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Can a Christian Party Survive?

In the past several years, many trees have been felled and pixels electrocuted in the service of discussion about the impact of Hispanics on the American electorate. No one knows for sure which way they’ll vote in the future but everyone is interested in discussing it. Curiously, though, an even larger political shift is taking place yet receiving almost no attention whatsoever from political reporters—the emergence of post-Christian America.

Judging solely from the rhetoric and actions of the Republican presidential candidates this cycle, you would be hard-pressed to tell much difference between 2016 and 1996, the year that the Christian Coalition was ruling the roost in GOP politics. Sure there’s a lot more talk about the Middle East than before, but when it comes to public displays of religiosity, many of the would-be presidents have spent the majority of their candidacies effectively auditioning for slots on the Trinity Broadcast Network.

Even Donald Trump, the thrice-married casino magnate turned television host, has gone about reincarnating himself as a devout Christian, despite his evident lack of familiarity with the doctrines and practices of the faith.

Thus far, however, the public faith efforts of the candidates not married to a former nude model have all been for naught. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, both of whom won Iowa in past years, dropped out after failing dismally in the Hawkeye State’s caucuses. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal quit months before even a single vote had been cast. Texas senator Ted Cruz, despite being significantly better financed and supported by more conservative leaders than previous Christian nationalist candidates, hasn’t been able to do more than eke out a victory in Iowa.

Christian Right candidates have always had a difficult task in running for president (none has ever even gotten close to the nomination) but their even worse track record this cycle—in contrast to that of Donald Trump—is a perfect window into trends that will set the pace of American politics for decades to come: Americans are moving away from Christianity, including people most likely to vote Republican. In this changed politics, which exists right now, the GOP can only hope to succeed by greatly expanding its appeal to non-Christians.

While the process of secularization has been slower-moving in the U.S. compared to Europe, it is now proceeding rapidly. A 2014 study by Pew Research [1] found that 23 percent of Americans say they’re “unaffiliated” with any religious tradition, up from 20 percent just 3 years earlier [2]. The Public Religion Research Institute confirmed the statistic as well with a 2014 poll based on 50,000 interviews indicating that 23 percent of respondents were unaffiliated [3].

The trend away from faith is only bound to increase with time. According to Pew, about 36 percent of adults under the age of 50 have opted out of religion [4]. At present, claiming no faith is the fastest growing “religion” in the United States. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of people claiming “nothing in particular” increased by 2.3 percent, those saying they were agnostics increased by 1.2 percent and those claiming to be atheists increased by 0.8 percent. No actual religious group has experienced anywhere near such growth [5] during this time period.

Looked at over the longer term, the trend is even more discernible. In 1972, just 5.1 percent of Americans said they had no religious affiliation, according to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey [6]. In 2014, that number was 20.7 percent, an increase of more than 400 percent.

americans claiming no faith tradition [7]

To put that growth in perspective, consider that Hispanics were 4.5 percent of the U.S. population in 1970 (according to the Census Bureau) [8] and 16.9 percent by 2012 (according to GSS). Despite receiving almost no attention whatsoever, people with no religion are both more numerous and increasing their numbers at a faster pace than people of Hispanic descent. (Unfortunately GSS did not measure Hispanic origin until 2000 so the comparison isn’t completely perfect).

While those statistics on the growth of religiously unaffiliated ought to be impressive enough to warrant serious discussion, the reality is that public polling almost certainly underestimates the numbers of the faithless because many religious Americans have strongly negative opinions of those who are atheists or agnostics. This negativity makes non-believers less willing to publicly admit to their opinions.

A 2014 study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that people of all races and religious creeds (or lack thereof) were more likely to claim they attended church services in a telephone survey than they were during a self-administered web survey where their opinions would not be solicited by a person in conversation.

According to the research, religiously unaffiliated people were 18 percent more likely to say they attended church services on the phone than they claimed to online. Americans in general were 13 percent more likely to give the religiously correct answer in a phone survey [9].

The Religiously Unaffiliated Are More Than Unchurched

Of the few conservatives who have actually responded to this momentous demographic development, the typical response has been to claim that this large group of non-believers are simply “un-churched.” Over time, the argument goes, these people will return to the sanctuary and back into the Grand Old Party. The argument might be a comfortable one to conservatives of faith, but it is not supported by the facts.

When asked to identify their specific beliefs about the nature of God for a 2008 poll by the American Religious Identification Survey [10] (ARIS), 7 percent of non-believers advocated an atheist perspective, 35 percent were agnostics, and 24 percent were deists. Just 27 percent of said they “definitely” believed in a personal God. In a private online survey conducted by the Public Religion Institute, just 19 percent [9] of the religiously unaffiliated agreed with the statement that “God is a person.” 43 percent of respondents said they did not believe in God while 35 percent said that they believed God is an impersonal force.

While some of those who are unaffiliated do profess a belief in God, a huge majority of those with no religion appear utterly uninterested in joining up with any particular faith tradition. A full 88 percent told Pew they were “not interested.” That is likely because Americans of no faith have strong, negative viewpoints about religious organizations, overwhelmingly characterizing them as “too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.” Nearly half of these individuals describe themselves as neither spiritual nor religious.

While religiously unaffiliated people in days gone by might have been “unchurched,” this is no longer the case.

Fewer Christians Means Fewer Republicans

The implications of Americans’ exodus from cultural Christianity are significant for the political right because the religiously unaffiliated appear to have a real preference for Democrats. In fact, a person’s religious perspective is generally the most accurate predictor aside from party identification of how he or she will vote.

It is this changing aspect of the electorate that will have more of an impact on the conservative movement’s future than any other demographic shift. Already, it has decimated Republican vote totals in many western states such as California, Montana, New Mexico, and Colorado. True, California and New Mexico have substantial Hispanic populations but Montana does not and neither does northern California [11], the furthest Left region [12]of the Golden State. The fact of the matter is that many white voters are abandoning faith and as they do, they are leaving the Republican Party as well. Many younger white voters are never even joining up with religion—and the Republican Party by extension. This demographic trend is creating what might be called the “Godless Gap,” a voting disparity that is particularly harmful to Republicans since Democrats have been much better at getting votes among Christians than the GOP has among the irreligious.

While secular people have always favored Democrats for as long as the data goes back, the situation has actually become even worse in recent years for the GOP. Republicans have long trailed Democrats among non-religious Americans (hereafter called “Nones”) but since the late 1990s, they have even been behind independents, according to GSS. Research conducted by ARIS also confirmed this overall trend even though it did not ask people to indicate a party toward which they might incline.

In the 1990 ARIS study, 42 percent of respondents who claimed no religion said they were “independent,” 27 percent said they were Democrats, and 21 percent said they were Republican. According to the 2008 poll (the most recent) 42 percent of people with no religious affiliation said they were “independents,” 34 percent said they were Democrats, and just 13 percent said they were Republicans.

A 2012 survey by Pew Research confirmed this trend as well. Asked about their voting preference during the previous presidential election cycle, people of no faith said they had voted in about the same proportion for Barack Obama as white evangelical Protestants did for John McCain. Pushed to identify their own partisanship, a full 63 percent said they favored Democrats. Just 26 percent said they leaned toward Republicans.

If partisanship and religious identification were actually independent of each other, this type of shift would not be nearly so pronounced since as the ranks of the non-religious grow, they ought to be exhibiting characteristics more in common with the general population as one can observe when one examines Nones in non-political contexts such as incomes, divorce rates, and (to a lesser degree) racial composition. And yet that is not what appears to be happening when we examine their political preferences.

The likely reason why Republicans have declined in popularity among the non-religious is GOP’s long habit of identifying itself as a Christian party standing up for “Judeo-Christian values.”

As increasing numbers of whites and Asians have chosen non-Christian religions or no faith tradition at all, they are also leaving the Republican Party. Some are joining up with Democrats but many are choosing “none of the above” just like what they are doing with religion. Much of this movement parallels already established patterns observed by Jewish voters who were much more inclined toward Republicans before Christian nationalism became a force within the party [13].

Republicans Probably Lost Young Adults Due to Decline of Faith

As has already been noted, people claiming “no religion” in surveys are much more likely to be young. As mentioned above, just over 30 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 are Nones. But generational attrition—the gradual replacing of older religious people with younger secular ones—is not the only reason why the ranks of the Nones have expanded. People under 65 have also become more secular in recent years. As noted by Pew:

Generation Xers and Baby Boomers also have become more religiously unaffiliated in recent years. In 2012, 21 percent of Gen Xers and 15 percent of Baby Boomers describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, up slightly (but by statistically significant margins) from 18 percent and 12 percent, respectively, since 2007.

Their lack of interest in religion is having an effect on the voting patterns of younger Americans. After winning voters ages 18-29 in the 1972, 1984, and 1988 presidential elections [14] (Reagan lost them by 1 point in 1980), the best the Republican Party has done among this age group is a 47-47 [14]tie in 2000. Even that was a hollow achievement, however, because 5 percent of the young voted for left-wing Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

In 2004, with Nader no longer a factor, young voters broke for Democrat John Kerry 54 percent to 45 [15]percent. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won 66 percent of their votes to John McCain’s meager 32 percent. In 2012, Obama did slightly worse among this age group (which is almost a given since he did so well the first time). He still overwhelmingly won their votes 60 percent to 37 percent, however.

The past shows that young people are not natural knee-jerk Democrat voters, but clearly Republicans have been losing younger voters lately. Religious differences are almost certainly a factor. According to a 2014 poll commissioned by the American Bible Society [16], just 35 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 believe the Bible “contains everything a person needs to know how to live a meaningful life.” The millennial generation is also much more skeptical about the role of the Bible within society. Just 30 percent of that age group surveyed said they thought the Bible had “too little influence” on Americans. By contrast, 26 percent said the Bible had “too much influence” on society.

The “Godless Gap” and the 2012 Election

Beyond the national trends, the increase in secularization has also had an effect in the different regions of the country where Nones are concentrated. As noted by the 2008 ARIS study, 20 percent of people living in California, Oregon, and Washington were non-religious, 19 percent of people in the Mountain West were Nones, and a full 22 percent of individuals living in New England had no religious faith.

It is no coincidence that as non-belief has increased in these regions, the Republican party’s fortunes there have declined accordingly. The 2012 election provided many examples of how Republicans are losing elections thanks to the Godless Gap. In 7 key states (Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and New Hampshire), Mitt Romney won the majority of the Christian vote but ended up losing overall because he was defeated so soundly among non-Christians.

2012 Presidential Vote by State and Religious Belief
Source: Exit poll conducted by Edison Media Research

Protestant Obama
Protestant Romney
Catholic Obama
Catholic Romney
Unaffiliated Obama
Unaffiliated Romney
New Hampshire

Even though the state is famous for its religiosity, in Iowa, Nones were indisputably the margin of victory for Obama. According to exit polls, Romney won the votes of the 62 percent of Iowans who called themselves Protestants (53-46) and the Catholic 26 percent (52-47) but he overwhelmingly lost the None vote 75 to 22 percent. With its overwhelmingly white population, Iowa was Romney’s to lose. And he did—by doing so poorly among white voters with no religious affiliation. In the end, the former Massachusetts governor lost [17]the Hawkeye State by less than 100,000 votes.

Non-Christians also put Obama over the top in Pennsylvania, a state which Romney’s top advisers believed [18] was “really in play” right up until Election Day. And they were right—so long as one only looked at the vote of the Christian faithful (77 percent of the electorate). Romney actually managed to win both the Protestant and the Catholic votes quite narrowly, 51-49 and 50-49 respectively, but his tremendous loss among the 12 percent of Pennsylvanians who were not religious overwhelmed his share of the Christian vote. Because he lost [19]the None vote 74-25, Romney ended up losing the state 52 to 47 percent.

The same thing happened in Florida as well, another state that Romney was counting on winning. He cleaned up among the 51 percent of Protestant voters (58-42), won the 23 percent Catholic vote (52-47) but ended up losing the 15 percent None vote 72 percent to 26 percent. He also sank among the non-Christian religious as well. In the end, Romney lost the state by just 74,309 votes. Had he done just a little better among non-Christians, Romney would have been able to put the Sunshine State [20] into his column.

Virginia was another state that was Romney’s to win had he done better among non-Christians. According to exit polls, Romney captured small majorities among Protestants (54 percent to 45 percent) and Catholics (55 to 45) but was clobbered [21]among non-Christian believers (78-22) and among those with no religion (76-22).

The None vote also cost Romney the state of Wisconsin. As with the other states examined above, Romney won the Catholic vote (56 percent to 44 percent) as well as the Protestant vote (53 to 45 percent) but lost so overwhelmingly among non-believers (73 to 25 percent) that he ended up losing the Badger State [22] 53 to 46 percent.

The same thing happened in Romney’s native Michigan where he won among Protestants 51 to 48 percent and among Catholics (55 to 44 percent) but lost so overwhelmingly among non-believers that he ended up losing [22]the state 54 percent to 45 percent.

The former Massachusetts governor also lost New Hampshire despite winning the votes of both Catholics (54 percent to 46 percent) and Protestants (57 percent to 42 percent). Because he lost the None vote so badly (71-28), Romney ended up losing [23]the state’s electoral votes by less than 40,000 votes.

Based on the data above, it is safe to say that the Godless Gap cost Mitt Romney the election.

While many of the Nones who voted against him are hard-core Democrats who never would have considered voting GOP, it is not unreasonable to think that Romney could have done better among non-Christians, especially given the decline in Republican partisanship among Nones mentioned above. Had Romney managed to do improve his performance among people who don’t believe the Bible is true, he could have won as many as 304 electoral votes.

GOP’s Choice: Christian Nationalism or Political Reality?

That so many non-Christians would choose not to vote for Republicans and conservatives really should come as no surprise considering the fact that many Christian conservatives—even at the very highest echelons of power and influence—seem to be utterly unaware that their repeated use of Christian symbolism and rhetoric can be perceived as offensive or non-inclusive to people who do not share their beliefs.

As conservative author Dinesh D’Souza, a Christian immigrant from India, has described it: “Whenever a Gujarati or Sikh businessman comes to a Republican event, it begins with an appeal to Jesus Christ. While the Democrats are really good at making the outsider feel at home, the Republicans make little or no effort.” That’s also true of people who do not believe in any faith.

Even if non-Christians do not take offense to being excluded, at the very least such public displays of Christian belief at ostensibly secular events certainly do not encourage them to participate or to become enthusiastic. National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg (who is Jewish by ancestry although he is non-practicing) described the phenomenon well in a 2012 column [24]:

I’ve attended dozens of conservative events where, as the speaker, I was, in effect, the guest of honor, and yet the opening invocation made no account of the fact that the guest of honor wasn’t a Christian. I’ve never taken offense, but I can imagine how it might seem to someone who felt like he was even less a part of the club.

As bad as things are now for Republicans with regard to secular voters, however, they seem to be worsening. A 2012 study [25]by the Pew Research Center found that the Democratic share of the None vote has increased significantly since 2000 when it stood at 61 percent. In 2004 it rose to 67 percent. In 2008, an incredible 75 percent of the religiously unaffiliated voted for Barack Obama. In 2012, not quite as many, 70 percent, did so again. As it stands, people with no faith tradition have shifted a full nine points toward Democrats.

Unless action is taken—and this must include a concession that most Americans support same-sex marriage—as the non-Christian portion of the country continues to grow, the prospects for the conservative movement are going to attenuate as the Godless Gap widens.

Following Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss, there has been a lot of discussion about how conservatives can better reach out to non-whites. The Right needs to have a similar discussion about doing the same for non-Christians, especially since many non-whites are also non-Christian.

In 2016 and beyond, Christian conservatives face a choice. They can embrace identity politics and become a small group of frustrated Christian nationalists who grow ever more resentful toward their fellow Americans, or they can embrace reality—following people like Russell Moore and TAC’s own Rod Dreher, who want Christians to first put their own affairs in order and then render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.

Matthew Sheffield is president of Dialog New Media, a marketing and technology consulting firm. He was one of the nation’s first political bloggers and launched NewsBusters and the Washington Examiner. He’s a contributing editor at Bold.

57 Comments (Open | Close)

57 Comments To "Can a Christian Party Survive?"

#1 Comment By Jonah On February 26, 2016 @ 8:10 pm

I don’t think there is anything wrong with having your Christian morality help you decide how to take a position on one issue or another. I think where we have legislated Christian morality, we have hurt ourselves in the long game. What is the value of freedom, or free will for that matter, if people are forced to follow a way of life that may not be theirs, or what they want to be doing?
Another thing to think about, and I think it applies now more than ever, is that pushing any type of religious agenda works a lot better when people aren’t scared for their economic welfare. We all want to prepare from what comes next, but it is absolutely necessary that we are able to take care of ourselves and our families right now. So there are many people who think that, if it is so hard to pass legislation these days, why would they support defunding Planned Parenthood if they have a chance to support something that gives them economic security? Abortion is a serious issue, but do you expect people who are hurting economically to make that a priority over protecting themselves economically?
It wouldn’t hurt for us Christians to not be so openly antagonistic to other religions. We have become that way particularly with Muslims. Here are people of faith that share many of our conservative values and we treat them all like violent terrorists because they are Muslim. Its a ridiculous to stereotype Islam that way, and worse yet, we are excluding voters who would otherwise support policy positions most Christians support. We need to grow the party, not shrink it.

#2 Comment By Robert Bruce On February 28, 2016 @ 2:31 am

Christianity is dying and the only ones who are to blame are Christians themselves!!! They put their faith in demagogues that have helped to mock Christianity. Christians in America are the biggest warmongers in the world, and they totally go against the teachings of Christ, and thus come off as big hypocrites/liars. We have seen the enemy and the enemy is us!!!!!! By 2050 Christianity, true Christianity will just be like the first century Christians do home services hidden from view. It is pathetic, but it is the reality of what is coming.

#3 Comment By Robert Bruce On February 28, 2016 @ 2:37 am

THE biggest mistake Christians ever did was to allow themselves to be co opted by s bunch of cranks and loons, and then to adopt the GOP as “their” party. How many decades have gone by of total sellouts by the GOP to their Christian constituents? Every decade since the coming of Reagan, where the whole thing started!!!! The sad thing is if Christians got together and actually started an American Branch of the Christian Democratic Union, which espoused the teachings of Christ, they might actually have a decent shot at winning, but then again demagogues would probably co opt it like Palin and Beck co opted the Tea Party and totally discredited it.

#4 Comment By Philly guy On February 28, 2016 @ 12:12 pm

Saw racketeering religious reactionaries open for Eric Clapton at the Valley Forge Music Fair in 1979.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 29, 2016 @ 10:32 pm

Christianity is not dying. it never will die.

People of faith are becoming fewer and fewer (maybe) as predicted by Christ and the apostles. This is a very hard road to walk and while walking it will be imperfect, it remains a very narrow and tough road when compared to what is offered by the “world.”

Sure believers fall short of modeling Christ, some more than others — me a lot —

But Christianity die out — not at all.

That aside as citizens of the US Christians have every right to fully participate in the process of politics and the making of the country as everyone else.

And they are as entitled to bring their faith in play as a value system as everyone else brings theirs.

#6 Comment By Angela Long On May 5, 2016 @ 5:45 am

The irony of the comments on here … The GOP has ran on the “god” platform for long enough. People aren’t looking for a spiritual guide. They have pastors for that. A president/politician can’t lead with an ideology that excludes. You have a populace with many faiths. You’re aren’t being elected to indoctrinate. You haven’t supported working class. You’ve consistently ran anti-labor. You’ve constantly made bad economic policies – as have the left. You run on fringe issues, as does the left. All this has hurt white, middle class. You passed things like Right To Work … Smart thing to do is push for unions again, push for union reform to protect against abuse. You have to beat them at their own game and actually DO what they claim they will. They give crumbs.

Look at our families. I’m just going to speak for whites, I’m white. White, blue collar middle class is disappearing; our families broken; uneducated; addicted; committing suicide. We are broken. By family, I mean all families- gay and straight. The key word is FAMILY. Promote family. Modern families. Create better work programs/education … Take up free college issues. The left isn’t liberal anymore, only when it comes to sex and race, even on race they are racists themselves. Stop responding to their racist accusations. FFS, stop promoting creationism and anti-climate change. Stop talking about small government – change to effective government. Stop attacking welfare, start attacking lack of opportunity. Stop pandering to the Christian Right. It is 2016. Not be cruel, but people, as they have all through time, lose faith and grow into other systems of thought. Atheism is growing. So is the return to ancestral faiths. People, especially among white youth, no longer want to follow an ethnic religion. Christianity is a Middle Eastern faith. I see a lot of people learning those languages and customs, in a non religious way. Take up women’s issues – because women now have women attacking them for not being far left. They absolutely terrorize them, far worse than the men do. The day of the religious, capitalist fascist right – is over. You better find a new role.

#7 Comment By Idaho Atheist On May 24, 2016 @ 3:14 pm

I have been working for the USAF for 24 years, 21 active and the last 3 civil service. I can tell you two major trends I have seen. The first is that the young airmen coming in are much less religious and two, many more of them vote democrat. Back in the 90’s when I first began this journey I was a little reluctant to admit that I was an atheist and I heard of no one that voted democrat. Now I would say there is almost a majority of the young people are “nones”. Exactly as the author says young people are moving away from religion and the GOP is becoming irrelevant to them because of it. Things like gay marriage and women’s rights make the GOP look like hate mongers and the young people today are taught to accept everyone.

Most are not well informed enough to understand the economic devastation that the democrats are causing this nation (partly because of creative math/statistics by the liberal media) but they understand social exclusion and the promise of free everything. They also have almost nothing, and have worked for little so they don’t understand why the rich should not be further taxed so that they can have more. I am a person that came from nothing and built everything I have very slowly and am now being taxed heavily for my hard work while others feel they deserve a free ride. I have had many conversations with active duty millennials and they all feel that $15 minimum wage is a good idea despite the fact that they are active duty and don’t currently even make that much; they feel that everyone, including a fast food worker, deserves to make a comfortable living despite having no education or special skills. They aren’t seeing the big picture but that’s youth; the GOP should be smart enough to see the big picture and stop running candidates like Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz who are religious zealots first and political candidates second. I believe every recent POTUS has had religion but it doesn’t define them politically and that is the candidate the GOP should be looking for in 2020.