In late March, Gallup released some astonishing findings. US Church membership sharply plummeted, going from 70% in 2000 to 47% today.
The role and influence of the religious right clearly played a role in this, according to Notre Dame Professor David Campbell:
David Campbell, professor and chair of the University of Notre Dame’s political science department and co-author of Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics, said a reason for the decline among those groups is political — an “allergic reaction to the religious right”.
“Many Americans — especially young people — see religion as bound up with political conservatism, and the Republican party specifically,” Campbell said.
“Since that is not their party, or their politics, they do not want to identify as being religious. Young people are especially allergic to the perception that many — but by no means all — American religions are hostile to LGBTQ rights.”
Pew Research issued a poll making these exact points:
However, the decline of religion doesn’t seem to have stopped the GOP’s pursuit of the Religious Right’s agenda. Just recently Arkansas passed a law banning transgender girls from female sports teams:
and the Arkansas Legislature passed a law banning medical treatment for transgender youth, only to have the Governor veto it:
Such legislation is being considered in states across the country:
Meanwhile, abortion restriction laws have are making their way through many states, such as Texas and Indiana:
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In 2019, Public Schools in 6 states were allowed publicly display “In God We Trust”:
Also, in 2019, Oklahoma banned LBTQ couples from adopting:
Of course, as all this was happening, Trump, a man not at all known for any religious impulses, was receiving the enthusiastic support of Evangelical leaders:
At first glance, the decline of religion doesn’t seem to have changed very much when it comes to the actual agenda of the Religious Right. However, America’s declining religiosity means that this is a well that the GOP cannot continue to drink from, which is why they have turned more openly than before to racial politics that previous versions of the GOP which kept it much more in the background — one major reason why GOP legislatures are directly targeting African American voters. It also explains why Tucker Carlson, who in addition to be being a talk show host is considered a serious 2024 Presidential candidate, is so openly going down this road.
Jerry Falwell and the GOP
The alliance between Religious Right and the Republican Party began in earnest, with the open embrace between Ronald Reagan and Moral Majority Founder Jerry Falwell Sr:
In Falwell, the Religious Right had powerful and prominent spokesman, the first American religious leader who could just as easily double as a spokesman for Republican causes like tax cuts and support for South African Apartheid, with no daylight between his religious positions and his political positions. It created the template for the religious leaders today, like Franklin Graham, who can easily pivot from delivering ad hominem attacks on how Obama might be Muslim:
To fully repeating RNC propaganda in defending Trump:
There is also the example of Falwell’s disgraced son — Jerry Falwell Jr., who also used religion to defend Trump on things like political correctness which have nothing to do with religion:
Once again on the surface, things look very normal — 40 years apart Religious Right leadership is going to bat for a GOP President and pushing a socially conservative agenda. However, the decision to embrace a GOP nominee who couldn’t even tell you much about his religious beliefs speaks volumes to the changing nature of American religion:
During 2016 GOP Primary, Pew Research Center poll found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week but led Cruz by 27 points among those who did not. If Republicans had been as religious in 2016 as they were just 15 years earlier, Trump would not have been the GOP nominee or the 45th President of the United States.
Race as a Replacement for Religion
While religious identification is waning however, racial identification, especially among whites seems to be increasing. According to Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina, while 9 percent of whites are unabashed racists who hold favorable views of the Ku Klux Klan, a much larger group — between 30 and 40 percent of whites — feel a strong attachment to their whiteness.
A December 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that 46 percent of white Americans said having a majority nonwhite nation in 2050 would “weaken American customs and values,” compared with 18 percent of black Americans and 25 percent of Hispanics. Asked whether having a majority nonwhite population would strengthen American customs and values, 42 percent of Democrats said it would, while only 13 percent of Republicans agreed.
This is precisely where Trump, and the modern GOP are — they have an electorate that identifies less by religion and more by race. So, while they have maintained the religious agenda, they added a racial agenda. It’s no wonder that as Trump governed, hate crimes rose:
Trump’s role in this has been well documented. However, Tucker Carlson has very much been his partner in crime on this all along. While everyone remembers Trump tweeting that Rep. Omar should “go back”. And his rally crowd chanted to “send her back” at Trump’s prompting:
However, Tucker was at it as well, saying Omar was “living proof” that U.S. immigration laws are “dangerous to this country”:
When Trump claimed Mexico was foisting an “invasion” of the US:
Carlson said Mexico had been “packing the electorate”:
Now with Trump entangled in legal woes in Mar-a-Lago, Tucker has emerged as a potential serious contenderfor President. It appears he is following the Trump playbook — appealing to a Republican base that identifies more by white identity than religious identity — in the same way Trump launched his political interest with speculation about birtherism:
Like birtherism, Tucker is using a conspiracy theory to appeal to the racial anxieties of white voters who fear the growing power of nonwhites. Where Republicans once appealed to religion, now they appeal to race.
In many ways the religious right set up this transition. If you wanted to start political movement based on the Christian religion in the United States it would make sense to reach out to the most religious demographic in America — African Americans. The Religious Right never did that — in fact they often went out of their way to oppose and antagonize African Americans. This was another trend that started with Falwell:
So, while we are seeing an open racial appeal by today’s GOP, racial animus was an animating force of yesterday’s religious right. In fact, Historian Randall Balmer argues that it wasn’t abortion, but desegregation that actually motivated Evangelicals to get involved:
The Rise of Religious Left Activism
On the other hand, more than any time in the recent past, we are seeing increasing interest among Democrats in embracing religion. Starting with Joe Biden who is very open about his Catholic faith:
Last year, Speaker Pelosi read from the Bible (specifically Ecclesiastes admonish on “a time to heal” after the murder of George Floyd and called on Trump to be a “Healer in Chief”
And of course, invoked her Catholicism and said she prayed for then President Trump:
AOC actually invoked her faith as motivating her support for LGBTQ rights:
When Secretary Pete Buttigieg was running for President, he invoked his religious faith frequently. Here he is discussing his support for environmentalism:
Vice President Kamala Harris, who comes from a multireligious background, openly talked about how her faith was challenged over the last year:
Of Course, Rev. Raphael Warnock is now a Democratic US Senator. Here he is in 2014 invoking his faith in defending his support for gun control:
This trend has come to the party from the grassroots, where civil rights leaders like the Rev. William Barber uses faith to call for progressive change. Here he is calling on lawmakers to raise the minimum wage:
So, while the GOP’s response to a decline in religious identity is to appeal to white identity — Democrats appear to be making a different calculation, appealing to those religious voters at the exact time that religious belief in America is waning. Unlike the Religious Right, the Religious Left does not use religion to divide believers from non-believers but uses religious language in the service of progressive policies without appeal to specific religious dogma. But why do this now amid declining church attendance?
The explanation is two-fold. First it is an expression of sincere religious belief, as there is not much to be gained at this point in talking openly about religion. Second, it does help that the religious left has a huge champion on the international stage as Pope Francis. When he addressed Congress and called for action on climate change, income inequality, and accepting migrants, Jewish American Sen. Bernie Sanders was a fan:
Even for non-Catholics, Pope Francis’ swerve away from issues of sexual morality towards issues of social justice has been highly influential. It has given religious Democrats a role model and a way to talk about their faith as being in service of their policies. It also allows Democrats to talk in a broad way about their values as opposed to their policies. For a long time, the opposite was true — the GOP talked about their values, and Democrats talked about their policies. However, a durable political party needs voters who share the same values more than agree on the same policies. In turning towards religion, Democrats appear to have learned a centuries old way of doing exactly that.