Have Conservative Politics Pushed Americans Away From Organized Religion?

Study Finds Political Conflict Over Cultural Issues Lowers Religious Affiliation

Political polarization and the merging of conservative politics with Christianity in the US have combined to push moderates and liberals away from religious affiliation over the last twenty-two years. So found sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, who conducted a statistical analysis using General Social Survey (GSS) data. They also debunked the myth that secularization has fueled the sharp increase in those who claim no religious affiliation, as they found that there have been only slight changes in number of atheists, agnostics, and those who believe in God.

Per data collected in 2012 by the GSS, one in five US adults claim no religious affiliation. This is the result of a steady increase in this percentage since 1972, when those who claimed no religious affiliation were just five percent of the population. The data also reveal a sharper increase since 1986. Hout and Fischer wanted to find out why, so in addition to measuring the effect of secularization, they also examined the relationship between religious affiliation and generational differences and political backlash.

Ultimately they found that a major shift in the zeitgeist–the collective beliefs and worldview of the populace–had the largest effect on the decline in religious affiliation. But, they also found a significant causal relationship between political backlash and the decline; and, they were able to tease out that political conflict over issues of culture and morality has fueled the trend away from organized religion for those born after World War II, and that this is the core of the shift in zeitgeist. Hout and Fischer sum this up, “We conclude that Americans decreasingly identify with organized religions despite still holding religious beliefs because political backlash and generational succession, both rooted in cultural changes and conflicts in the 1960s, continue.”

The researchers point out that the increasing trend in having no religious affiliation occurred simultaneously with the increasing polarization of politics. And, they found that, while there has been a trend away from religious affiliation across all political orientations, it corresponds strongly with how one falls on the right-to-left political spectrum. Those who identify as “conservative” showed the smallest increase, and today, less than 10 percent have no religious affiliation. Those who are “slightly conservative” are just above 10 percent, and showed a slightly greater increase. Moderates have seen a sharp increase from about 5 percent to 16 percent, while those who are “slightly liberal” have increased from just under 10 to about 24 percent. The greatest increase comes from liberals, who went from just under 20 percent in 1972 to about 36 percent in 2012. So, on either end of the spectrum, just 7 percent of conservatives had no religious affiliation in 2012, compared with 36 percent of liberals.

Of this, they write: 

“…the analysis suggests that the specific religiously-inflected politics that alienated moderates and liberals of recent cohorts was the politics of personal morality… The root causes of much of the political polarization over the last 25 years — the conflict over the limits of choice and the relevance of traditional authority — also stand at the root of declining religious affiliation.”

Yet, Hout and Fischer emphasize that the decline in affiliation does not signal a decline in religiosity (whether or not a person holds religious views). The data shows that many who contributed to the decline in affiliation are “unchurched believers”–people who do not go to church, but who believe in God and consider themselves spiritual. In fact, thirty-seven percent who claim no affiliation pray weekly, and 22 percent pray daily.

Those who believe that organized religion and church play an important role in US social life can learn a lot from this study, as the results suggest that participation across the political spectrum would be greater if politics were taken out of the pulpit, and vice versa.


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