“Christianity’s got a branding problem,” Phil Zuckerman, a professor at Pitzer College who researches atheism and secularity, told me. It is seen by many as the religion of conservative Republican politics, he said, and there are otherwise believing people out there who “don’t want to be associated with that.”
Zuckerman shared that thought with me before I asked readers about declining religious observance in America and got nearly 7,500 responses within about 24 hours. Until I started reporting this series, I’d never really thought of religions as brands. I’ve always thought of them in the context of personal, somewhat private beliefs — or in the way that I, as a Jew, think of Judaism as a value system passed down from previous generations.
Among my questions, I asked readers why they became less religious over time, and the responses were as varied as they were profound. Many said that while they no longer attend church or ally themselves with a particular faith tradition, they still believe in God, miss the sound of the choir and find transcendence in nature. And one trend that stood out bolstered Zuckerman’s assertion: Hundreds of respondents mentioned what they perceived to be the political drift of their churches (or, in a few cases, temples or mosques) as the reason for their disaffiliation or move away. Some who were part of more progressive congregations specifically mentioned the association of the word “Christian” with conservative political views as the root of their alienation.
“I no longer attend services, nor want to. I am simply too angry at what so-called Christians are doing to our children and society,” said Katherine Claflin, 67, who lives in Kansas. Although she belongs to a progressive church, she said that “right-wing ‘Christians’” have nudged her away from church attendance entirely, a fact she finds painful.
Some might not see this as a problem. If you think religious affiliation is socially negligible or even negative, it may not matter so much. But if you see religion as a come one, come all locus of fellowship, you may see it as another upsetting division in a country already rife with ruptures.
While New York Times readers probably aren’t a demographically representative sample of Americans, there’s a convincing body of research showing that the connection between right-wing politics and some Christians that drew closer in the 1980s and early ’90s pushed other liberal and moderate Christians away from religion.
Political polarization, however, isn’t the only reason for the rise of the “nones” — a catchall term for atheists, agnostics and those who say they have no religion in particular. Nones went from 0 percent to 2 percent of the population in the 1950s, according to Gallup, to somewhere between 20 percent and 30 percent of Americans today, depending on which survey you look at.
Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, is the author of “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are and Where They Are Going.” In it, he acknowledges: “I can’t point to one single causal mechanism for the nones’ astronomically growing numbers, and no other academic can either.” But there’s enough consensus around the broader trajectory to tell a reasonably coherent story about the past half-century or so.
Culture Shocks and Aftershocks
In their book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” Robert Putnam and David Campbell describe the 1950s as a boom time for American religiosity, in part because “religion represented patriotism” during the Cold War against “atheistic communism.” They continue: “It was no accident that ‘under God’ was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954” and the words “In God We Trust” that we see stamped onto our coins became the national motto in 1956. Not believing in or subscribing to “Judeo-Christian” values was often considered un-American.
Putnam and Campbell call the counterculture of the 1960s “the shock,” which involved young people questioning nearly every aspect of American institutions and the rise of the gay rights, women’s liberation, antiwar and civil rights movements. “Virtually every major theme in the sixties’ controversies would divide Americans for the rest of the century, setting the fuse for the so-called culture wars,” they note.
The “aftershock” was the backlash in the 1970s and ’80s against what were thought of as countercultural values. With the election of President Ronald Reagan and the emergence of the conservative Christian organization Moral Majority, the political fault lines, in terms of religious observance, became more visible among older baby boomers. In “The Nones,” Burge cites the work of Michele Margolis, who analyzed data tracking high schoolers who graduated in 1965 through the next 30 years of their lives:
What she found was that when this cohort was in their 20s, Democrats and Republicans displayed no significant difference in their church attendance. But when those study subjects moved into their 30s, a clear partisan difference emerged — Republicans were still attending church at high rates, while Democrats reported a significant drop in religious attendance. As these subjects were surveyed into the earlier 2000s, the pew gap only widened. The connection between political conservatism and religiosity has kept many Republicans in the pews, while it’s pushed scores of Democrats away from religion entirely.
While moderate and liberal boomers did move away from religion as they got older, the percentage of American nones really began to increase in the late 1990s. With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War, it became easier to “come out” as having no religion, said Petra Klug, the author of “Anti-Atheist Nation: Religion and Secularism in the United States.” Religion became less tightly connected to nationalism, so it was no longer seen as treasonous if you “wouldn’t show up on Sunday at church.” (Though, judging from the number of respondents to my query who wanted to remain anonymous because they were afraid to offend their neighbors, atheism is still anathema in parts of our country.)
Putnam and Campbell call what happened in the 1990s and 2000s “the second aftershock,” which they describe as “youth disaffection from religion.” Millennials and young Gen X-ers who categorize themselves as nones were, they found, “disproportionately raised in nonreligious backgrounds,” and some of them are, perhaps not surprisingly, the children of boomers who are nones. But others were raised with religion, and what distinguishes them isn’t a particular demographic characteristic (nones are fairly well distributed across the socioeconomic, gender and racial spectrum) but their liberal beliefs about issues like sexual orientation, marijuana legalization and school prayer.
There are other factors that have potentially contributed to the rise of the nones: Burge believes the internet and the accessibility of information about religion could play a role; Putnam is less convinced about the internet’s impact, and he and I got into a spirited and good-natured debate about it. It may be too soon to tell exactly how the pandemic, with its specific politically polarizing concerns and proliferation of Zoom worship services, affected believers, or whether the proportion of nones was just continuing on its natural upward swing.
And there’s a lot of academic discussion about whether “secularization theory” — the idea that when a country becomes more educated and prosperous, it becomes less religious — applies to the United States, where the vast majority of Christians still believe in God even if they don’t call themselves, say, Episcopalian. (Putting non-Christians aside for the moment, since we make up a small enough percentage of the population that it’s harder to make broader sociological observations about us.)
‘I Still Believe in Redemption’
The Christian “brand” problem feels most critical in our current political era, because what nones are responding to goes beyond what’s happening in their own churches. Despite the pop-cultural perception, Burge says, it’s unusual for Christian clergy to express partisan political views during church services. He surveyed over 1,000 Protestants in 2019 and found that “just a quarter of churchgoers said that they had heard a sermon about gay rights or abortion, and only 16 percent had ever heard Donald Trump’s name invoked from the pulpit.” He told me that “most pastors are not political because they don’t gain anything from being political,” they only risk alienating their flocks.
So what moderate and liberal Christians are responding to might not be explicit conservative messaging from pastors and priests. Some may feel their fellow congregants have moved so far right that they no longer feel the sense of community they once did. Many respondents mentioned the prevalence of inflexible standards on topics like same-sex marriage and the role of women in society that were no longer tolerable to them, and rather than staying and fighting and trying to change minds from the inside, they gave up.
But the public embrace of Trump, particularly by white evangelical Protestants, was the last straw for many respondents. When asked why she became less religious, Cynthia Jackson, 62, of Minnesota, said, “Because evangelicals became apostates who worship Trump, nationalism and the Republican Party.” She continued: “I loosely attend both Episcopal and E.L.C.A. Lutheran congregations but miss the warm interpersonal relationships that were part of evangelical churches before the takeover by right-wingers. I miss Bible studies.” She said she still loves gospel music and “I still believe in redemption.” She misses what she described as the “moderate evangelical church” and feels like she is “in exile.”
While Jackson has found a not-altogether-satisfying substitute in other churches, many respondents have completely moved away from organized religion. I’ll talk to a handful of them next week to explore the breadth and variety of American nones.
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