The religion of an increasingly godless America

By Amanda Marcotte
November 24, 2011

By Amanda Marcotte
The views expressed are her own.

Listening to the national discourse, one could be forgiven for imagining that America is becoming an ever more religious place. The amount of God talk in the public square has dramatically increased in a generation. Prior to the 70s, the concept of “the religious right” had barely existed, but now it’s a powerful lobbying force with multiple groups from Focus on the Family to Concerned Women for America, all sitting on more money than most liberal special interest groups could ever hope to accumulate. Republicans, especially, claw over each other to demonstrate fealty to a very narrow, fundamentalist view of Christianity that forbids gay rights, reproductive rights, and requires you to believe that evolution never happened. A generation ago, most people outside of evangelical Christian circles had never heard of things like “megachurches” or “the Rapture”, but now even people living in the most secularist urban enclaves are familiar with these concepts, if still less than approving. Americans seem not just more religious, but more drawn to reactionary religion than ever before.

That is, until you start to dig into the actual facts. If you poll actual Americans, you’ll find that the trend is not towards more religiosity, but towards less. Much less, in fact. Recent research from the Pew Research Center on politics and generational differences shows that interest in religion is actually declining from one generation to the next, and not only that, but interest in mixing religion and politics is on the decline. When asked which factors are the key to America’s success, fewer than half of Millennials say they believe that religious faith and values are important. They are the first generation to respond in such a way, as a majority of all older generations cite religion as an important factor. Even the generation known for cynicism, Generation X, has 64% of respondents citing religion as an important factor in our nation’s success, a full 18 points over the Millennial generation. Despite myths that people become more religious or more conservative as they age, previous Pew research shows that Xers and Boomers held roughly the same opinions on religion in their youth as they do now.

The research also found that more than one in four Millennials have no religious affiliation at all, the largest of any generation, though only by a small margin, as one in five Gen Xers is also irreligious. The percentage of unaffiliated Americans has grown gradually over the generations, but with the Millennials, we’re seeing a new trend emerge. There is now a large group of Americans who have a faith, but separate it from public life, keeping it in the private sphere.

So how to square away declining rates of belief with the perception that America is a land where the Bible is thumped regularly in the public square? What we’re seeing with the heightened emphasis on religion in politics is the death throes of the old order. After all, in the past, where it was assumed that a vast majority of Americans were not only religious, but Christian, those who wanted Christianity to dominate didn’t feel they had anything to prove. It’s only when they started to feel their power threatened did they become defensive, and in doing so, became much louder.

Right wing Christians would be the first to tell you that they feel that the dominance of traditional Christian values is under threat in this country. If you have any doubt about this, look at the long list of people they consider the enemies, internal and external, to their view of how America should be: atheists, Muslims, feminists, liberals, uncloseted gays and evolutionary biologists, amongst others. They aren’t wrong to believe these groups are growing both in numbers and in influence, as the polling data suggests that they are. The increasing volume and militancy from the religious right is to be expected in light of these changes. Sarah Posner, a senior editor at Religion Dispatches magazine, says the religious right has grown specifically in response to massive social changes. Opposing these changes was “exactly their point,” she told me, and conservative Christians believe that when they see these more secularist worldviews on the rise, they have a duty “to redouble one’s efforts”. She added that, in the eyes of evangelical leaders, “evangelicals had insulated themselves too much from secular society, and that they had a God-given duty to have an impact on the culture, on politics, on the media, and so forth.”

Most importantly, the religious right sees the Millennials as a special threat requiring most of their attention. Abstinence-only education, the attempted defunding of Planned Parenthood, creationism in the schools, and the growth of the home-schooling movement are all aimed at the youth of America. In some cases, as with TLC’s Duggar family, the religious right is going so far as to step up baby-making, hoping to create enough religious youth to curtail the power of the growing cohort of secular youth.

Of course, that it’s predictable doesn’t make it right. That Americans are becoming more fond of the separation of church and state is a good thing. After all, our Founding Fathers set out to create a society that had such a separation, and they believed, rightly, that religion and politics shouldn’t mix. (“In God We Trust” was only added to our currency during the Civil War era.) That desire has never fully played out in American politics, and there’s every reason to believe it won’t truly play out in our lifetimes. But at current rates of growing interest in the separation of church and state, the religious right will have an increasingly hard time being viewed as more than a vocal minority by the rest of the country.

We should welcome such a change. The more that religion can be pushed off into the realm of private practice and out of the public square, the better for public discourse, as we can dispense with the God talk and move on to reality-based discussions about what we want and how we can get it. The Millennials have the right idea when it comes to dismissing the belief that religion somehow improves politics. Now we just have to wait for the religious right to finish with their temper tantrum over this, and then we can move on to the future.

Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks to attendees during a prayer service at the First Baptist Church in Killeen, Texas November 8, 2009. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

98 comments

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The research here is good, but the conclusion is grim. Aside from disliking the colloquial “God Talk,” the notion that faith can be isolated or compartmentalized in the name of politics is ridiculous. Faith should inform our politics. The problem is much of the Right Wing (not all) does NOT take their platform from the teachings of Christ, but rather from their own interpretations of Scripture.

Amanda, nobody is thumping the Bible. That is precisely the problem. We are not thumping the Bible when we pound our bigoted chests. (Sick stuff.) Jesus gets the blame for so many things, but His mercies endure forever. Somehow, people forget this. He covers our doubt and bitterness though, and even our disgust over religiosity that drives us away from the Mercy seat of Love.

Two years ago, someone left this comment on my blog: “Why is life so full of disappointment, pain and suffering? Why must I bear this cross? What possible good can come from this? You feel so far away. Are you there, God?”

Here is my answer: http://www.jenx67.com/2009/06/cross-i-be ar.html

Posted by jenx67 | Report as abusive

To the previous commentor:
I am not in the SLIGHTEST interested in ANY candidate who proclaims “faith” in any imaginary being, be it “god” or the FSM.
“Faith” in WHAT, expressed, how, and by whom, pray tell, should inform our politics and discourse?
We medicate and isolate and keep from harming themselves people who proclaim in their everyday lives that they talk to and do the bidding of “god,” or “satan,” or Mickey Mouse.
Why would electing them to public office be a good idea?
Anyone who professes faith in ANY phantasm seems to me to be, on the face of it, DIS-qualified to lead the Country.

Posted by Dr.Woody | Report as abusive

If your faith is a comfort to you jenx67, then you would do well to leave it out of politics. Those who do not share your belief-system are not obliged to accept it as a basis for morals, ethics or anything else.

To me your faith is a bunch of fairy tales and shoddy thinking – stuff that was forced on me as a child but which I outgrew as soon as I started thinking for myself.

But if your fairy tales are a comfort to you, well, I don’t want to see you suffer.

So I suggest you refrain from proclaiming that the Bible is an antidote to bigotry, because anybody who reads the Bible, especially the Old Testament, can make a very good case that actually the Bible is a how-to guide for bigotry – Jehovah was constantly telling his people how much better they were than those worshipers of other gods.

And one side effect of that: Jehovah did not object to slavery, as long as his people were the slave-owners. Instead of prohibiting slavery Jehovah offered advice on how best to handle slaves: how you could beat them, when you could rape them, etc.

There is a reason that the slave owners in the American South justified slavery by pointing to the Bible – as much as you want to believe that the Right Wing is misinterpreting Scripture, in fact it was the Abolitionists who were wrong to say that slavery was against the Biblical god’s will.

And as far as who Jesus really was – well even many non-believers have this idea he was a cool peace-loving guy, but in fact the historical evidence indicates he was just one of many military messiahs bent on driving the Romans out of Judea.

http://www.mcclernan.com/jesustrouble.as p

Although ironically it’s thanks to the Roman empire that Jesus-worship became as successful as it did. There’s a reason why the Pope lives in Rome.

So to sum up – you don’t shove your religion down non-believers’ throats via politics and we won’t bite it off and spit it back in your face.

Posted by nancymc | Report as abusive

I would like to remind The public reading Amanda’s article and the commentators to the article that in our government, the separation of church and state was instituted to prevent the official meddling of one church organization in the affairs of governing of our country. It was instituted to avoid what was going on in Europe in those days when one church organization namely Papacy was meddling in the affairs of the European states.
That form of “meddling” was causing the state to enforce Papacy’s dictates.

That separation between the State and Religion is NOT implying that the State is dictating that the individual persons in serving the government, either employed or elected, must have no faith or any religious affiliations. Such persons are free to have faith in anyone or anything they desire.

Having written the above two paragraphs I must add that I would rather elect to a government office a person who practices Jesus’s reiteration of the OT command, “Love your God with all your being and Love your neighbor as your self” then the one who practices selfishness in all of it’s myriad forms. Jesus also said you shell know them by their fruits. So, when someone wants to be elected to an office lets examine the fruits of their previous labors without regard to what faith they proffers.

It is OK to hear what the politician says he/she personally believes, but their past actions will reveal, under the magnifying glass of the press, what they REALLY believe from the fruits they have grown.

Posted by Nevio | Report as abusive

The blog has several false facts and premises. But first it is important to begin at the blogs end to see its intent. “The more that religion can be pushed off into the realm of private practice and out of the public square, the better for public discourse, as we can dispense with the God talk and move on to reality-based discussions about what we want and how we can get it.” Here is the goal, to get “what we want.” Who is we and what do we want? While not stated, it must be in opposition to things God would want, for He needs to be pushed aside. Is what “we” want more important than what the others (with religious faith) want?

Also in this statement, lies one of the false premises. The premise that religion leads to bad public discourse. What is the proof of that? Behind that is of course, the bloggers belief that religion is not “reality-based.” Again, proof of that? These are 2 premises that must be questioned. Are they true or do they serve to ridicule and marginalize those who hold to a faith?

The false notion that a generation ago people did not know what a megachurch was nor about the rapture is minor, but it shows the author’s either lack of knowledge or intentional misleading. Mega church terminology did not exist a generation ago, being first used in print in 1978. The idea that the rapture was not widely known is patently false.

More importantly is the twisting of the Founding Fathers. The often repeated Big Lie is this: “After all, our Founding Fathers set out to create a society that had such a separation, and they believed, rightly, that religion and politics shouldn’t mix.” Even a cursory look at their writings will show they never had this intention. (They were a mixed group of faiths, but this intention was not theirs.) This is the great false premise of the blog.

Their intention coming from a history of state churches in Europe, particularly England, and in colonies prior to the Revolution was that the government was not to establish any state church nor favor one over the other. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” is not the same as religion and politics shouldn’t mix. In fact, Baptists, stemming from both their persecution experiences in the colonies and their doctrine of the true church, were one of the major forces that politically pushed for this notion that eventually came into the Bill of Rights. So, it was religion that birthed this freedom. If we follow the desire of the blogger, such an event could not have happened. The premise is one that stifles debate and attempts to marginalize those who express their faith.

The idea that politics should not be influenced by religion is an impossibility. Every person has a set of faith beliefs that they act upon, even those who call themselves atheists, for it is a belief that God does not exist. Each person interacts with the world based on these faith beliefs. To attempt to remove religious faith discussion from politics is to stifle good debate and hinder open dialog.

Posted by leehu | Report as abusive

Do you really want to inject your religion into politics and have non-believers have a “good debate” about your beliefs?, leehu?

I seriously doubt you will be happy with the results. Not if you are a typical religionist who has a fit if anybody expresses doubts (not to mention hysterical laughter) about stories of virgin births, or food taboos or cannibalistic rituals or ghosts.

The last thing that any religionist wants is an “open dialog” about their beliefs.

Posted by nancymc | Report as abusive

re: Dr.Woody’s comment,

Agree with you in essence but let’s keep it real.

Everybody believes in something, by your standards the halls of Congress and the White House would be empty and election day would be as significant as, for example, October 18th (my birthday).

The important thing is electing people who can govern rationally and logically and who can fully accept and live with the fact that they are creating legislation that will effect both people of thousands of different faiths and those with no religious leanings at all.

Refer back to Ms. Marcotte’s brilliant description of the politicians who we need to keep out of office: politicians who “demonstrate fealty to a very narrow, fundamentalist view of Christianity that forbids gay rights, reproductive rights, and requires you to believe that evolution never happened.”

I fully agree!

Posted by harveyg | Report as abusive

Hi Amanda,
So many today talking “democracy” haven’t heard of Socrates/Plato, yet the “founding fathers” had, and specifically excluded the word, calling the US a republic.
Just as the contribution of William Penn’s “Bible thumping” to our basic “rights” we claim as Americans is largely ignored, the text of the Bible, along with the histories of those that would ponder it, is likewise(not just in public schools).
Foxes book of Martyrs gives that historical account of Church/State relationships that the founding fathers wished to avoid, I can’t believe so many people today haven’t even heard of it.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22400/224 00-h/22400-h.htm

It’s easy to learn if one pays but a little attention, it’s staying ignorant that takes the most persistence.

Posted by Theophile | Report as abusive

There is no such thing as separation of church and state, this is a fallacy promoted by the left based upon some Supreme Court interpretations that are unfounded in our constitution.

Like it or not Obama, Amanda & Nevio, we are now, and we were founded as a Christian Nation. You have a right not to believe or participate in religion, or practice any religion you choose. That is what our constitution says, nothing more nothing less. It does not mean that religious groups or candidates are to be removed or are a negative influence in politics.

Perhaps, Amanda, you eschew religion for personal reasons, and we can probably guess why.

Posted by Mike_Truman | Report as abusive

I fear Ronald Reagan’s prediction has come true… If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a nation gone under. ~ Ronald Reagan

Posted by Mike_Truman | Report as abusive

Jesus is but a legend concocted by the Roman church. God is myth. The Bible is nothing but Jewish fantasies. Sorry.

Posted by urownexperience | Report as abusive

Absolutely! It is high time the average American joined the rest of the developed world in acceptance of empirical reality rather than the hearsay of superstitious mythologies.

Those of us who have the good fortune to live in more secular societies can only shake our heads in sorrow at (of laugh at the ridiculousness of) citizens of such a technologically advanced nation engaging in such demonstrably futile rituals such as prayer.

The one and only empirical argument for the existence of any kind of “creator” or “intelligent design” is that of the apparent “fine tuning” of our universe.

While observations, particularly in the field of chemistry and biology increasingly support the phenomenon of “fine tuning” and its associated directionality, it can be shown that, at the expense of some anthropocentric conceits, design arguments are still not valid.

The very broad evolutionary model which justifies tis negation is outlined {very informally) in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?”
It is a free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website

Posted by PeterKinnon | Report as abusive

There is no god. Love is what matters. Eventually people are getting smarter and realizing this. Time will tell and the truth will indeed set us free.

Posted by coreyholly | Report as abusive

Hey leehu, you ask for proof that religion is not “reality-based”. I would argue that the onus is on the religious to defend their beliefs with evidence if they wish to use them to justify political action. Carl Sagan once said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Christians claim to believe that a virgin can conceive a child, a man can rise from the dead after 3 days, snakes can talk and the power of god can part the sea for the faithful. No miracle on a par with those cited in the Bible has been credibly reported in the modern era. I strongly defend the right of religious people to believe whatever they want to believe. I won’t call them out on their beliefs if they will stop trying to influence public policy based upon these beliefs. Sound public policies are based upon sound evidence. Religion is based upon faith. There is a place for both, but they don’t mix well (IMHO).

Posted by SoyIsMurder | Report as abusive

@leehu,

You state: “To attempt to remove religious faith discussion from politics is to stifle good debate and hinder open dialog.” You are entitled to your opinion, but to advance it as fact is disingenuous. I happen to “believe” quite the opposite, i.e.: “To attempt to insinuate religious faith discussion into politics is to divert our attention from our collective and individual responsibilities in and for the here and now.”

History attributes to the Christian religion and it’s purported adherents the Crusades, the creation of the Church of England, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, giving blankets infected with smallpox to American Indians to reduce their numbers, forcing Galileo to recant his discoveries, etc. etc. The Taliban blew up sacred Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. Accounts of human and animal sacrifice in both christian and pagan religions are many and graphic. If we separate belief from the person, religion has produced few, if any specific changes to the “world in which we live” that are positive. It was Daniel J. Boorstin who said: “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge.”

The great majority of religions are consistent in redirecting man’s priorities from the world in which he lives. The countless hours and $ man wastes in the vain hope he may someday enjoy endless existence in a mythical paradise of infinite perfection and wisdom is not unlike the sign outside a local seafood restaurant: Eat here free tomorrow”. But as tomorrow becomes today, no free food. Our educated seem no less gullible.

Magicians today do the same when they focus our attention to the hand that is NOT deceiving us. An infinite future without want or death is the ultimate prize to offer all whose mortal lives are dull, short and without promise. Thus distracted, all burdens and failures in life sting less. Both leaders and followers are thus relieved of an otherwise implicit obligation to learn to work together here on this earth to make life better overall.

This is why, after thousands of years, man STILL hasn’t figured out how to “play well with others”. AA (and many others) are fond of the saying: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

It is time modern man accept the challenge of changing our prehistoric instincts and nature for the better. They are not compatible with our long-term survival. We have the means, if not yet the will, to begin the process of defining and building our own even better future and “eternity” starting now. We need to do what we can, where we are, with what we have to such end.

In time perhaps the anger, jealousy and unpredictability in descriptions of the God of Abraham can be transcended by mere mortals if we but set such a course and devote appropriate efforts over time.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I am so, so tired of this. Religion, that is. It would have been more than bad enough if I had not been traumatized in childhood by the horrors of a Catholic upbringing

But no; as an adult, although I have grown intelligent enough to cast off the man-made terror of a psychotic invisible prime mover in the sky, I still have to now witness Christians trying to dictate who I associate with behind my own closed doors; my reproductive rights; what medical procedures will be accessible to me; even what billboards will be displayed in my neighborhood!

And of course, we cannot forget religious nuts who murder people constantly because not everyone has had the same wool pulled over their eyes. The religious minions who don’t become terrorists? They are enablers; by demanding special rights for their own unprovable, ridiculous doctrines, they simultaneously shield the fundamentalist nuts who go on killing sprees.

One day, those of us who know that faith is not a virtue will not have to live in fear of those who are deluded. That day can’t come soon enough.

Posted by oenophile | Report as abusive

I always find it comical that whenever a religious nut doesn’t agree with another religious nut, it is because the later isn’t following the true teachings of Jesus. It’s always the same song and dance. “Oh, they aren’t TRUE christians, like I AM.” It is plain stupidity at its finest. Religion has no place in politics and we should continue to strive to keep the two separated.

Posted by Justobserving | Report as abusive

Apparently the previous writer is not familiar with biblical archaeology and the fact that many excavations have confirmed the authenticity of exactly what the old testament says, and that pieces were found precisely in the places in which the old testament said they were. These are scientific facts, and you can view the evidence yourself in Jerusalem. All of this has been confirmed by the greatest archaeological scholars.

Posted by Edward13 | Report as abusive

Some excellent points in this article. I think there is truth to the suggestion that the high volume of religious rhetoric in America today is the actually the result of a shrinking demographic becoming more vocal as it fights to retain a priviliged status to which it feels entitled.

I’d like to further suggest that the this shrinking of support for more evangelical and politically aggressive religion (and increase in appreciation for Jefferson’s “wall of separation”) is itself a reaction against nearly three decades of ever expanding over-reach by the American “religious right.” These forces reached the height of their political influence under George W. Bush, and their unconpromising and unnuanced pursuit of a hard-line socially conservative agenda during those years has proven shortsighted. They made a lot of gains in the short term but I suspect they overestimated the public’s sympathy for a simple black and white view of morality, and alienated a lot of young people in the process.

Posted by BanJoIvie | Report as abusive

Mixing religion with politics is an especially a bad idea. Most leaders who claim to be religious be are far from it and have only succeeded by hijacking the religious movement to gain power. And once they do, they follow their own narrow agenda chasing down petty issues that have no consequence to the public at larger. From starting failed wars to outright corruption. This not only turns off the general public but portrays religion and religious people and institutions in a bad light.

This is continuously displayed with the so called Moral majority, where their leadership is constantly attempting to roll back cultural progress or trends in society at large. Things like supporting corporatism at the expense of individuals in an attempt to tap political funding, supporting pollution etc. Sure the religious organizations gain short term power and status but at the expense of long term decline as you have just mentioned

Being Anti-science in this time of scientific discovery and a science driven economy does nothing to endear their cause with the general public.

Posted by Dyota | Report as abusive