Since 1988, the General Social Survey has asked Americans of different ages what they think of God. For decades, the answer hasn’t changed much. About 70 percent of the Silent Generation said they “knew God really exists” and “have no doubts about it.” This same sentiment was shared by about 63% of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.
But in 2018, millennials expressed much less certainty. Only 44 percent had no doubts about the existence of God. Gen Z members were even more doubtful – only a third claimed to have some belief in God.
Today, researchers find that, by almost every measure they use to measure religiosity, younger generations are much more secular than their parents or grandparents. In responses to survey questions, more than 40 percent of younger Americans report no religious affiliation, and only a quarter report attending religious services every week or more.
Americans haven’t understood how this cultural shift will affect so many facets of society – and it’s no more evident than when it comes to the future of the Republican and Democratic parties.
Religious voters, especially white evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, are part of the bedrock of the modern Republican Party. It is well known that Donald Trump enjoyed overwhelming support from white evangelicals in 2020, with 84% voting for him. But what has largely gone unnoticed is how the Republican Party continued to win half of the non-evangelical white Protestant vote and continued to win among white Roman Catholics. Republican candidates see this success by emphasizing Christian nationalism and focusing on the kind of intense culture war rhetoric – on issues like immigration and abortion – that we’ve been hearing for years. 1990.
Will Democrats face a mid-term erasure?
But it does look like there is some sort of expiration date on this wave of religious conservatives. The share of Americans who identify as white Christians has declined rapidly in recent decades. There is ample evidence to believe that less than half of Americans today are in this key constituency for Republicans. The decline is the result of a combination of demographic changes: America has become more multiracial, and more Americans are abandoning Christianity and aligning themselves with other religions or abandoning religion altogether and joining the ranks of the not religious.
The leaders of the Republican Party are faced with a seemingly impossible task: to continue feeding their Christian base with red meat while finding ways to reach increasingly irreligious and racially diverse youth. Of course, there is anecdotal evidence that some members of the New Atheist movement have started to take conservative positions on race issues. But there is little reason to believe that secular voters will soon become a staple of the Republican electorate.
The Democratic Party and the coalition that elected Joe Biden in 2020 face their own challenges. The Democratic coalition is increasingly relying on a mishmash of groups, religious and non-religious, who are often at odds with each other on key social and cultural issues.
For example, there is no religious group more politically unified than black Protestants, with over 90% of them voting for Mr. Biden in 2020. But while black Protestants are often in favor of a more liberal in economic matters, they remain conservative Christians. who oppose many progressive social policies. Over 60% of black Protestants in 2018 said homosexual sex was always bad, the same percentage as evangelicals.
At the same time, Democrats must not take for granted the growing number of atheists and agnostics in their coalition. Atheists pose a particularly difficult problem for Democrats. When asked to situate himself in ideological space, the average atheist sees the Democratic Party as having become more conservative over the past three years, while it has become more liberal itself. Data indicates that atheists have been the most politically active religious group in the United States in recent years. In a 2018 survey, atheists were twice as likely to donate money or work for a political candidate as white evangelicals. Atheists want the Democratic Party to become more progressive and they are unlikely to remain silent if they do not see changes.
Democrats therefore need to find ways to strike a very delicate balance on political priorities between the concerns of non-politically liberals and the more traditional social positions taken by groups like blacks and mainline Protestants. This becomes particularly problematic on issues such as equality law. According to supporters, the legislation prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. However, religious Democrats are very likely to oppose the bill because it would undermine the ability of churches to live out their religious doctrines without government interference.
In 2021, while about 26% of Americans have no religious affiliation, only 0.2% of members of Congress identify as None. Given the rapid secularization of the United States, it is clear that the political establishment does not represent what is a seismic change in American society. Both parties will have to evolve to meet this challenge, but neither Republicans nor Democrats have an easy way.
Mr. Burge (@ryanburge) teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University and is the author of “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going”.