Yes, Americans are losing faith in almost all institutions these days, but the decline in church attendance has reverberations that will last a long time.
By Matt Lewis
As Christians gather to celebrate Easter, a new Gallup poll shows that, for the first time, U.S. church membership has dropped below 50 percent. If you’re applauding this, you shouldn’t be. This milestone should concern anyone who cares about preserving liberal democracy, civility, and comity.
You might be tempted to point out that church membership is not the same as religious belief. This is true, but the Gallup numbers also track with the Pew Research Center’s recent findings on the decline of American adults who identify as Christians. Regardless, there is a stark difference between joining a community of believers and being a consumer of, say, televangelism; these differences are significant and demonstrable in terms of our political behavior. During the 2016 GOP primary, for example, one of the best predictors of whether a person would support Donald Trump was regular church attendance. Self-identified Christians might have supported him, but as The Washington Post noted at the time, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.”
Church membership also denotes community and social connection, and these were also key predictors of Trump supporters in 2016. Parts of the nation with low social capital—places where people go bowling (or worshiping) alone—were more susceptible to Trumpism. As conservative writer Tim Carney noted, “Given two different counties with the same demographics and economics, the one with weaker or fewer community institutions was more likely to support Trump.” To be sure, this didn’t translate to supporting Hillary Clinton (white evangelicals overwhelmingly backed Trump in the general election), but it did correlate with their opposition to Trump in the primary. If more evangelicals had attended church, Trump would have never won the Republican nomination.
Of course, this correlation between church attendance and Trumpism might also be part of a larger trend. Yes, Americans are losing faith in almost all institutions these days (it should be noted that Gallup’s findings are not exclusive to Christians, they apply to the decline of Americans “belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque”). But the reduction in church attendance is arguably the most important, with reverberations that will last. The truth is that there seems to be something hardwired in the human spirit that causes us to want to worship. I’ll let you decide whether God created this hole in our hearts that only he can fill, or whether it’s the result of some evolutionary adaptation that makes us yearn in vain for a creator. The result is the same. Bob Dylan famously told us “you gotta serve somebody,” and he was right.
This deep-seated impulse cannot be subsumed. It will eventually come out. I’m not the first to suggest that the thirst for transcendent purpose and meaning is often channeled into our politics—often to our detriment. It’s hard to compromise with someone you view as not just wrong, but also heretical.
The old conservative catchphrase, “Don’t Immanentize the Eschaton!” spoke to the conservative sense that we live in a fallen world and that trying to bring about the perfectibility of man on this mortal earth will end badly. For example, the German-American political philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” proclamation abetted the rise of Hitler and other 20th-century authoritarian regimes.
This doesn’t always have to be that sinister, though. In 2003, Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton argued that “environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st-century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.” Crichton continued: “There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all.” Like life, religion finds a way.
Because the modern Democratic Party embraced secularism before the GOP, this trend hit them first, which probably explains why Crichton’s example featured environmentalists. But things have gotten worse since Crichton’s speech. Our political situation almost perfectly tracks Gallup’s numbers, which show a 20-percentage-point collapse in church membership since 1999.
The delayed secularization of the right (manifested partly by the nomination of a thrice-married casino magnate who pays off porn stars and talks about grabbing women by their privates) was a major departure from the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush and the LDS faith of Mitt Romney. Since 2016, the right has been working overtime to catch up; cult-like support for Donald Trump manifested itself earlier this year in the form of a golden idol displayed at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
he decline of church membership will not lead us to some better, more rational, world. Lacking the moral clarity that comes from a belief that our fellow humans are all made in His image, politics eventually becomes about tribal identity and the will to power. “What we are seeing is an evolution from religion to race as the organizing principle of conservative American politics,” said David Frum on a recent episode of the Bulwark podcast.
If you think our politics has gotten better since 1999 (before the decline of church membership started to drop off a cliff, Republicans were pearl-clutching about Bill Clinton’s sins and stressing “family values”), then go right ahead and ignore this warning. As conservative columnist Ross Douthat put it: “If you dislike the religious right, wait till you meet the post-religious right.”