Most who identify as religious in America voted for Donald Trump in the last election, with only Hispanic Catholics, Jewish people and the vaguely categorized “Other Faiths” favoring Hillary Clinton. But not all among the devout behave similarly: Some keep the Sabbath and others don’t.
In an Atlantic article, Peter Beinart theorizes that falling church attendance in America, a trend of the last several decades (even among believers), has helped reconfigure the culture war, which used to be mainly about so-called values issues and now is drawn along racial and ethnic lines. There are many other factors involved, so it’s not easy to establish causality, but there seems to be some validity to the argument, especially if considering the primary season, when Trump’s most reliable voters where evangelicals who skip Sundays.
This shift has probably been both boon and bane. Support has softened for some prejudiced church beliefs that run afoul of civil rights (as with gay marriage), but those advances have coincided with a surprising number of citizens choosing to ignore the communal good with respect to non-white Americans and immigrants. It does seem like an awful lot of self-described Christians have ceased asking themselves “What would Jesus do?” on a regular basis.
Perhaps Beinart’s thesis might partly explain why so many among us were willing to make a deal with the devil?
Over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans—long known for their piety—were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.
Some observers predicted that this new secularism would ease cultural conflict, as the country settled into a near-consensus on issues such as gay marriage. After Barack Obama took office, a Center for American Progress report declared that “demographic change,” led by secular, tolerant young people, was “undermining the culture wars.” In 2015, the conservative writer David Brooks, noting Americans’ growing detachment from religious institutions, urged social conservatives to “put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations.”
That was naive. Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.•