Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Daniel Cox make the case that one of the reasons that the number of people identifying as nonreligious is increasing in the US is because the ugliness of the Christian right’s vision of what it is to be religious is driving liberals away. And as they lose their religion, they are drifting towards the Democratic party that is beginning to realize that this is an important demographic.
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.
Researchers haven’t found a comprehensive explanation for why the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has increased over the past few years — the shift is too large and too complex. But a recent swell of social science research suggests that even if politics wasn’t the sole culprit, it was an important contributor. “Politics can drive whether you identify with a faith, how strongly you identify with that faith, and how religious you are,” said 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.” “And some people on the left are falling away from religion because they see it as so wrapped up with Republican politics.”
It may be that it is not that more people are being driven to be nonreligious by the Christian right but that the Christian right, especially its leadership, has become so bigoted that identifying oneself as Christian might give people pause, since this may give the presumption that one shares those views. These people may have been passive Christians, those who were brought up in the faith and just drifted along because there seemed little downside to saying you were a Christian.
But that is not the case now. Calling oneself a Christian carries with it some baggage that in certain circles one may wish to shed. The rise of the Christian right might have just been the push that these people needed to realize that they really did not belong in that category. There are likely others who have humane values but still want to believe. For such people, saying that one is a Christian may require adding qualifiers to distance themselves from the Christian right, that one is not that kind of Christian.