The sharp rise of non-affiliated Americans (or “nones”) in the past two decades has become a key concern of church leaders, and the tendency to mix conservative politics and religion may be a significant factor in this trend, according to a new study by political scientists David Campbell, Geoffrey Layman, and John Green. In a lecture at New York’s Columbia University in mid-October, which RW attended, Campbell presented findings from the Secular American Survey suggesting that the rise in non-affiliation began at the same period that the religious right was at its height of influence. This association has been made by other scholars, but Campbell and his colleagues say they have new evidence that even the perception of mixing faith and politics may actually cause people to veer toward identification with the “nones.” The telephone survey was conducted between 2010 and 2012, among 2,635 (first wave) and 1412 (second wave) respondents.
Campbell reported that an exposure to religious politics in campaigns made respondents, especially Democrats, more likely to say they were “nones” embracing as truth “secular beliefs,” such as science and facts about the natural. The researchers created an experiment to see if such exposure actually has a causative effect in moving people toward non-affiliation or secularism. When the respondents were shown (fictitious) articles on candidates, one of which included references to a candidate’s evangelical beliefs and how it influences their politics, the researchers observed the subjects, again particularly the Democrats, shifting from a religious to a non-affiliated label in describing their faith. Campbell said while this exposure moved respondents toward identification with the “nones,” it did not lead them to a secular identity to espouse secular beliefs.
Campbell said that the study should serve to warn church leaders to be cautious in engaging in religious politics.
Religious leaders appear to be taking Campbell’s advice, with some of the most fervent culture warriors reconsidering the role of political activism in their ministries. The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 22) reports that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is one such major player in conservative-religious politics now rethinking its public role in the face of significant membership loss. Russell Moore, who heads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says “it’s time to tone down the rhetoric and pull back from the political fray, given what he calls a ‘visceral recoil’ among younger evangelicals to the culture wars,” reports Neil King Jr. Baptists are reported to be leaving the church of their childhood faster than any other Protestant group, according to data gathered by Pew Research.
While still voting Republican, younger evangelicals are leaving the SBC and “other big denominational churches for more loosely organized assemblies that oppose abortion but are less likely to hew to other Republican causes,” King writes. The commission, under the previous leadership of Richard Land, was among the most outspoken and activist denominational agencies on religious right issues, especially pro-abortion to anti-gay rights concerns. But today the SBC and much of the rest of the religious right are “undergoing a generational shift as Moore and his allies are recalibrating their methods and aims.” In his e-newsletter Sightings (October 26), Martin Marty reports that similar rethinking is taking place across the evangelical blogosphere. But Marty notes that this is not so much a “secularization” of the Christian right as much as a “de-churchification.”
While churches are “pulling back from the extreme right wing connections, religious rhetoric and appeals do remain strong on the right.”