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Does the Religious Right’s Decline Help the Alt-Right?

There isn’t a strong relationship between religious observance and racial attitudes.
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In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Peter Beinart asserted a connection between America’s declining levels of religious observance, the success of Donald Trump’s secular brand of right-wing politics, and the related rise of the so-called alt-right. Beinart’s essay deserves to be read in its entirety, but his basic argument is that liberals should hesitate before dancing on the grave of the religious right.

Yes, organized conservative Christians were a major hindrance to certain progressive victories. And with the religious right in disarray and Christianity as a whole experiencing long-term decline, the progressive agenda may face fewer roadblocks on cultural issues in the future. Yet according to Beinart, we should not forget the progressive influence that Christianity has had on American culture and politics, or the role Christian institutions play in building social capital. It is not true that Christianity has served only reactionary ends. In fact, Christianity may have been one of the few forces keeping explicit white identity politics in check. No longer shackled to Christian notions of love and equality, the religious right’s remnants may embrace the racial right.

I welcomed Beinart’s article as a sign that the mainstream discussion of religion and politics is becoming more thoughtful and honest. Conservative evangelical Christians, for all their faults, were never the caricatures that progressive journalists described during the Bush era. Yet Beinart overstates the importance of Christianity as a defense against radical right-wing politics. Certainly, it is naïve to assume that former conservative Christians will all become secular egalitarians, but the future of white identity politics is probably not closely tied to the future of Christianity in America.

Thanks to a helpful series of questions on this subject included in the American National Election Studies 2016 Pilot Study, we can now begin discerning some of the correlates of white racial attitudes, especially feelings of white identity and solidarity. These are critical attitudes to study right now, given that the alt-right is counting on a growing constituency for explicit right-wing racial politics in the years ahead.

In the aforementioned survey, respondents were asked how important their race was to their identities. White respondents were also asked, “How important is it that whites work together to change laws that are unfair to whites?” The survey additionally asked respondents the frequency with which they attend worship services. In the following figures, we see white attitudes on racial identity and solidarity broken down by religious observance. The most observant attend worship at least once per week. The middle category attends worship anywhere from a few times per month to a few times per year. The least observant category darkens a church door less than once a year (or never).

It is worth pointing out that whites exhibited a surprisingly high average level of racial consciousness at all levels of religious observance. Polling the general public on issues related to race is difficult because we cannot typically trust that respondents will give honest answers; social desirability bias precludes many people from admitting to feelings of prejudice. It is therefore noteworthy that a substantial majority of whites (over 60 percent) felt that their race was at least moderately important to their identity. A similar majority thought it was at least moderately important that whites work together to further their interests.

But I see little compelling evidence that there is a strong relationship between religious observance and racial attitudes. Looking across the religious categories, we can find ways to present a narrative that lower levels of religiosity are associated with stronger feelings of white identity and solidarity. It is true that the infrequent attenders were, by a healthy margin, the group most likely to say that race was “extremely important” to their identity. And respondents who rarely or never attend a worship service were the most likely to say that it is “extremely important” that whites work together. But if you are looking for a smoking gun that the racial right is an inevitable beneficiary of the religious right’s decline, this is not it.

Granted, these figures do not capture all of the various nuances involved. There may be generational divides that these figures mask, for example. A more sophisticated analysis could tell us whether religious observance really is a statistically significant and substantively important predictor of these kinds of racial attitudes after controlling for other variables. For what it’s worth, in my own multivariate analysis, I found a small but significant relationship between worship attendance and white identity, but not for white solidarity. The data from this survey similarly showed that religious observance had a negligible relationship with feelings about immigration and affirmative action.

The lack of an obvious, linear relationship between religion and racial views is not surprising, given the existing literature on the subject. Studies that consider these issues have yielded mixed results. This is largely because religion is both a source of beliefs and a source of identity, and when it comes to immigration, those two elements of religion can pull people in different directions. Although the message from the pulpit may be that Christians must welcome the stranger, the stranger can be a source of anxiety if he comes from a different religious background.

It is probably not a coincidence that explicit right-wing racial politics began to rise as the religious right declined. But it would be a mistake to assume that Christianity is necessarily a boon or a detriment to white identity politics. Although a post-religious right may be more dangerous to liberal values than the religious right ever was, we should not exaggerate the degree to which Christianity serves as an ideological constraint. Christians have felt perfectly comfortable with many kinds of governments promoting many kinds of policies, and that will likely remain the case for the foreseeable future.

George Hawley is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. His books include Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism and White Voters in 21st Century America.