It’s been well documented that America is becoming less religious. Most of the time atheists discuss this trend in a positive light, and in fairness, most of the time, it’s hard to argue that it’s a bad thing.
The Atlantic, though, has found a way to do just that. How? By identifying a link between the growing number of non-religious folks and the rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right.
As Peter Beinart writes:
During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.
Why did these religiously unaffiliated Republicans embrace Trump’s bleak view of America more readily than their churchgoing peers? Has the absence of church made their lives worse? Or are people with troubled lives more likely to stop attending services in the first place? Establishing causation is difficult, but we know that culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful.
In fairness, there is a distinction between folks who don’t go to church and folks who identify as atheist. Someone can skip the pews on Sunday but still hold onto internalized notions of Christianity. That’s not always directly harmful. We all know people who might be described as Chreasters: folks who only attend church on Christmas and Easter, but still identify as Christian. Not all of those individuals are going to espouse racist ideas or be unbothered by Trump bragging about sexual assault. But the data suggests that if they are non-religious in some fashion and espouse conservative ideology, they are more likely to identify with a more virulent brand of politics and exceptionalism.
Beinart points out:
As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.
When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Knoll noted that among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and born-again Protestants, the less you attended church, the more anti-immigration you were.
Though the article does attempt to contextualize a lack of religion as sort of a missing moral compass, what’s fascinating is that lack of religion has a way different impact on the other side of the aisle. If anything, it pushes them further left. Beinart continues:
In 1990, according to PRRI, slightly more than half of white liberals seldom or never attended religious services. Today the proportion is 73 percent. And if conservative nonattenders fueled Trump’s revolt inside the GOP, liberal nonattenders fueled Bernie Sanders’s insurgency against Hillary Clinton: While white Democrats who went to religious services at least once a week backed Clinton by 26 points, according to an April 2016 PRRI survey, white Democrats who rarely attended services backed Sanders by 13 points.
Now, I’m not trying to ressurect the Clinton/Sanders debate or wade into the “Democrats would have won if” conversation. But particularly during the primaries and especially at the start of things, Sanders was notably more progressive than Clinton, ultimately pushing her further to the left with his influence. Non-religious liberal voters were cheering him on.
Beinart’s ultimate observation is that the un-churching of America is making partisans on both sides of the aisle yearn for different kinds of revolutions, and that feels right. Both sides are looking for fundamental changes to the way the country works. But it’s that difference in political ideologies embraced by those leaving the church that’s most interesting. For some, it’s about unlearning a fairy tale fraught with toxic ideology and moving leftward. For others, it’s about wanting to more freely and overtly embrace toxic ideology, moving them rightward.
It’s a fascinating if not terrifying trend, and a reminder that sometimes it’s not religion that’s to blame for bad behavior. Sometimes it’s just people.
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