Fewer than half of Americans belong to a house of worship , a new study shows. 47% of the US population are members of a church, mosque or synagogue down from 70% two decades ago.
Some of the decline is attributable to changing generations, with about 66% of people born before 1946 are still members of a church, compared to just 36% of millennials. But also, experts say, a reaction to the swirling mix of rightwing politics and Christianity pursued by the Republican party, as it is declining faster among Democrats than Republicans.
The number of Democratic church members dropped by 25% over the 20 year period, with independents decreasing by 18%. Republican church members declined too, but only by 12%.
Republicans in some states have pursued extreme “Christian nationalist” policies, attempting to force their version of Christianity on an increasingly uninterested public.
Christian nationalists believe America was established as, and should remain, a Christian country have pushed a range of measures to thrust their version of religion into American life. This week the governor of Arkansas signed a law allowing doctors to refuse to treat LGBTQ people on religious grounds, and other states are exploring similar legislation. In states including Louisiana and Florida, Republicans have introduced legislation which would variously hack away at LGTBQ rights, reproductive rights, challenge the ability of couples to adopt children, and see religion forced into classrooms. Montana is set to pass a law which would allow people or businesses to discriminate, based on religion, against the LGBTQ community.
David Campbell, professor and chair of the University of Notre Dame’s political science department and co-author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, said, “I see no sign that the religious right, and Christian nationalism, is fading. Which in turn suggests that the allergic reaction will continue to be seen – and thus more and more Americans will turn away from religion.”
According to Michele Margolis, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of From Politics to the Pews, “As religion has been closed linked with conservative politics, we’ve had Democrats opting out of organized religion, or being less involved, and Republicans opting in,” she said.
Alison Gill, vice-president for legal and policy at American Atheists, who authored a report into the creep of Christian extremism in the US, warned that the drop-off in religious adherence in America could actually accelerate that effort, rather than slow it down.
“Surveys of those who identify with Christian nationalist beliefs consistently show that this group feels that they are subject to more discrimination and marginalization than any other group in society, including Islamic people, Black people, atheists, and Jewish people,” Gill said. “They are experiencing their loss of prominence in American culture as an unacceptable attack on their beliefs -- and this is driving much of the efforts we are seeing to cling onto power, undermine democracy, and fight for ‘religious freedom’ protections that apply only to them.”
The influence of religion over politics is stark, Gill said. "Politicians often feel beholden to pronounce their religious faith – and are attacked for a perceived lack of it,” she said.