listing would be overkill; we’d settle for focusing on them instead of reiterating a tiresome point which is neither, in itself, being contested nor relevant to what actually is.

  • Ani J. Sharmin

    There is the issue of secular arguments vs. religious arguments. I think that I would probably agree with many liberal religious people on many issues (e.g. in favor of LGBT equality, in favor of social programs to help those in need). But the question of whether I think the Bible supports those things is a different matter. On some issues, I agree with liberal religious believers and agree that the Bible could be reasonably interpreted to support what they want (e.g. doing charity work to help the poor). On other things, while I agree with them on the issue, I disagree with the belief that the Bible supports it (e.g. gender equality, LGBT equality). So, I think that the secular argument for these things is way better—both for reasons of secularism/religious freedom and because I don’t think they can win the religious argument based on the text itself.

    There’s also the question of what convinces people to have a religious interpretation that favor equal rights, etc. I know there are people who study the Bible extensively, but many people don’t read it at all or don’t read the whole thing. A lot of people just have this vague belief that it’s a generally good book; of course, it may have some bad things because of the time period in which it was written, but the overall main message is basically good. Are more people actually analyzing the text and using that as the most important criterion for judgement? Or are more people just familiar with a few nicer verses (considering them the “real” message) and then judging most things in life based on the real world (e.g. seeing and learning about LGBT people in real life and realizing they deserve to be treated fairly, seeing and learning about poverty and wanting to help those in need, realizing how sexism affects both themselves and those around them), comparing the real world to the few nice verses, and concluding that these stances are therefore in line with the Bible?

  • Ani J. Sharmin

    I get what you’re saying, but the thing is, I think a lot of people are already familiar with the fact that many religious people have done good things. In fact, the way history is often discussed, the good things done by religious people for civil rights are emphasized, and the fact that there were religious people opposed to those same civil rights is forgotten. And the participation of nonreligious people (or even just people who weren’t Christian) in civil rights is sometimes forgotten, as the few people who are chosen to be discussed as “symbols” of the movement are often religious (or their nonreligious views taken out of the discussion). There are even people who frame it in terms of “If not for religion, x good thing wouldn’t have happened” as if religious people were the only ones capable or willing to do good thing x.

    Hence, the common “prediction” that’s heard often on atheist blogs and comments that, one day, Christians will try to take credit for LGBT equality and forget about Christian support of the discrimination in the first place.

  • GCT

    Did you think about why they are losing in the long run (and read the OP) or did you stop after deciding that it was the good Xians defeating the evil not-actual-Xians?

  • GCT

    If you live in NYC as does Mr. Lee it is oh so chic to be atheist, or at least militantly secular.

    Really? Atheists are only atheists because they’re trying to be trendy? Seriously?

    These pressures bend the response curve.

    And yet, when the responses are confidential we get religious types supporting the Rethuglicans by a wide margin still.

    I’d also suggest atheists are programmed in their own way to discount and minimize any positive or progressive movement coming out of faith.

    Programmed by what mechanism? By who or what? There is no atheist cabal that forces beliefs upon us.

    The Civil Rights movement, the anti-war and disarmament movement (in part), the calls for justice for the very poor, and improvement in their lives, and education and literacy, all have benefited mightily from efforts of the faithful.

    Sorry, but you don’t get to do this. You don’t get to ignore that the reason those things had to happen was due to mighty efforts from the faithful to keep their “moral” and religious ideas intact. You don’t get to pretend that the real Xians came along and solved all the world’s issues that just came from nothing – certainly not from faithful Xians. That’s bullshit, and we both know it. Things like abolition and civil rights came not because Xians finally decided to rise up and do the right thing, but because some Xians got together with non-Xians and decided to rise up against mainstream Xianity. (When will this happen for gay rights?) These example prove the point rather than refute it.

    Thus to paint the religious as uniformly (or even primarily) troglodytes is false and contrary to history.

    Ironically, you are the one actually painting with a broad brush when you post your atheophobic and religious privileged nonsense.

  • Jason Wexler

    That is certainly a more coherent version of the point I was trying to make above.

  • http://twitter.com/MichaelAune Michael David Aune

    Well said! I also think it is important to note that religious fervor seems to grow as a congregation shrinks. Those who do not abandon the faith, particularly as it becomes more dedicated to a core set of teachings, are bound to more closely reflect those teachings. Thus as moderates leave the Church (and do not necessarily recommit themselves to another politically relevant and cohesive group) that Church – as a potentially politically influential entity – shifts farther and father away from the middle. While their numbers may be shrinking as religious influence in the United States declines, we seem to be witnessing the birth a smaller, leaner, and more dedicated fundamentalist form of religion.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    Yes indeed! As moderates and liberals head for the doors, the hard core of fundamentalists that remain exert greater power over the church as a whole, and tend to become more paranoid and authoritarian as they see themselves as isolated and unified against a hostile outside world. It’s a self-reinforcing trend, and I think we’re seeing it now with the Catholic church, among others.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    If you live in NYC as does Mr. Lee it is oh so chic to be atheist, or at least militantly secular.

    Evidence, please.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    So, I think that the secular argument for these things is way better—both for reasons of secularism/religious freedom and because I don’t think they can win the religious argument based on the text itself.

    Well said! And I’d add that even when nice liberal believers win the political struggle, as long as they believe in the same text with all the evil verses cited by the fundamentalists, those bad parts will always lie dormant waiting to be rediscovered.

  • Mick

    Adam says: “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.”

    Well, the liberals might look tame today, but if the fundies ever regain political power the liberals will jump on the band wagon quick smart. And they won’t stay liberals for very long either. They yearn for the days when they had complete control of the population and the right to silence anyone who argued against them.


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