Americans have become significantly less religious over the course of just one generation, leading social scientists to investigate both why the change has occurred and why it has been so abrupt.
And while no one single factor can explain this shift in religiosity, a growing body of research suggests that the mingling of conservative Christianity with Republican politics over the past few decades has driven many liberal-leaning Americans away from organized religion.
Unlike the explanation offered by evangelical leaders such as Pastor Robert Jeffress, who recently said that Democrats are finally admitting they are a “godless party,” it does not appear to be secular liberal ideology that is stealing Americans away from the country’s pews.
Rather, it is religious conservative ideology that is pushing them toward the door.
Sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer theorized in 2002 that it was the Christian right’s involvement in politics that led some left-leaning Americans to leave religion behind. They reached this conclusion after ruling out other potential reasons for the rise of the secular American in the 1990s, which included demographic and generational shifts.
It was during that decade that the religious right was becoming more intertwined with politics, more powerful and more visible among Republicans.
As white evangelical Protestants became an increasingly important constituency for the GOP, the Christian conservative political agenda — focused primarily on issues of sexual morality, including opposition to gay marriage and abortion — became an integral part of the the party’s pitch to voters, but it was still framed as part of an existential struggle to protect the country’s religious foundation from incursions by the secular left.
While this theory was not initially well-accepted among social scientists — largely “because it challenged long-standing assumptions about how flexible our religious identities really are” — new research is providing more support for the idea.
Michele Margolis, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity,” has also produced research finding that “some people on the left are falling away from religion because they see it as so wrapped up with Republican politics.”
“Politics can drive whether you identify with a faith, how strongly you identify with that faith, and how religious you are,” she said.
Other studies have also found that people generally are not becoming more secular and then shifting toward liberal politics to better fit their softening religious views; instead, people’s political identities are sustained and it is their religious views that shift.