By Ryan Burge
Mr. Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor, has written extensively about the interaction of religion and politics.
Since 1988, the General Social Survey has been asking Americans of different ages what they believe about God. For decades, the answer did not change much. Around 70 percent of members of the Silent Generation said that they “know God really exists” and “have no doubts about it.” That same sentiment was shared by about 63 percent of baby boomers and Generation Xers.
But in 2018, millennials expressed a lot less certainty. Only 44 percent had no doubts about the existence of God. Even more doubtful were members of Generation Z — just one-third claimed certain belief in God.
Today, scholars are finding that by almost any metric they use to measure religiosity, younger generations are much more secular than their parents or grandparents. In responses to survey questions, over 40 percent of the youngest Americans claim no religious affiliation, and just a quarter say they attend religious services weekly or more.
Americans have not come to terms with how this cultural shift will affect so many facets of society — and that’s no more apparent than when it comes to the future of the Republican and Democratic Parties.
Religious voters, especially white evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, are part of the bedrock of the modern Republican Party. It’s well known that Donald Trump enjoyed overwhelming support from white evangelicals in 2020, with 84 percent casting their ballot for him. But what has largely gone unnoticed is how the Republican Party has continued to win half the white nonevangelical Protestant vote and has continued to make gains among white Roman Catholics. Republican candidates are seeing this success by emphasizing Christian nationalism and focusing on the sort of intense culture-war rhetoric — on issues like immigration and abortion — we’ve heard since the 1990s.
But it appears very much that there is something of an expiration date on this wave of religious conservatives. The share of Americans who identify as white Christians has rapidly declined over the last several decades. There’s ample evidence to believe that less than half of Americans today are in this key constituency for Republicans. The decline has come about as a result of a combination of demographic changes: America has become more multiracial, and larger shares of Americans are jettisoning Christianity and either aligning with other religions or are leaving religion behind entirely and joining the ranks of the religious Nones.
Republican Party leaders are faced with a seemingly impossible task: Continue to feed red meat to their Christian base while also finding ways to reach out to young people who are increasingly irreligious and racially diverse. Sure, there is anecdotal evidence that some members of the New Atheist movement have begun to embrace conservative positions on issues of race. But there’s little reason to believe that secular voters are going to become a core part of the Republican electorate any time soon.
The Democratic Party and the coalition that elected Joe Biden in 2020 face challenges of their own. The Democratic coalition increasingly relies on a hodgepodge of groups, religious and nonreligious, that are often at odds with one another on key social and cultural issues.
For instance, there’s no more politically unified religious group than Black Protestants, with more than 90 percent of them voting for Mr. Biden in 2020. But while Black Protestants are often supporters of a more liberal approach to economic issues, they are still conservative Christians who oppose many progressive social policies. Over 60 percent of Black Protestants said in 2018 that homosexual sex was always wrong, the same percentage as evangelicals.
At the same time, Democrats must not take for granted the increasing number of atheists and agnostics in their coalition. Atheists provide a particularly difficult problem for Democrats. When asked to place themselves in ideological space, the average atheist sees the Democratic Party as becoming more conservative over the last three years, while they themselves have become more liberal. Data indicates that atheists are the most politically active religious group in the United States in recent years. In a 2018 survey, atheists were twice as likely to donate money or work for a political candidate as white evangelicals. Atheists want the Democratic Party to become more progressive and are unlikely to remain silent if they don’t see changes.
So Democrats have to find ways to pull off a very tricky balance on policy priorities between the concerns of the politically liberal Nones and the more traditional social positions espoused by groups like Black and mainline Protestants. This becomes especially problematic on issues like the Equality Act. According to proponents, the legislation would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. However, religious Democrats are very likely to oppose the bill because it would infringe on churches’ ability to live out their religious doctrines without government interference.
In 2021, when about 26 percent of Americans have no religious affiliation, just 0.2 percent of members of Congress identify as a None. Given the rapid secularization of the United States, it’s clear that the political establishment does not represent what is a seismic shift in American society. Both parties will need to evolve to meet this challenge, but neither Republicans nor Democrats have an easy path.