The GOP’s Secularism Problem
Do you know how long I’ve waited to read a headline like that? Dammit, Newsweek, couldn’t you have published this one before you were on your deathbed?
There’s been much angst on the right over the Republican Party’s growing demographic problems, most memorably by GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said the party was running out of “angry white guys.” But conservatives may be facing another demographic threat as well: declining religiosity, especially among the young. The latest sign came in a Pew study released last week that found that one in five American adults now claims no religion, and that 34 percent of those younger than 30 consider themselves irreligious.
The GOP’s own base may be partly to blame. The data echoes a landmark 2010 study, “American Grace,” by political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, which linked the new chilliness toward organized religion to the rise of the religious right. Other recent studies bear out their hypothesis: in March, Pew found that a majority of the electorate, including nearly half of Republicans, is uncomfortable with the amount of religious talk in political campaigns. (As recently as 2006, the majority tipped the other direction.)
Every political movement creates a counter-movement. The most influential political movement of my generation has been the Religious Right. Therefore, it stands to reason that there would inevitably be a strong reaction against it. I’ve been waiting for it to coalesce for years now.
As the religious right reached its zenith during the Bush administration, even young evangelicals rebelled against the politics of their parents. That reaction came to a head in the 2008 election, when 32 percent of white evangelicals under 30 voted Democratic for the first time to support Barack Obama, twice as much support from them as John Kerry had in 2004.
Some evangelicals are openly worried about the trend. “We made a big mistake in the ’80s by politicizing the gospel,” the late Chuck Colson, a religious-right leader, said before his death. “Now people are realizing it was kind of a mistake.”
Obviously this is just an opinion piece by David Sessions and shouldn’t be taken as (heh) gospel, but it matches the observations of our neighbors like Brian McLaren:
A young man introduced himself, explaining that he had heard me speak several years earlier at his Evangelical college. “Of all of my fellow students who were in the ministry track at my school,” he said, “I’m basically the only one who still even goes to church, and I’m only hanging on by my fingernails.” I asked what it was that had driven his peers — all preparing for ministry work — not only from the careers in ministry that they planned on, but from even attending church at all.
“It’s just what you spoke about tonight,” he explained. “Hostility to ‘the other.’ People don’t want to have to side with the church and against their friends who are Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish or agnostic.”
The Religious Right has long defined itself as a movement to take back America from the godless liberals and their gay, feminist, Muslim, etc. allies. As McLaren points out, it’s much easier to form a group identity through shared opposition than through mutual agreement or shared vision. Hence Francis Schaeffer’s description of the various components of the Religious Right as “co-belligerents”; not really allies but separate groups all opposed to the same things.
But that comes at the cost of requiring constant negativity, and the group polarization effect has heightened that negativity. In addition, part of the Religious Right’s success came from combining religion in politics to the point where many Americans now seem to believe that you can’t be a Democrat and be a Christian. That has resulted in people leaving their denomination largely because they no longer agree with the majority’s political stance.
If large numbers of the Evangelical sub-culture are slipping away, then a lot of the beltway common wisdom may be headed for the round file. Soon there may be no more talk of the Democrat’s “religion gap,” and a lot more talk on the virtues of secularism.
I guess the best thing to do is talk this up. Politics is what Garrett Hardin used to call “an information-mutable science.” The perception shapes the reality. Talking about how the Republican party can’t appeal to the religiously diverse modern America with its secular-minded young people may be what it takes to break up the current GOP coalition.