At a glance, the United States appears to be a stronghold of religion and a bastion of Christian morality, but it is increasingly clear that religion is a dying art in American politics. Secularism is quickly becoming the standard against which legal and political decisions are being measured. Religious Americans are fighting against a rising tide.
According to Gallup, the number of Americans who believe that “religion can answer all or most of today’s problems” has declined by 35% in the past 50 years. Similarly, the number of Americans who believe that “religion is largely old-fashioned and out of date” has risen 300% to nearly 1 in 3.
Current political events bear witness to this trend. While religious sentiment is still popular throughout the nation, legal proceedings demonstrate increasingly less concern for religious arguments. California’s Proposition 8, which passed on a wave of religious fervor, was quickly found unconstitutional after an improvised defense team (none of the state officials named in the lawsuit were willing to defend the Proposition) was unable to convince Justice Walker of a rational, legal basis for discrimination between heterosexual and homosexual couples. Such debates on hot button moral issues like gay marriage and abortion are but microcosms of the great American dilemma: should religion play a role in legislation?
Technically, religion has never played a role in legislation. Formally, we recognize that church and state should be kept separate. But practically, religion has everything to do with how Americans think and vote. A 2004-2005 Gallup poll demonstrated clearly that although particular religious affiliation had very little bearing on Americans’ views regarding moral issues like abortion, the more frequently respondents attended any church, the more likely they were to take hardline conservative stances. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Americans’ religiosity is directly related to their voting patterns on controversial moral and social issues.
But what implications does the decline of religion hold for both parties’ platforms and the long-term direction of American legislation? According to a more recent Gallup poll (this one concluded only last month), 47% of Republicans can be considered “highly religious whites,” compared with only 19% of Democrats. Thus, if current trends continue and religion becomes increasingly unimportant in American sociopolitical decision-making, the Republican Party’s religious base of ardent social conservatives will continue to dwindle. Consequently, the Republican Party will need to continue its shift toward a more morally liberal platform or risk losing supporters. America’s progressively lackluster attitude toward religion is most evident and (for Republicans) most dangerous among younger voters. In 2008, surveys of the 18-36 age group produced the slimmest margin between respondents that believe religion can answer today’s problems (44%) and those who believe religion to be old-fashioned and out of date (36%). When compared to the strong 60%-19% split among those 55 and older, it is apparent that unless religious Americans are successful in inciting a massive “return to God” among the youth, American legislation will continue to become increasingly unconcerned with private moral issues so zealously defended by religious conservatives. Perhaps Republican talking heads have already recognized this trend’s potentially devastating effects. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin’s “Restoring Honor” rally, which was aimed at turning Americans “back to God,” addressed America’s increasingly secular feel head-on.
With regard to its political clout, religion is on the chopping block, and America seems poised to swing. How voters respond to perceived attacks on traditional social values in November may well be an indicator of how long religion can remain a power player in American politics. Do we stand at the beginning of a new period of religious revivalism, or are conservative cries of “Return to God!” the last gasping breath of a sick and dying patient?
[This article was originally published in November 2010 issue of The BYU Political Review.]