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Religion and politics: a changing dynamic

April 24, 2012
By George J. Bryjak

Two of the three most important institutions in society are the polity and religion (the third being the economy) as both typically have a significant impact on the lives of citizens.

In a theocracy, the government is controlled by religious authorities who claim unlimited power and legitimate that power in the name of God. Iran and Saudi Arabia, countries where Islamic law (the Sharia) is the basis of most, if not all statutes, are examples of modern theocracies. At the other extreme are nations with a complete separation of church and state, and low religious participation. In the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Sweden and Norway), only 5 percent of adults attend church once a week or more. Most nations - including the U.S. - are located at some point on a continuum between these extremes with the relation between religion and politics ever changing.

In their book, "American Grace," and a recent Foreign Affairs article, David Campbell of Notre Dame University and Robert Putnam of Harvard University, examine the relation between religion and politics in this country from 1960 to the present. They also speculate on the future of this relation and its consequence for the nation.

During the 1960s, regular churchgoers were more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. Even into the 1980s, there were a significant number of liberals at Sunday morning services while many conservatives stayed home. However, in the 1970s the religion-polity relation began to shift with the birth of the religious right and its movement into the Republican Party. Moral conservatives (including some Catholics and Mormons) flexed their political muscles and joined force to combat the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights and abortion.

Although the precise impact religious conservatives have had on presidential elections is a matter of debate, there is little doubt these individuals played a role in elevating Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush to the highest office in the land. Data indicate that in the 2008 presidential election, approximately two-thirds of weekly churchgoers voted for John McCain while only 26 percent of non-churchgoers voted for the Arizona senator.

Campbell and Putnam argue that despite their vociferous presence in the national political arena, the number of evangelicals has declined over the past 20 years and is now at its 1970 level. And while the Republican base remains firmly committed to mixing religion and politics, "the rest of the country is moving in the opposite direction."

The problem facing evangelicals is that the demographic, cultural and social landscape of the nation is much different today than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Historically, about 5 to 7 percent of Americans claimed "no religious affiliation." The number of individuals in this category increased to 12 percent in the mid 1990s, reached 19 percent in 2011 and could be 25 percent in another generation. The "no religious affiliation" group is heavily concentrated in the under-30 "millennial generation." While 12 percent of individuals in this age cohort claimed to be non-religious in the 1970s, that number increased to 33 percent in 2011. David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm, states that 18- to 29-year-old Christians (not just evangelicals) have fallen down a "black hole," with a "43 percent drop-off between teen and early adult years in terms of church engagement."

Campbell and Putnam argue that millennials have come of age at a time "in which religion and the right are intertwined." For these young people, "religion means 'Republican,' 'intolerant,' and 'homophobic.'" The researchers note that individuals "who might otherwise attend religious services are saying: 'Well, if religion is just about conservative politics, then I'm outta here.'"

This new religious-political reality presents significant problems for Republicans, who count on their alignment with the religious right for unwavering political support. Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Laura Sessions Stepp notes that GOP conservatives have reason to worry as young evangelicals "are abandoning the church in significant numbers and taking their voting power with them."

Why are so many young people turning away from organized religion? Campbell and Putnam note, "The best evidence indicates this dramatic generational shift IS PRIMARILY IN REACTION TO THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT." (Emphasis added.) If these researchers are correct, the driving force of the under-30 cohort's rejection of religion is the presence and impact of evangelicals in the political arena. Based on national surveys including interviews with teenagers, young adults, parents and pastors, Kinnaman argues there are six reasons why young people are leaving Christian churches:

1. Churches seem overprotective. One-quarter of the 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed noted that "Christians demonize everything outside of the church."

2. Christianity is shallow. One-quarter of young respondents stated that "faith is not relevant to my career or interests."

3. Churches appear antagonistic to science. Thirty percent of those surveyed feel that "churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in."

4. The churches and sexuality: Forty percent of respondents stated that the church's "teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date."

5. The churches and exclusivity: Almost three in 10 respondents noted that "churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths," with the same number saying they are "forced to choose between my faith and my friends."

6. The churches and doubt: More than a third of respondents stated they had "significant spiritual doubts about their faith," with many noting that church is not a safe place to express these doubts.

Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens of Eastern Nazarene College note that evangelicals have created a "parallel culture" with its own churches, summer camps, colleges, broadcasting networks and counseling groups. It's precisely this isolationist culture that so many young evangelicals are leaving. Young people rejecting ultra-conservative Christianity have apparently figured out what historian Mark Noll (named one of the nation's 25 most influential evangelicals by Time magazine) stated in 1994: "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." Noll contends evangelicals - "not exemplary for their thinking" - have abandoned the intellectual heritage of the Protestant Reformation.

In democratic societies the movement of history is unmistakenly toward increased tolerance and the eventual acceptance of minority groups. In other words, as democracies mature, they become more inclusive. Only a few generations ago it was not uncommon to see "Help wanted" signs qualified by, "No Dagos, Micks or Polacks," something we can scarcely imagine today. The religious right's overriding message is one of exclusion: "Believe and act as we do, or you are unacceptable."

If Campbell and Putnam are correct, while Republicans have won many battles (the election of three conservative presidents and the Supreme Court justices they nominated) with the help of the religious right, they are destined to lose the war for political supremacy. The irony is that a conservative Christian theology that brought many Republicans into power is the same theology that will hasten their demise.


George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology as a professor at the University of San Diego.



Giberson, K. and R. Stephens (Oct. 11, 2011) "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason," The New York Times,

Hall, M. (1994) "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind," William B. Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, Mich.

Kinnaman, D. (Sept. 28, 2011) "Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church" The Barna Group,

Kinnaman, D. (2011) "You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith," Baker Books: Grand Rapids, Mich.

Putnam, R. and D. Campbell (2012) "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," Simon & Schuster: New York

Putnam, R. and D. Campbell (March/April 2012) "God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics is Bad for Both," Foreign Affairs, pp. 34-43

"Religion Statistics: Church Attendance by Country" (accessed 2012),

Sessions Stepp, L. (Dec. 16, 2011) "Why evangelicals are leaving church" CNNOpinion,

"The Rise of Atheism" (April 20, 2012) The Week, p. 11



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