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Is the Religious Right to Blame for Christianity’s Decline?

No one will be surprised to learn that religious beliefs, affiliations, and activities are important predictors of political attitudes and actions. This is one of the more well-studied subjects in the field of political behavior. Most of the literature examining this relationship, however, assumed a causal arrow that points in only one direction: religion influences politics. The stack of books and papers considering whether trends in politics influence trends in religion is much shorter. This is starting to change, and the results of this research increasingly suggests that the Religious Right played at least some role in America’s declining religiosity.

As the number of Americans that identified with no religion began increasing in the 1990s, scholars and journalists began to look for explanations. Especially among pundits, these explanations typically favored their own cultural, theological, and political prejudices. To lay my own cards on the table, I am persuaded [1] that fertility rates are one of the best predictors [2] of a Christian denomination’s long-term health. That said, it would be remarkable if politics did not have any effect on religious trends, given the degree to which American religion has been so politicized since the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s.

For a time, it was frequently argued that Christianity was on the decline because Americans were fleeing liberal mainline denominations. This was not implausible. Looking at trends in American religion in the late 20th century, it was easy to discern that, on average, the mainline Protestant denominations were declining rapidly. And until recently, the more theologically-conservative evangelical denominations continued to experience growth, or at least hold steady.

This led the Religious Right to crow [3] that their more conservative theological and political stances were yielding dividends in the pews. They argued that liberal churches had abandoned biblical teachings in favor of more fashionable political causes, but these efforts to “get with the times” failed to bring in new members. Even worse, it caused them to lose existing members to secularism, or nudged them toward more conservative expressions of Christianity, especially evangelical Protestantism.


One does not often hear this argument anymore.

As plausible as this theory may have appeared a decade ago, recent trends in American religious life suggest it is incomplete, if not entirely wrong. The more traditionalist evangelical denominations have now begun a nosedive of their own. And to make matters worse for those denominations that once formed the backbone of the Religious Right, the growth we do see among evangelicals comes largely from Pentecostal denominations, which, on average, are not especially (politically) conservative [4].

The decline of many evangelical denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention, seems to give new credibility to the argument that the Religious Right was, overall, a detriment to Christianity in the United States. Such a claim, however, is difficult to demonstrate empirically.

In the most influential article on this subject [5], Michael Hout and Claude Fischer made this case in 2002. They argued that, as the Religious Right became increasingly visible and militant, it became associated with Christianity itself. And if being a Christian meant being associated with the likes of Jerry Falwell, many people—especially political moderates and liberals—decided to simply stop identifying as Christians altogether. This was especially true of people whose religious attachments were already weak.


The results of Hout and Fischer’s analysis were congruent with their hypothesis, though given the limitations of their methods, one could reasonably claim that they failed to decisively prove their case. But in the subsequent decade and a half, additional research has further strengthened their argument. American Grace [6], by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, for example, argued that declining levels of religious affiliation can be partly attributed to the Christian Right. A subsequent study [7] by Hout and Fischer provided similar results.

Our understanding of this subject took a significant step forward recently thanks to a new article by Paul Djupe, Jacob Neiheisel, and Anand Sokhey. In “Reconsidering the Role of Politics in Leaving Religion,” [8] the authors provide new evidence that disagreement with the Religious Right was a catalyst for some people’s withdrawal from Christianity. These scholars approached the subject somewhat differently, focusing on affiliation with a particular congregation, rather than personal identification with a particular religion.

The focus on congregational affiliation is important, as it arguably has greater social consequences than religious identification. One can wonder, after all, how much it really matters if a person who engaged in no religious activities to begin with stops telling pollsters that he is a Christian, but otherwise changes nothing.

The studies conducted by Hout and Fischer indicated that the Religious Right inadvertently drove down religious identification among liberals and moderates. Using three separate data sets, however, Djupe, Neiheisel, and Sokhey showed that the Religious Right may have also driven some evangelical Republicans from their congregations. Specifically, Republican evangelicals that disagreed with the Religious Right were more likely to leave their churches.

It is important not to overstate these effects; as the authors noted, congregational disaffiliation due to disagreement with the Religious Right was most common among people who were weakly attached to their churches to begin with. The declining levels of every measure of religiosity in America can be attributed to multiple causes, and no one is arguing that the Religious Right is the sole (or even the primary) culprit.

Given the Religious Right’s record of success on other fronts, however, the finding that it expedited the decline of Christian identification and affiliation is a damning indictment of the movement.

In the realm of politics, the Religious Right was an abysmal failure. It was an effective fundraising tool for Republican politicians, but its lasting victories in terms of social policies are difficult to name. Stopping the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s was perhaps the movement’s sole permanent achievement. And that victory occurred before most of the major institutions of the Christian Right were even established. On abortion, gay marriage, prayer in school, and other social issues, conservative victories were typically fleeting.

Despite the hundreds of thousands of Americans that formally joined institutions associated with the Religious Right, and the untold millions spent on lobbying and activism, the movement’s long-term impact on public policy seems negligible. It is hardly surprising that the Religious Right is no longer even perceived as a relevant force in U.S. politics. Far from a kingmaker in the political arena, the Christian Right is now mostly ignored.

Many political movements flop, and those sympathetic to the Religious Right may want to at least give the movement credit for fighting for its beliefs, however ineffectual it was. Lots of political non-profits have an abysmal return on investment. But if the research on religious decline and the Religious Right is correct, and the movement played even a small role in expediting the decline of Americans’ religiosity, it deserves to be judged as one of the most dramatic failures in American political history.

George Hawley (@georgehawleyUA) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. His books include Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism [9], White Voters in 21st Century America [10], and Making Sense of the Alt-Right [11] (forthcoming).

108 Comments (Open | Close)

108 Comments To "Is the Religious Right to Blame for Christianity’s Decline?"

#1 Comment By What They’ll See As They Sober Up On June 17, 2018 @ 12:46 pm

The religious right hasn’t done Christianity any favors. It has done the country even fewer. Not only did it fail to diagnose and treat the chief causes and symptoms of American moral rot, but its greatest, signal success – introducing a reflexive, unthinking support for the government of Israel into American politics – led to economic, military, and strategic catastrophes. Including 9/11.

This was itself a species of moral rot, conniving at the corruption of national loyalty, seeking to make Americans complicit in the repulsive behavior of Israel’s government.

The religious right was not alone. It served as a chief accomplice and dupe of neoconservatism, and they could not have done nearly so much damage without each other. The RR intimidated otherwise sensible heartland politicians with their numbers, and the neocons enticed and intimidated them with staggering sums of campaign cash. The result was the transformation of US Mideast policy into an horrific Moloch demanding colossal sacrifices of substance, and even of our sons and daughters, on the altar of a twisted pseudo-Biblical delusion.

An epitaph: “Brought Low By Pride, Hypocrisy, Mammon, and Treason”.

#2 Comment By WorkingClass On June 17, 2018 @ 5:40 pm

Back in the most of us thought electoral politics was about war and peace abroad and capital vs labor at home. For the religious right it was about abortion, contraception and sexual deviancy. Many came to see Christianity and the Republican Party as identical to the religious right. I regard this as unfortunate. But the social conservatives have a perfect right to their politics. The problem was, is and will be our two party system.

#3 Comment By sophistry On June 17, 2018 @ 6:09 pm

On the contrary, the religious right failed in that it wasn’t strident enough.

It allowed movements like gay rights to take a hold. It allowed degenerate music to take a hold. Where the youth are, the future follows. The religious right was too permissive in its love for its children. It would not cast out and condemn those who strayed. It was not able to sustain an internal society, one where families formed in the community of the church. That ultimately is what draws men to the church: women. And women get out of church a sense of community involvement. The religious right allowed itself to be defeated. Osama Bin Laden observed that people flock to the strong horse. The religious right was not that strong horse.

#4 Comment By Joe Beavers On June 18, 2018 @ 2:48 pm

Riffing off of an earlier post, remember that Christianity as a defined entity started around 350 AD as the state religion of Rome, and was codified by a bunch of old guys wearing funny hats.

#5 Comment By Thaomas On June 18, 2018 @ 4:57 pm

No, this is a vast overstatement. The decline of Christianity is based on an inadequate intellectual response to change, mostly to science and politics. Portions of Christianity have gotten themselves on the wrong side of scientific (Protestants on evolution) and political (Catholics on democracy) controversies.

It did not help, but the damage had been done long before some Christians tried to make a virtue of hostility to LGBT people and immigrants.

#6 Comment By Neil D On July 3, 2018 @ 1:29 am

The reason the “Religious Right” failed to reverse moral decay is because they are conmen. They are pawns of establishment Republicans who do not actually care to defend social conservatism or Christianity. They only care about Israel, the super wealthy, and increasing their power in this pseudo-democracy.

Republicans and Democrats alike also increased the distance between Evangelicals and the rest of society, drifting society further left culturally and even more secular. This “Religious Right” is a farce, and seems to have only been created for the destruction of conservative Christianity, rather than to strengthen it.

The problem isn’t the conservative values of Christian Right: it’s their American-worshipping self-righteousness and being infected with the Prosperity Gospel and moralistic therapeutic deism, just as the left is following their own false gospel: the Social Gospel.

If conservative Christianity in America was not of a NEOconservative variety, then it would not have the problems they have now.

American Christians will need to stand up against societal pressures to support abortion, homosexuality, non-marital sex, meddling with the Middle East, consumerism, illegal immigration, political correctness, and more. At the same time, their morality must be without greed and the moralism so prevalent in the Anglosphere. They also need to decrease dependency on the government by being more charitable to the poor in whatever ways they can. Get rid of the false gospels that so many “Christians” follow, and resist the Benedict “Option” that will only further alienate evangelicals from those who need the Gospel. There is much more I could say, but this is all I have time for.

#7 Comment By Zorba On September 26, 2018 @ 7:09 pm

Such things are very complex, and I do not pretend to have all the answers.


The “Religious Reich” has driven Libertarians and other moderates out of the GOP, with the disastrous consequences of Socialism and other (economic) Liberal policies. On the other hand, the Liberals have completely overstated their case in social terms, alienating – again – Libertarians and other moderates.

So it boils down to “Choose the form of the distructor”; what form of slavery do you want? A Christian Monotheistic theocracy with an oppressive social agenda, or rampant Socialism tinged with a nonsensical social agenda?

When you’re in the middle – as I believe most people are – the choices are all ill. I want freedom above all else, I do not want a morally bankrupt Christian theocracy, nor do I want Socialism. The party of Jesus or the Party of Marx. No thank you to both. I want my second amendment rights upheld without question, and I also want my first amendment rights protected.

Nobody offers that – not even the so-called “Libertarian Party” that went full tilt Socialist the last presidential election.

#8 Comment By Eli On April 20, 2019 @ 10:59 am

Faith is declining across every denomination in America, for far more reasons than the Religious Right’s visible, angry involvement in Republican politics.

But evangelicals’ hysterical embrace of Donald Trump himself, and the Trump presidency, will not help improve the way America views the faith.

Any clear-eyed assessment of Trump’s character forces one to reckon with his contempt for the morals and behaviors that inform a religious life. And yet, the news is filled with images of conservative Christians exalting him — typically with some weak variation on “are we not all sinners?”

For at least four years, possibly eight, hopefully not more, the association with Trump will define evangelicalism for the majority of young people coming of age in America. Their take-away will not be kind. In their eyes, Evangelical Christianity is the religion that rejected science so their President could help the world burn, and rejected morality so their President could impose their version of it. They have redefined Christianity as the religion of destructive hypocrites.

The religious right will get judges out of this, empowering a few individuals to thwart the will of a majority of voters for the next 40 years. I hope the trade-off was worth it.