As a growing number of Americans drop out of organized religion (25% now say they do not affiliate with any form of it), American society becomes meaner and less civil. That shouldn’t surprise anybody, but in a roundabout way, it does.
For a half century, our nation has been embroiled in a series of “culture wars.” The Religious Right infiltrated and transformed the Republican Party as the defender of “family values” by stressing “traditional” marriage, opposing LGBTQ rights, and seeking to outlaw abortion under all or nearly all circumstances. The so-called “Moral Majority” led by Jerry Falwell determined to inculcate their beliefs through grass-roots political organizing that would legislate, enforce, and uphold their version of Christianity in all three branches of government. The growing influence of evangelicals in public life contributed (along with other factors) to rapid ideological sorting within both political parties and an end to bi-partisan compromise. Not surprisingly, liberal elites blamed religion in general and Christianity in particular for political polarization, and assumed that as America became more secular, the culture wars would cool off. Recent experience proves this assumption to be dead wrong.
In an article published in The Atlantic entitled “Breaking Faith,” Peter Beinart explores how increased secularization has made our politics worse, not better. He points to research by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) that shows a sharp decline in religious affiliation among people of all political persuasions. For instance, the number of white Republicans who no longer attend church has tripled since 1990. Among church-going evangelicals, Donald Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points during the height of the primary season, but among self-described evangelicals who no longer attended church, Trump led Cruz by 27 points. A similar dynamic was in play among Democrats. Among those who attended church weekly, Hillary Clinton enjoyed a 26-point advantage during the primary season. But among secular Democrats, Bernie Sanders led by 13 points.