Foreign Affairs, the banner publication of the Council of Foreign Relations, carries in its March-April 2012 issue, an interesting article on religion and politics in the United States. It is by two prominent political scientists, David Campbell (Notre Dame) and Robert Putnam (Harvard). Their title is “God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics is Bad for Both”. I assume that the sexier title on the cover of the journal was composed by the editors rather than the authors: “How the Tea Party Undermines Religion in America”. The material in the article comes from the authors’ highly informative book American Grace (about to come out as a paperback).
At the core of the article is a phenomenon that has drawn considerable attention for a while—the sharp rise in the number of Americans who declare themselves in surveys as being without religious affiliation. People who study religious statistics, and who also have a sense of humor (the two qualities are not necessarily contradictory), call this demographic “the nones”. In the 1960s the “nones” comprised 5-7% of the population; by the mid-1990s they had grown to 12%; in 2011 the percentage was 19%. According to the invaluable data on religion ongoingly posted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the incidence of “nones” is highest in the age group 30-49. A possible explanation, of course, could be that younger people have always been less religious than their elders (the so-called “life cycle effect”). The authors reject this explanation: Today 33% of young people are religiously unaffiliated, as compared with 12% in the 1970s. In other words: Youth as such is not the only factor in making individuals flee the churches. What is more, this flight of the young is rapidly accelerating: In surveys conducted by the authors all “nones” grew by about 18% between 2006 and 2011, but young “nones” grew by about 90%–a truly remarkable difference.
Campbell and Putnam have a convincing political explanation of this development: The growth of the “nones”, and especially of their young constituent, is a reaction against the Religious Right. According to their data, between 2006 and 2011 Democrats and progressives were more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than Republicans and conservatives. These data are supported by those of the Pew Forum: “Nones” are 23% of those who say they are Republicans or leaning toward the Republican party, but 55% of Democrats and those leaning toward that party. There is an even higher discrepancy among younger “nones”. They associate Republicanism with intolerance and homophobia. And they don’t like this. We know from many other sources that the young are much more liberal on issues of gender and sexuality. On empirical grounds, one may conclude that, whatever else has happened in America in recent decades, the sexual revolution has achieved victory on most fronts. If one wants to use this hackneyed phrase, those who take a stand against this development find themselves on “the wrong side of history”. (Please note that this statement is descriptive, not necessarily approving: Historical change is not always a good thing.)
An interjection here: Could an alternative explanation be in terms of class? Sociologists just love class as an explanation. In that case, the “nones” would represent the secularity of the elite, as against the religiosity of the lower classes. The Pew data do not support this explanation: The “nones” are most strongly represented among people with an income under $30,000, with high school graduation or less, who are married but (interestingly) without children. I am enough of a sociologist to think that class comes in somewhere in this matter, but it is unlikely to be a major factor.
I find most intriguing the Pew data on the religious beliefs and behavior of the “nones”. Let us stipulate that the “nones”, especially if they are young, are repelled by the neo-Puritanism of religious conservatives. But does this mean that they have decided (in the words of the authors) “to opt out of religion altogether”? I am strongly inclined to say no. Back to Pew data: 60% of “nones” say that they believe in God, as against 22% who say not. 41% say that religion is important in their lives, a minority as against the 57% who say that religion is not important—but a minority large enough to contradict the assertion that the “nones” have turned against religion altogether. What they have clearly turned away from is participation in institutional worship: 72% say that they seldom or never attend church services.
Let me, with all due respect for Campbell and Putnam, suggest a hypothesis of my own: Most “nones” have not opted out of religion as such, but have opted out of affiliation with organized religion. Among Christians (the great majority of all survey respondents) there are different reasons for this disaffection. The two authors are very probably correct that, broadly speaking, those who are turned off by Evangelicals and conservative Catholics do so because they don’t like the repressive sexual morality of those churches (the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church has not helped). But the “nones” have also exited from mainline Protestantism, which has been much more accommodating to the liberationist ethic. Here, I think, there has been frustration with what my friend and colleague Thomas Luckmann long ago called “secularization from within”—the stripping away of the transcendent dimensions of the Gospel, and its reduction to conventional good deeds, popular psychotherapy and (mostly left-of-center) political agendas. Put differently: My hypothesis implies that some “nones” are put off by churches that preach a repressive morality, some others by churches whose message is mainly secular.
What then do these people believe? There is very likely a number (in America a relatively small one) of “nones” who are really without religion—agnostics or (even fewer) outright atheists. The latter have been encouraged by the advocates of the so-called “new atheism”—which is not new at all, but rather a reiteration of a tired 19th-century rationalism, pushed by a handful of writers who have been misrepresented as an important cultural movement. Presumably it is committed atheists who spark litigation over allegations that, for instance, a Christmas tree in a public park is a violation of the constitution. The bulk of the “nones” probably consist of a mix of two categories of unaffiliated believers—in the words of the British sociologist Grace Davie, people who “believe without belonging”. There are those who have put together an idiosyncratic personal creed, putting together bits and pieces of their own tradition with other components. Robert Wuthnow, the most productive and insightful sociologist of American religion, has called this “patchwork religion”. This includes the kind of people who will say “I am Catholic, but…”, followed by a list of items where they differ from the teachings of the church. The other category are the children—by now, grandchildren—of the counter-culture. They will most often say, “I am spiritual, not religious”. The “spirituality” is typically an expression of what Colin Campbell, another British sociologist, has called “Easternization”—an invasion of Western civilization by beliefs and practices from Asia. A few of these are organized, for instance by the various Buddhist schools. But most are diffused in an informal manner—such as belief in reincarnation or the spiritual continuity between humans and nature, and practices like yoga or martial arts.
The political dynamics ably described by Campbell and Putnam may yet change. Republicans might endorse same-sex marriage and Democrats might lose their enthusiasm for abortion. There will always be politicians with no convictions of their own, but with a finely tuned ability to detect cultural changes and the resultant possibility of new constituencies to represent. What is not likely to change in the foreseeable future is the reality of America as, relatively, the most religious society in the Western world. Even the anti-Puritans among us tend to pursue their agendas with Puritanical zeal.
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