Christianity is still alive (and kicking) in American politics
The numbers make it look like Christianity is out of the picture in America.
Over the past few years, news story after news story, quoting from Pew research and others, have been telling us that Christianity is on the decline in the United States.
Between 2007 and 2014, the number of American adults calling themselves Christian dropped from 78% to 71%, representing an overall loss of 5 million adults. These numbers not are isolated to certain demographics or geographies, but are in decline across denominations, regions, and age groups.
In other words, it’s not just in the cities, or the intellectual “elites,” or whatever other secularlizing force is being blamed. The decline in church affiliation is everywhere.
Meanwhile, the number of religiously unaffiliated has grown from 16% to 23% of American adults, a jump from 36 million to 56 million over the same time period. This group of “nones” (so called because their answer to the question of “What is your religious affiliation?” was “None”), includes atheists, agnostics, and those who simply don’t identify with any religious group.
The number of “nones” now exceeds the number of people who are in Mainline Protestant denominations (such as Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian, which represent just under 15% of US Adults) and the Catholic church (representing just over 20% of US Adults), and rivals the numbers of the largest group of American Christians, Evangelical Protestants (whose numbers exceed 25%.
(As a side note, Evangelical Protestants are declining at a slower rate than the other churches. Due to the margin of error, they may have even grown by as many as 5 million, which is still a much lower rate of growth than the overall population. This is why pollsters are still calling it a loss.)
With Christian denominations in decline and the ranks of the unaffiliated on the rise, it would seem to follow that, as far as American culture and politics, Christians are fading into the background.
In fact, as social issues including LGBTQ+ equality and abortion rights continue to be major issues of contention in US politics, some Christians in denominations with more traditionally conservative ideals are making the argument that Christianity is under attack, at least as an influencer of society, if not that the secularizing forces of US culture are trying to drive Christianity out completely.
Cases in which the separation of church and state have removed traditional Christian trappings from public institutions, such as public schools not being able to compel students to pray and courthouses being challenged for putting religious displays or even the Ten Commandments in the public square have only reinforced the belief that religion is under attack.
Even the effort for businesses to be religiously inclusive by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” has been taken by some as a sign that Christians are being forcibly shown the door.
For many, there is still a belief that politics is one thing and religion another, and that a single religion should not have a leading role in our public life and policies, although certainly personal convictions influence our politicians.
But for those who believe that America was founded specifically on Christian principles (or in some cases, more generously conceived as “Judeo-Christian values”), the loss of Christian language from public life is seen as a disastrous and even dangerous development, despite the establishment clause and warnings from the Founders about the tyrannizing force of theocracy.
However, no matter how dire a portrait the surveys may paint, Christianity is still a major driving force in US politics and society. In a country in which Christians have been a majority since its founding, and in which religion, government, finance, social organization, and power structures have been intertwined since the beginning, it is difficult to maintain that Christianity is not still a dominant political force.
Recent heartbreaking reports tell us that in over 1/3 of the world, religious persecution is rampant, and that in some regions, Christians are the most persecuted religious group, particularly in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Faced with extremist governments and hate groups, these Christians face social persecution, torture, bombings, and other targeted acts of violence.
It is challenging to compare the compromises that are being asked of American Christians, including business owners being sued for not providing equal service to gay and lesbian customers, or controversies over whether Catholic businesses have to include birth control as part of their healthcare, to the persecution that happens in other parts of the world with a goal of driving out Christianity.
In fact, recent developments in American politics and culture show us that Christianity, particularly in its more conservative iterations, is far from being dead, and in fact has a tremendous impact on our society.
One prominent example of the impact that one branch of Christianity, Evangelical Protestants, are having on US society is the 2016 Presidential election. Many political experts and voters were taken completely by surprise when Donald Trump won the Presidency in 2016. One group that was not surprised, and which not only supported him then but continues to be among the strongest supporters of the Trump administration today are Evangelicals.
According to Election Day exit polls, 80 percent of white Evangelicals who voted in the 2016 election voted for Donald Trump. (By comparison, only 9% of black Evangelicals voted for Trump. For more discussion of this disparity in the racial demographics, see here.)
There has been considerable discussion about these statistics since then, including whether that 80 percent of voters (often misreported as 81%) represents the views of the larger evangelical community, as it has also been noted that as many as 40% of Evangelical voters didn’t vote at all. There has also been much discussion over the motivations for the vote, whether it is based in conservative political issues such as the economy and immigration, or if it is driven by a focus on wedge issues such as abortion.
Whatever the motivations, in what was a close political race, when one particular group that represents 25% of the US population, as well as 25% of voters, and a significant majority of them rally around a particular candidate, they are still very much to be reckoned with as a political force.
As such, the influence of at least one group of Christians, the Evangelical Protestants, in US politics cannot be ignored.
And certainly, one can also look historically to the Catholic church, representing 1 in 5 American adults, as another formidable force in American politics. Catholicism holds a wider range of political views than other Christian denominations, from liberal, union-supporting, “Catholic Worker”-reading, social justice seekers to conservatives who are focused on orthodox practice and the preservation of life from birth to death—even to the point of creating coalitions with evangelicals around issues of abortion—but the Catholics have had an effect on everything from unions to reproductive rights and issues of religious freedom, however much they may be doing so behind the scenes. (Despite the US only have one Catholic president, it is interesting to see how many Vice Presidential candidates have been Catholic, playing a powerful but supporting role.)
In recent days, another Christian group that has been becoming more vocal, even if they are not growing in number. And that group is Progressive Christians, who typically are more liberal and are found in many Mainline Protestant denominations. The label “Progressive” may be imprecise, as there are several different theological groups I’m including under this umbrella, including those who subscribe to Liberation theology, Queer theology, and other ways of thinking about Christianity.
While there are internal differences between groups, Progressive Christians are generally marked as being politically liberal, sympathetic to social justice and social causes, affirming of LGBTQ+ people, more welcoming of immigrants, and a host of other issues that set them apart from Conservative Christians.
One can hear Progressive Christian ideas through the mouths of political candidates who call on the Bible to justify fair treatment of immigrants and marriage equality. One can see Progressive Christians marching at the front lines of political protests in DC, on the border of Mexico, at the Keystone pipeline as it threatens to cut through native land. One can read Progressive Christian ideas on social media, where people argue about the Christian character of our current leaders and our policies.
So, while there are a range of different approaches to theology, and to our place in the American scene, it is far too early to call Christianity down for the count.
Despite the numbers, Americans who call themselves Christian still account for more than 7 out of 10 American adults.
Although some have the feeling some that Christian influence is eroding in the public square, our systems of power are still intertwined by the faith traditions of those who built them over the past few centuries.
While it may seem that efforts to be more inclusive in our language and less religious in our public expressions limit the ability of Christians to practice their faith where and when they want to, these inconveniences are very different than the kind of violent persecution Christians face in other parts of the world.
The reports of the demise of Christian influence in American society may be premature, even if it is an alarm sounded as a rallying cry in many quarters.
It is important for all people who are involved in the American political structure, religious or not, to understand the deeply held religious beliefs that are behind policy decisions, voting results, and what are sometimes surprising societal developments.
Literacy in what people believe, what they hope for and what they fear, will help us better understand one another, and is an important step toward finding some kind of compromise—if it is possible—that best protects the freedoms of the religious and non-religious alike.