Triumph of the Unchurched

Molly Ball’s Atlantic piece on “America’s empty-church problem” is a must-read. It provides a penetrating, and sobering analysis of the political shifts that came to the surface in the 2016 Presidential election.

Trump’s election was not, she argues, the triumph of the religious right or the right’s victory in the culture wars. Church attendance and traditional religious practice has been declining and continues to. Between 1992 and 2014 the proportion of religiously “unaffiliated” Americans rose from 6 to 22%, and the number is 35% among Millennials. Regular church attendance is low among self-description Evangelicals. The American people are hardly secular, but we are secularizing.

Americans are leaving the church, but they’ve retained the “us” v. “them” politics of the culture war. Now, though, the “us” isn’t beleaguered Christians, but disaffected, culturally conservative white Americans. This sector of the population isn’t doing well: “culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful.”

College education and religious adherence go together, and everyone knows that nowadays college education is one of the chief predictors of economic success. Ball writes, “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. . . . 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.’” They are more pessimistic about their own and America’s future than their religious counterparts.

Detachment from traditional religion affects their views of what is tolerable. Religious conservatives take moral positions against gay marriage for example. Self-identified evangelicals who don’t attend church are more open to gays, but “they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Knoll noted that among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and born-again Protestants, the less you attended church, the more anti-immigration you were.”

Lacking a religious identity, these cultural conservatives identify with nation and race. As Ball puts it, “The alt-right is ultra-conservatism for a more secular age. Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil.”

Black politics has been affected by this secularizing trend as well: “Although African Americans remain more likely than whites to attend church, religious disengagement is growing in the black community. African Americans under the age of 30 are three times as likely to eschew a religious affiliation as African Americans over 50.” Black Lives Matter is led by African Americans who have abandoned their roots in the black churches. They become a mirror of the alt-right.

Trump’s triumph is not a sign of the health of the religious right. It’s a sign of American’s continuing secularization; it’s the triumph of the unchurched.

Some have been heartened by these secularizing trends, thinking that it might undercut the religious cultural war and leave everyone sweetly tolerant. Ball thinks another scenario more likely: “when you combine their post-Christian perspective with the post-Christian perspective growing inside the GOP, it’s easy to imagine American politics becoming more and more vicious.” Secularization is “making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.” Religiously motivated culture wars may be over, but they may have given way to something more volatile and dangerous, a “more ferociously national and racial culture war.”

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