The political and religious – indeed almost any – landscapes have been polarising for a number of years. Days of nuanced centralism seem to be somewhat distant, now.
Recently, FiveThirtyEight published a fascinating article, “The Christian Right Is Helping Drive Liberals Away From Religion“, discussing how liberals are being pushed away from religion, and by extension, into the arms of the Democratic Party. The article starts, referencing the DNC resolution that I reported on a few days ago:
A few weeks ago, the Democratic National Committee formally acknowledged what has been evident for quite some time: Nonreligious voters are a critical part of the party’s base. In a one-page resolution passed at its annual summer meeting, the DNC called on Democratic politicians to recognize and celebrate the contributions of nonreligious Americans, who make up one-third of Democrats. In response, Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor with close ties to Trump, appeared on Fox News, saying the Democrats were finally admitting they are a “godless party.”
This was hardly a new argument. Conservative Christian leaders have been repeating some version of this claim for years, and have often called on religious conservatives and Republican politicians to defend the country against a growing wave of liberal secularism. And it’s true that liberals have been leaving organized religion in high numbers over the past few decades. But blaming the Democrats, as Jeffress and others are wont to do, doesn’t capture the profound role that conservative Christian activists have played in transforming the country’s religious landscape, and the role they appear to have played in liberals’ rejection of organized religion.
So rather than looking at the nonreligious and liberals as being behind their own move towards the Democratic Party, this is arguably more about them being repelled by the Christian hard right.
Nones (the religiously unaffiliated) have increased over the years, significantly, and this is as a result of many contributory variables, of which politics is a major player. Michele Margolis, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity”, says:
Politics can drive whether you identify with a faith, how strongly you identify with that faith, and how religious you are. And some people on the left are falling away from religion because they see it as so wrapped up with Republican politics.
Liberal Americans (as separate from nonreligious Americans) are certainly less religious than they used to be. Where 12% of liberals were nonreligious in 1990, now almost 40% are.
This is a very interesting graph:
What this means is that religious and political identity is entwined. It’s not neat and tidy, though, as FiveThirtyEight continue:
The overlap is far from complete — there are still some secular conservatives and even more religious liberals. In fact, the majority of Democratic voters are religiously affiliated. But the more liberal you are, the less likely you are to belong to a faith; whereas if you’re conservative, you’re more likely to say you’re religious.
This speaks of the many people who declare themselves religiously unaffiliated and yet who still believe in God.
Over the years, though, social scientists have come to understand the increasingly important role that politics itself is playing in this shift towards secularism:
It was a simple but compelling explanation. For one thing, the timing made sense. In the 1990s, white evangelical Protestants were becoming more politically powerful and visible within conservative politics. As white evangelical Protestants became an increasingly important constituency for the GOP, the Christian conservative political agenda — focused primarily on issues of sexual morality, including opposition to gay marriage and abortion — became an integral part of the the party’s pitch to voters, but it was still framed as part of an existential struggle to protect the country’s religious foundation from incursions by the secular left. Hout and Fischer argued that the Christian right hadn’t just roused religious voters from their political slumber — left-leaning people with weaker religious ties also started opting out of religion because they disliked Christian conservatives’ social agenda.
At the time, Hout and Fischer’s argument was mostly just a theory. But within the past few years, Margolis and several other prominent political scientists have concluded that politics is a driving factor behind the rise of the religiously unaffiliated. For one thing, several studies that followed respondents over time showed that it wasn’t that people were generally becoming more secular, and then gravitating toward liberal politics because it fit with their new religious identity. People’s political identities remained constant as their religious affiliation shifted.
Other research showed that the blend of religious activism and Republican politics likely played a significant role in increasing the number of religiously unaffiliated people. One study, for instance, found that something as simple as reading a news story about a Republican who spoke in a church could actually prompt some Democrats to say they were nonreligious. “It’s like an allergic reaction to the mixture of Republican politics and religion,” said David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame and one of the study’s co-authors.
Granted, the people who were leaving weren’t necessarily at the center of their religious community — they didn’t attend religious services often, perhaps dropping in once or twice a year. But the numbers began to add up, opening a rift between conservatives and liberals. According to Margolis’s research, while young people across the political spectrum tend to drift away from religion, liberals are increasingly unlikely to return.
This has driven the States (and other countries, too) to become more politically polarised. And we have the issues of single-issue voting that are often associated with religion, such as abortion, about which I have talked a lot over the years.
What does this mean going forward? Well, as far as the US is concerned, good news for secular nonreligious types! It seems that not only does deconversion vs conversion seem to have a much stronger directional current, but so too does the influence of formative years:
These patterns are self-reinforcing in other ways, too. Recent surveys show that secular liberals are more likely than moderates or conservatives to have spouses who aren’t religious. That’s critical because these couples are then often less likely to pray or send their children to Sunday school, and research shows that formative religious experiences as a child play a crucial role in structuring an adult’s religious beliefs and identity. It’s no coincidence then that the youngest liberals — who never lived in a political world before the Christian right — are also the most secular. “It’s very, very unlikely that a kid raised in a nonreligious liberal household would suddenly consider going to church,” Margolis said.
This means that the base of the Democratic Party will continue to swell with the nonreligious, and these might often be, to begin with, of the younger generations. This is why the DNC formally recognised the importance of this demographic in their resolution. The future of the party is very much wrapped up in the general trend towards religious unaffiliation, both in terms of those who do and don’t continue to believe in a God.
The question is, how will the GOP react to this? They could bury their head in the sand, cosy up to the WASPs of the country and continue to court extreme views, and concentrate on rural areas. But they would be doing so in the face of social science and stats that would suggest that this will be a losing strategy. Or they could adapt.
Goodness knows that if electoral reform ever comes about where a better proportional representation would be obtained, the GOP would be destroyed for a generation. The LSE analyses this (worth reading the whole article):
This voting ‘skew’ is most obvious with Senate and presidential elections. Each state gets two US Senators, regardless of population. Thus, a Wyoming resident’s vote counts 60 times more than a Californian’s, since California has 60 times the population of Wyoming yet still has the same representation. This bolsters the influence of sparsely populated rural states, skewing the Senate rightward.
A lesser version of this dynamic occurs with presidential elections, where each state gets a number of Electoral College votes equal to its number of House members (based on population) and Senate members (not based on population, as seen above). This again over represents lower-population states. Since almost all States award their Electors on a winner-take-all basis to the candidate that wins a state, a candidate with more nationwide votes can nonetheless ‘waste’ lots of votes by running up lopsided victories in a few states, netting fewer Electoral votes than a candidate who racks up narrow victories in more States. This allows the nationwide ‘loser’ to still win the White House, as has happened five times in US history.
But this ‘skew’ extends beyond state-based vote allocations to all single-member districts (SMDs). Carve a state, county, or city up into SMDs, and you are bound to have a disconnect between the percentage of the vote netted by a political party (or racial minority, or any politically cohesive group) and the percentage of legislative seats that party wins. Often this is due to intentional gerrymandering by the party temporarily in power at redistricting time, after the Census which runs every ten years.
Election reformers frequently call for stricter court policing of such gerrymanders, or the adoption of nonpartisan redistricting commissions to draw district lines. These are both good ideas; indeed, the US is the only industrialized democracy that still allows incumbent legislators to draw their own district lines come redistricting time.
If the US was to embrace a form of proportional representation, you would get a much fairer democratic representation of the will of the people.
But that’s a whole other debate.
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