There is a growing sense today that social conservatives have lost their sway in American politics. Republican presidential candidates are talking about attending gay weddings. Libertarianism is ascendant on the right. And the Pew Research Center recently reported that the share of Christians in the United States continues to decline. “The changing religious composition of America has widespread political and cultural ramifications,” wrote Nate Cohn in the New York Times of the report, suggesting that increased secularization exposed the “religious dimension of the G.O.P.’s demographic challenge.”
Yet having fewer Christians in the United States might not mean fewer Republicans. For decades, the role of religion in American politics has been a matter of religiosity, not religion. The more often voters attend religious services, the more likely they are to support Republicans in national elections.
The share of Americans who identify as Christian has been declining for years. The share of religious Americans has not. For about 75 years, despite periodic fluctuations, the Gallup Poll has found that approximately four in 10 Americans say they attend religious services at least once a week.* Religious Americans made up the same share of the presidential electorate in 2012 as they did twelve years earlier, 42 percent. Over that same period, the secular share of the electorate grew by three percentage points, to 17 percent, according to exit polls.
This rising secular vote explains why, as Pew reported, between 2007 and 2014 the Christian share of the population fell from 78 to 71 percent. This is partly because Millennials are more likely to be unaffiliated with a religion than older Americans. Yet in keeping with the larger trend, earlier Pew research found that the rate of religiosity among today’s young adults is commensurate with that of Generation X when they were in their 20s and early 30s.
Writ large, as American Christians become more aligned with liberals on social issues, they also tend to become less religious. Mainline Protestants are more likely to agree with liberals on abortion or gay marriage than members of conservative Christian churches. Mainline Protestants have also seen the greatest drop in membership among major Christian denominations.
In fact, the rising secular vote largely derives from those who were once nominally religious. Between 1972 and 2004, according to American National Election Studies data, the rate of voters in presidential elections who attend religious services weekly or “almost” every week remained constant at about 35 percent. By comparison, the share that said they never attend services grew over that timeframe from 14 to 36 percent. And this secular growth coincided with a proportionate decline in Americans who attended services only “a few times a year.”
Thus Christianity’s waning in American life will likely have a smaller impact on political outcomes than will polarization: Americans who are mildly religious will continue to become more secular, and the religious will have less in common with the average American.
Yet nominal Christians were already not voting based on their religion, so having fewer Christians will not necessarily mean fewer social conservatives. The newly non-religious are also not flocking to atheism. Pew found that self-described atheists have doubled over the past seven years. Still, atheists remain only 3 percent of the population.
Faith — or faithlessness — is like any other factor that influences political behavior: Religion is an issue for those who are most passionate about the issue. And few constituencies are more loyal to the Republicans than social conservatives. In 2008, Barack Obama made gains with traditional GOP constituencies such as white males, yet white weekly churchgoers’ support for Republicans did not budge. Why? These voters cared more about social issues than about economics. Accordingly, the economic crash had little impact on their vote.
Meanwhile, even as the share of secular Americans increases, the share identifying itself as Evangelical is relatively stable (about a quarter of the U.S. population). Evangelicals are more Republican and more likely to attend church than the average Christian. They are also disproportionately populated in the GOP’s stronghold — the South, particularly the Deep South. This is one reason Evangelicals retain outsized power in Republican primaries. Their influence is hardly limited to the South, however. Nearly six in ten GOP Iowa caucus-goers in 2012 described themselves as born-again or Evangelical, roughly equivalent to the figure from four years earlier.
Even as the share of secular Americans increases, the share identifying itself as Evangelical is relatively stable (about a quarter of the U.S. population).
Evangelical Christians will be paying particular attention this summer, when the Supreme Court could strike down bans on same-sex marriage nationwide. Pundits commonly note that the legalization of same-sex marriage would liberate Republican presidential candidates from confronting an issue that separates social conservatives from the mainstream. In February, one poll showed that even a plurality of likely GOP caucus and primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina said they find opposition to same-sex couples unacceptable in a candidate.
Yet the legalization of gay marriage will also further unite social-conservative activists. After all, it was Court rulings that originally galvanized the religious Right into a political movement, from the prohibition of school prayer to the legalization of abortion to its decision that obscenity was subject to contemporary community standards. The Court rulings stood. They became normative. But a movement against that norm grew.
The legalization of same-sex marriage will not inspire a new generation of social conservatives. But it might add glue to a movement that will find it more difficult to retain its hold on the GOP and younger voters if it does not adjust, albeit glacially, to contemporary society. Yet even social conservatives change. After all, in 2008, it was a working mother named Sarah Palin who excited Christian conservatives, not the white male Republican patriarch.
And even this tension between religious conservatives and modern American life can be exaggerated. Views of gay marriage will likely follow the pattern of views of interracial marriage. In the early 1970s, barely a third of the public approved of marriage between blacks and whites. Roughly nine in 10 Americans do today. By comparison, polls show that the divide on views of abortion has been steady over this same period.
Americans liberalize on some social issues. Not all. The issues change. What was once the temperance movement became gay marriage. What was gay marriage will become . . . There is always a conservative side of the social debate of the day.
That social-conservative impulse has also helped bridge the gap with the one demographic group Republicans dare not ignore — Hispanics. George W. Bush performed better with Latinos in 2004 than any Republican since at least 1980. And it was no coincidence that Bush was not only a moderate on immigration, but also the most outspoken president about his faith in the modern era. In 2004, Bush won nearly two-thirds of Hispanic Protestants who attend church weekly, while John Kerry won a majority of Hispanic Protestants who did not.
So we will see Christian ranks continue to decline in the United States, and this de-Christianization will further sever the religious Right from the American mainstream. But that does not mean Republicans will sever from social conservatives. After all, the GOP will hardly be the only party that depends on a loyal minority group to turn out voters.
— David Paul Kuhn is a writer and political analyst and the author of What Makes It Worthy, a political novel, which will be published in July 2015.
* The share of the public who told Gallup they had attended religious services in the “last seven days” dipped three percentage points last year (from 39 to 36 percent). This could mark a decline in religiosity. Yet we have seen similar declines in reported attendance before (from 41 to 37 percent, between 1939 and 1940; from 43 to 38 percent, between 1995 and 1996), only for the rate to return to the norm. Gallup has asked the question another way, “How often do you attend” services? About four in 10 respondents say they attend services “once a week” or “almost every week.” Pew steadily finds a slightly lower rate of church attendance than Gallup. Yet even as Pew reports a significant decline in Christian affiliation, other Pew data demonstrates that over about the same period, the rate of those who attend religious services at least once a week has remained constant.