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Getting Irreligion

by Reihan Salam

How should conservatives respond to declining church attendance?

There was a time when American politicians could condemn godless heathens almost anywhere in the country and expect nothing but lusty applause. Now, however, there are large swathes of the country in which the unchurched are just as important as the churched. The United States remains the most religiously observant of the world’s affluent countries: According to the World Values Survey, 38 percent of Americans say they are active members of a church, which is markedly higher than the 16 percent of Australians and the 4 percent of French who say the same.

Yet the number of Americans with no religious affiliation has been increasing at an impressive clip. According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, the religiously unaffiliated constitute roughly 16 percent of the U.S. population. To be sure, this category includes many people who profess a belief in God, as only 4 percent of respondents explicitly state that they are firm non-believers. But it seems safe to assume that the worldview of the religiously unaffiliated, whether they believe in some loose sense or not, is different in important respects from that of the 39 percent of Americans who report to Pew that they attend church every week or almost every week.

The growth of the religiously unaffiliated population looks particularly stark when viewed through a generational lens. According to the General Social Survey, 26 percent of Americans born in 1981 or later are not affiliated with a religion. By way of contrast, the same is true of only 5 percent of those born before 1928, 6 percent of those born between 1928 and 1945, 13 percent of those born between 1946 and 1964, and 20 percent of those born between 1965 and 1980. To be sure, religious observance can fluctuate over the life cycle. Some people embrace religion in middle age, while others fall away from it. But among older generations, the share who attend church has remained very stable. One gets the strong impression that patterns of religious observance formed in childhood and young adulthood tend to persist.

If this is indeed true — if the so-called millennial generation born in or after 1981 doesn’t dramatically change its religious stripes — the share of the U.S. population that is unaffiliated will surpass the share that belongs to mainline Protestant churches, and it might even overtake the share that belongs to evangelical Protestant churches. Moreover, this process could easily accelerate, as what we might call America’s religious middle continues to hollow out. While a large share of evangelicals attend church every week, the number of Catholics attending Mass every week has declined considerably in recent decades, as has the number of mainline Protestants who attend weekly services. One assumes that as Catholics and mainline Protestants continue to fall away from church attendance, many will join the ranks of the unaffiliated.

This obviously matters to religious proselytizers of all kinds, since the business of saving souls is perhaps the most serious business of all. But it should also matter to conservative political strategists. This year, for example, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, led by evangelical activist Ralph Reed, found that just over 50 percent of the ballots cast in Republican primary races through mid-March were cast by evangelicals, an increase from 44 percent in 2008. And late last year, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 70 percent of evangelicals identified as Republicans while only 24 percent identified as Democrats. Among the unaffiliated, the numbers were almost the reverse, with 61 percent identifying as Democrats and 27 percent identifying as Republicans. Many of the Republican gains of the 1980s and 1990s can be attributed to the rising political engagement of evangelical Protestants and, more broadly, of non-black weekly churchgoers of all Christian denominations. Yet as Robert Putnam and David Campbell report in their indispensable 2010 book American Grace, the evangelical boom that started in the early 1970s had mostly run its course by the 1990s. If the unaffiliated population has as big an impact on U.S. politics in the decades to come as evangelicals have had in the decades since Ronald Reagan’s election as president, conservatives will face a serious challenge.

Putnam and Campbell argue that the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated are swelling in part because church attendance has become closely associated with political conservatism. Whereas it was once common for political liberals to be churchgoers, the battle over legal abortion created a new dynamic in which liberals who favored abortion rights felt increasingly alienated from anti-abortion denominations. In a similar vein, socially liberal Republicans have felt increasingly unwelcome in the GOP as the party has embraced moral traditionalism and as devout evangelicals have attained greater influence within the party. In Putnam and Campbell’s metaphor, the evangelical boom of the 1970s and 1980s represented the first aftershock in the wake of the sexual revolution. The social transformation wrought by birth control and the rise of the feminist movement sparked a reaction among large numbers of Americans, who turned against cultural permissiveness and towards more demanding forms of religious practice.

This rise of the so-called religious Right, however, sparked a second aftershock, in which large numbers of young people came to see religion as judgmental, intolerant, and excessively political. They did so despite the fact that religious conservatives tend to see their political engagement as essentially defensive. As evidence for their second-aftershock thesis, Putnam and Campbell point out that the religiously unaffiliated are drawn heavily from the ranks of the center and the left. Changing attitudes regarding homosexuality seem to have played a particularly powerful role in turning young Americans against formal religious affiliation.

This isn’t to suggest that a shift to the cultural left on the part of evangelical churches would have stemmed the growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated young Americans. Mainline denominations have been extremely keen to move left, and in doing so they’ve lost adherents in large numbers. One obvious question is why the mainline denominations failed to capture a large share of young Americans hostile to the religious Right. A number of possibilities come to mind. It could be that the mainline denominations had grown complacent during their period of demographic vibrancy, and they were thus unprepared to win converts as effectively as denominations that emerged in a more competitive environment. Or it could simply be that their more relaxed theology failed to offer a sufficiently compelling alternative to socializing with friends or consuming sports media on Sunday mornings.

What we can safely say is that the mainline denominations are not on the verge of a mighty comeback. and the growth of the evangelical churches has slowed considerably. It is difficult to say how conservatives should approach this changing religious landscape. The religiously unaffiliated are and will remain a small minority of American voters for a long time to come. Yet the growing unaffiliated population, like the growing Latino population, poses a challenge: Conservative candidates can afford to lose these voters by a large margin for the time being, but not by an overwhelming margin indefinitely.

The unaffiliated vote may be lost to even the most accommodating conservative candidates. One wonders, however, if there might be some room to maneuver on the social issues that most animate young, unaffiliated voters. For example, conservatives might rally around a more explicitly federalist stance on same-sex marriage. Now that a narrow majority of Americans back same-sex marriage, Democratic politicians, including President Barack Obama, are moving towards the position that the federal government should recognize same-sex marriages. Some see this as the position of the Obama White House, which has decided not to defend key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act. Some on the left even argue that it would be right for the Supreme Court to impose same-sex marriage nationwide. Rather than continue to back a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, conservatives might consider offering a spirited defense of the status quo, in which individual states may permit same-sex civil marriages but other states will be under no obligation to recognize them.

Many social conservatives will condemn this as a concession too far. But it is worth considering the alternative. Support for same-sex marriage has become so entrenched that the alternative to its legalization might be a broader “deinstitutionalization” of marriage, i.e., an effort to create universal civil unions that would serve as a kind of “marriage lite.” This step would likely prove far more damaging to the institution of marriage than same-sex civil marriage, since it would undermine the centrality of marriage in social life. It is hard to imagine that a federalist approach will prove inspiring to social conservatives determined to resist the redefinition of marriage. But if accompanied by a more determined policy effort to strengthen traditional families — by, for example, advocating a more generous child tax credit and marriage-promotion initiatives aimed at the most vulnerable communities — it could help build support for social conservatives among the more open-minded unaffiliated voters.

More broadly, conservatives need to give the religiously unaffiliated their due. Just as politicians respect the ethnic affiliations of voters by embracing all manner of cultural holidays and symbols, it would be sensible and savvy for conservative politicians — especially those who are most expressive about their religious faith — to metaphorically tip their hats to those of a secular bent. Recognizing that the religiously unaffiliated represent a large and vocal segment of the Democratic electorate, Barack Obama has made a point of referencing secular Americans. In 2006, as a freshman U.S. senator, he said, “I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality.” This might sound like a fairly banal sentiment, and it is, but it is the kind of message that secular voters want to hear.

– Mr. Salam writes The Agenda, National Review Online’s domestic-policy blog. He is a policy adviser at the economic-research think tank e21.

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