Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Churches no longer dominate the landscape ... and here's a reason

This post is a coda to yesterday's discussion of Robert P. Jones' White Too Long. Mark Silk is a professor at Trinity College, Connecticut, and a contributor to Religion News Service. Here's his take on the changing political significance of contemporary U.S. religiosity.

Click to pick out the church spire.

The hollowing out of American religion

[April 5, 2021] Twenty-five years ago, when Trinity College hired me to create a center for the study of religion in public life, nearly 9 in 10 Americans asserted a religious identity. Now, according to Gallup, it’s 7 in 10.  
Then, two-thirds of Americans said they belonged to a religious congregation. Now, it’s less than half. As for weekly attendance, Gallup reports it down from 40% to 30%. ... 
It’s a fair bet that by midcentury, just half the American population will identify with a religion, one-third will belong to congregations, and one-sixth will attend worship once a week. The trends could reverse, of course, but as of now the turn away from organized religion is the most consequential demographic shift in our time. 
That’s because, in the wake of the civil rights movement, the Republican Party decided to build its future on religion. From Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the GOP’s Sunbelt strategy became a Bible Belt strategy, which used religion to push the Democrats into the minority. 
And a promising strategy it was, so long as the vast majority of Americans remained religiously engaged. Otherwise, however, not so much. 
... Given that smaller proportions of religious voters are coming on line every cycle, you’d expect the GOP to dial back its enthusiasm for restricting abortions, fighting LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws and maximizing the ability of religious institutions and individuals to access public goods while receiving exemptions from generally applicable laws. 
But of course, that hasn’t happened. Instead, having abandoned its 20th-century dream of becoming the majority party, the GOP has dialed back its commitment to democracy and gone all-in for gerrymandering congressional districts and suppressing the votes of the (increasingly secular) other side 
As a result, the place of religion in American politics has become more important over the quarter-century that it has been my business, even as Americans themselves have been turning away from organized religion. Anyone who thinks this is a healthy development should think again.
My emphasis. Silk doesn't spell out the overwhelming whiteness of those who remain in the religious fold, as he should if I'm to believe Robert P. Jones' demographic picture. But he seems awfully solid as an observer of the political and religious consequences of declining religious affiliation among all racial groups.

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