Fewer Americans are identifying as Christians and more have no religious affiliation. How will secular Americans transform politics? Ryan Burge tracks the decline in mainline protestants and the rise of Americans with no particular religious identity. He says they are part of a broader anti-institutional trend in American life, with only atheists and agnostics sticking out as the political subset. John C. Green finds a rise in avowed secularists who are motivated by politics and changing the face of the Democratic party. But these secularists don’t represent everyone who lacks a tie to organized religion.
Matt Grossmann: The Growing Influence of Nonreligious Americans, this week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Fewer Americans are identifying as Christians and more have no religious affiliation. That’s both an outcome of our religiously divided politics and a potential driver of change. Will secular Americans transform politics the way that Evangelicals did? Is there anything holding together these Americans who’ve dropped out of organized religion?
This week, I talk to Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University about his new Fortress Press book, The Nones. He tracks the decline in Mainline Protestants and the rise of Americans with no particular religious identity. He says they’re a part of a broader anti-institutional trend in American life with only atheists and agnostics sticking out as the political subset of the Nones.
I also talk to John C. Green of the University of Akron about his new Cambridge book with David Campbell and Geoffrey Layman, Secular Surge. They find a rise in avowed secularists who are motivated by politics and changing the face of the Democratic Party, but secularists certainly don’t represent everyone who lacks a tie to organized religion. Burge starts with the broadest trend, the big rise in people without religious affiliation, but that category mixes up a lot of people.
Ryan Burge: Well, the first is that the Nones have just exploded. I think that’s something that we… I don’t think we fully understand all the implications of that, but in the 1970s, the Nones were probably at one in 20 Americans were a None. Today, it’s likely around 30% or even higher depending on how you do a survey and how you ask the questions. There’s actually evidence that Gen Z and millennials, it’s closer to 40% are Nones. Just an unbelievable rapid rise, and it’s touched every segment of the American population. It’s not just a thing amongst the educated or amongst white people or even amongst liberals, although the Nones do tend to be more liberal, everyone has become more secular over the last 20 or 30 years.
The other thing is that all Nones are not created equal. For a long time, social science kind of saw them as this monolithic block, where we just call them the Nones, the people who have no faith, but if you dig into the data and you separate it by atheists, agnostics, and then a third group called nothing in particular, you see that these groups are vastly different. Especially the nothing in particular group from the atheists.
For instance, atheists are one of the most educated groups in America today. About 47% of atheists have a four-year college degree. It’s only 20% of nothing in particulars. Nothing in particulars are the least educated religious group in America today, so lumping them together, from a methodological perspective, is actually kind of really bad because you’re lumping together two groups that share the same ideas about faith but don’t share much else. I hope, from a social science side, that we all really start thinking about how we sub… If we’re going to subdivide Protestants into three different categories, we should subdivide the Nones into at least two categories, atheists, agnostics, and then everybody else.
Matt Grossmann: Green, Campbell, and Layman focus on secularists.
John C. Green: The Secular Surge is a book about contemporary politics of secular citizens in the United States. In the book, my coauthors and I share that there are important political differences amongst secular citizens. Some people have an explicit secular [inaudible 00:03:21], which is in many ways an alternative to religion. We call those people secularists in the book.
Then, there’s another group of people who are simply not involved in religion but don’t share a secular world view, and we call them None religionists. What we find is that those two groups are quite distinct on many political attitudes and activities. My colleagues [inaudible 00:03:47] and coauthors, David Campbell and Geoff Layman, and I have worked for a long time together on religion and politics in the United States. One of the things that have always interested us were secular people, people who are not involved in organized religion, many in fact who see themselves as, in some sense, having an alternative world view to at least the most common religion.
I mean, there are all different kinds that work together, so when we decided to look at the secular population, we thought we would approach it from a variety of different angles. The book uses a lot of variety of methods. We have some original surveys that we conducted, we used some well-established surveys, but from public sources. We did survey experiments. We did interviews; we did all different kinds of analysis. I think what it gives us is a view of secular citizens from a number of different angles through a number of different lenses.
What it suggests to us is really two things. One is that the secular [inaudible 00:04:53] recent increase in non-religiosity in the United States is not a passing fad. It’s something that we think will be with us going into the future, but also, it’s very complex and all secular people are not alike.
Matt Grossmann: They’re pointing to similar trends. Burge says, “How people are defined depends on the survey question.”
Ryan Burge: The first religion questions that we have that are sort of valid go back to 1972, asked by the General Social Survey. That question said, “What’s your present religion, if any,” and it gave people basically four or five options, things like Protestant, Catholic, something else, and then it said none. On the GSS, there isn’t a follow-up question after that, so if you say none, you’re None. You could be an atheist, or you could be a nothing in particular, or you could be a secular or a humanist, and you would all be lumped under that none category.
Pugh came along, and about 15 years ago said, “Let’s ask more options amongst the broad religion question,” so now there’s about 11 or 12 options, depending on the survey. For the Nones, now there are three options. There’s atheist, there’s agnostic, and then there’s an option that’s actually called nothing in particular, which I see in my mind as the shrug question. Like, I don’t know. I’m not an atheist, but I’m not a Christian either, so I’ll just shrug and check the nothing in particular box.
The other innovation that’s really happened, that’s really important when it comes to religious… doing religious measurement on surveys, is moving from a face-to-face format to an online format. The GSS has always been face-to-face. The CES or CCS, as it’s sometimes called, is done online, and we know, and Pugh has backed this up by doing a split survey, half online, half in-person, they’ve found that when you ask religion questions in a face-to-face format, you get smaller number of people who say they have no religious affiliation than if you ask the same questions on an online survey.
When we look at online surveys, we’re actually seeing many more Nones than we ever saw in the GSS for two reasons. One, because the GSS only gives them one option, no faith, while the CCS gives them three options. The other is because the GSS has always been done face-to-face, which drives up social desirability bias while the CES does it online. We think we’re actually getting closer to what’s really going on with American religion when we ask these questions in an online format.
Matt Grossmann: The big pattern is the decline in white, mainline Protestants that allowed the Nones to gain.
Ryan Burge: There’s Evangelicals, which I think everyone sort of knows what an Evangelical is. Your Southern Baptist, your conservative theological folks, Pentecostals fall in that category as well, and a lot of non-denominational Christians are in the Evangelical camp. Then, there’s black Protestants. These are people who are part of historically black churches. We subdivide them really because of political reasons. While theologically they’re very similar to Evangelicals, politically they’re the polar opposite of Evangelicals. 90% of them vote for Democrats, so they’re completely different politically than Evangelicals.
The last category which is called mainline Protestants, and that’s probably a term that a lot of people haven’t heard before. Mainline Protestants are sort of your more moderate flavor of Protestant Christianity. These are people like United Methodists, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, and in the 1970s, they were the largest religious group in America. In 1975, over 30% of all Americans identified as mainline Protestant for every three mainline Protestants, there were only two Evangelicals, so mainline Protestants really dominated American political discourse all through World War I, World War II, all the way up into the 70s, and then they sort of just started declining in an incredibly rapid way. Now, they’re about 10% of the American population and they’re projected to be 5% probably in the next 10 or 15 years because the average mainline Protestant today is about 60 years old.
It’s basically a group of old, white people who are aging rapidly. There’s not a lot of young kids in those churches, so really what we see in American Protestant Christianity, is black Protestants are holding pretty steady, Evangelicals are doing relatively well, and then mainline Protestants are collapsing, going from 30% to 10%. At the same time, the Nones, like we talked about, have gone from 5% to probably 25% or 30%, and demography, religious demography is a zero sum game, so if one group gets bigger, another group has to get smaller. It’s pretty easy to say the Nones rising and the mainline tradition falling, coincide with one another.
Obviously, the story is a little bit more complicated than that because people are moving around the religious landscape all the time, but it does seem like that a lot of people who were raised mainline Protestant let’s say 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, are no longer mainline Protestant. They have no religious affiliation. Very few of mainline Protestants became Catholics or Evangelicals or any other tradition. The reality is that the mainline Protestants decline has led to at least one of the reasons why the Nones have grown so rapidly.
Matt Grossmann: Despite differences across surveys, there’s little evidence mainline Christians are increasing.
Ryan Burge: I see absolutely no evidence that the Nones are any smaller today than they were two, four, or six years ago. In fact, I see the opposite. Right now, according to CES, they’re 34% of the population, which is what they were in 2019 and 2020, and they had grown from 31 and a half percent in 2018. I continue to see those lines going up and up and up.
The thing about measuring religion is it’s incredibly hard and no one does it exactly the same way, which makes comparing… it’s almost like apples and oranges. For instance, PRRI calls the mainline Protestant something different. They call a mainline Protestant someone who says they’re Protestant, but then says they’re not Evangelical when they’re asked to self-identify as Evangelical. Really, their mainline Protestant is what I would call a non-Evangelical Protestant, not necessarily a mainline Protestant.
Another reason why I’m skeptical of the idea that mainline Protestants are increasing is, if you look at the seven largest mainline traditions, they’re called the Seven Sisters of the Mainline, in every case they’re smaller than they were 10 years ago, and in some cases, dramatically smaller than they were 10 years… we’re talking about some denominations are 40% smaller today than they were 10 or 12 years ago. In some cases, it’s 25% smaller.
I mean, there is just no evidence on the membership role side that any of these denominations have seen any increases over the last 10 or 12 years, so I’m wondering if it’s just an artifact of the way they conducted the survey or the way they asked the question or the way they operationalize mainline Protestant, but in everything I see… and the GSS, by the way, has not come out for 2020 yet. It’s coming out later in the summer, but the CES came out already and I don’t see any evidence in the CSS of those trendlines reversing, of the Nones going up and mainline Protestants going down. When the GSS comes out, I’ll have two different data sources, but I just don’t see any evidence of the Nones declining or abating in any way. They just continue to rise.
Matt Grossmann: Church attendance declines are even larger than non-affiliation, but non-belief is still rare.
Ryan Burge: In the religion and politics space, we talk about the three Bs, behavior, belief, and belonging. The one we talk about, we talk about here a lot is belonging, which is saying you have no religious affiliation, you identify or affiliate with that tradition of having no religious affiliation. The other two are behavior. Behavior in this context is almost always measured as church attendance or religious service attendance because that’s one that surveys almost always have as part of their battery, so we can do it in more surveys and it’s easier to do.
What we know is that religious behavior is actually a leading indicator of religious belonging going away. For instance, 40% of Americans today say they never go to church, which is the highest its ever been, so if you look at the Nones through that lens, it’s actually way higher than 25% or 30%. It’s closer to 40%, and amongst the youngest generations, it’s about 50% of people say they seldom or never attend church. If you’re a None, you love hearing that statistic because it makes your group look like it’s bigger and it’s growing and it’s a huge part of American population, but if you look at belief, and the GSS has been asking a religious belief question since 1988, they ask you what do you believe about God. The answers are I believe in God without a doubt on one end, and the other response option is I don’t believe in God at all.
The share of Americans who express and atheist or agnostic belief in God today is only about 10%, so 90% of Americans still believe in God at some level, 40% never go to church, and about 25% or 30% say they have no religious affiliation. The answer when people ask me how many Nones there are, I almost want to say, well, what’s your prism, what’s the lens that you want to look at the world through? If you lay all three of those on top each other, only about 6% of Americans don’t believe, don’t belong, and don’t behave.
In that context, the Nones are only about 6% of the population, not 40% or 25% or 30% or 10%, so it’s just all in what prism you want to use to think about the Nones because religion is incredibly diverse. It’s not just one thing or another, and no two people practice religion in the exact same way. To put a category on that is difficult and overly reductive, I’ll be the first admit that, but at some level, we have to generalize as social scientists, or we can’t do our work. When we talk about the Nones, 10% don’t believe, about 25% to 30% don’t belong, and about 40% don’t behave, so the answer is somewhere between those three numbers.
Matt Grossmann: Atheists stand out more than other types of the non-religious.
Ryan Burge: Atheists, especially, are incredibly white, and incredibly male. 60% of atheists in the data are men, 40% are women. If you look at nothing in particulars, it’s 50/50, which is kind of what you would expect to see in a random sample. Atheists are, in your head, if you think of an atheist, I think a lot of people think of like a philosophy professor, like an old white guy philosophy professor, that’s kind of true, but the other thing is there’s a lot of young atheists at the same time. The average age of an atheist today in America is about 43 years old, which is about 10 or 12 years younger than a white Evangelical, so they’re absolutely a lot younger, but the average atheist today is the same age as the average American. Muslims, the average Muslim in America today is 34 years old if you look at adults. The average adult Muslim is 34 years old. Average atheist is 43 years old.
The thing about atheists is they’re upper middle class. They’re upwardly mobile, but, and this is really, really important, when we think about what the Nones look like, 6% of Americans are atheist, 6% of Americans are agnostic, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% or 22% of Americans are nothing in particular. If we put five Nones in a room, one’s an atheist, one’s an agnostic, and three are nothing in particular, so when people talk about the Nones, they’re almost always thinking about atheists and agnostics, but in reality, that’s not what most Nones look like.
Here’s something else about the atheists that are super interesting, and I think we need to think more about. Atheists are incredibly politically active. They’re the most politically active religious group in America today. If you put them in a model and control for things like education, income, race, gender, all those things we talked about, they’re still much more politically active than white Evangelicals are. They’re much more likely to give to a candidate, they’re much more likely to attend a rally or a protest or go to a local political meeting. Atheists are incredibly politically engaged. The other side of the coin is nothing in particulars, who are one of the least politically engaged religious groups in America today.
Some people ask me, “Have atheists made politics their religion?” I wouldn’t go that far, but I would definitely say that politics is an animating force in the life of atheists and agnostics when it’s not so animating for really any other religious group. Dramatically different atheists are than other religious groups.
Matt Grossmann: Green, Campbell and Layman separate what they call secularists from others without religion.
John C. Green: A lot of religionists are people who are defined by what they’re not. These are people that tell us that they’re not involved with organized religion, in many cases, don’t affiliate with any kind of religious community, but we’ve identified another group of people we call the secularists, which are people who are defined by what they are. These are people who partake of secular beliefs, and we developed a set of new, we think innovative ways, to capture secular beliefs, but they also tend to take those beliefs very seriously, in a way that many religious people take their religious beliefs seriously, and they also tend to identify with communities that hold those beliefs. Oftentimes, they’ll describe themselves as atheists or agnostics or humanists or even secularist.
A lot of the most important effects come from secularism, and for the people who are both secular, but also not involved in organized religion, the people we call the secularists we think make up a little less than 25% of the adult population. Our non-religionists, people who don’t partake in the secular world view, but are not involved in organized religion make up a little less than a fifth. There’s a rate of nuance and complexity. I found it fascinating the people, we call them religious secularists, and these are people that are both religious and partake of a secular world view, really fascinating group. Makes up about a sixth of the adult population. If you add that all up, what’s left is about 30% of the population which are religionists of one kind or another.
Matt Grossmann: Green says there are a lot of ways to identify these groups.
John C. Green: The secular people are identified as they’re called Nones, that’s N-O-N-E-S. Not religious nuns, as in the Catholic church, but the people who when asked a simple religious affiliated question, are you a Protestant, Catholic, Jew, other, none, say none. Within that group, they are really quite a diverse group of people, and some surveys, instead of asking none, the terminology is nothing in particular. Sometimes, in those questions, people are asked if they identify as an atheist or an agnostic or any number of other terms. The terminology spiritual, not religious, often comes up in these types of discussions. Also, individuals will often volunteer it at certain times.
One of the most common terms volunteered is the term humanist. In fact, there are a group of people who [inaudible 00:19:16] secular, who identify themselves as humanists. In this large group of people that don’t identify with religious communities, there’s a lot of diversity, but then, of course, we have that within religious communities so a lot of diversity, so maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. The secularists, the people who partake of a distinctive secular world view, are [inaudible 00:19:41]. They tend to be well-educated; they are overwhelmingly white, they tend to be affluent, but interesting enough, they’re not particularly distinctive by age. Some of them are older people, some of them are younger people, so there doesn’t seem to be an age dynamic there.
On the other hand, if you look at non-religionists, those people who are very not religious and defined by what they’re not, those people tend to be markedly less educated, they tend to be older, many of them are not affluent, and I think many of them are not engaged in a whole variety of things. [inaudible 00:20:25] not involved in religion, but they’re not involved in politics, they’re not involved in civic organizations, so they’re really quite distinct. I think these distinctions help explain some of the interesting findings that survey researchers have come with, but if you just look at the Nones, oftentimes they appear to be people who have just disengaged from society. The people that Robert Putnam wrote about in Bowling Alone, but if you can distinguish the secularists from the non-religionists, you’ll see quite an important distinction.
In terms of political attitudes, secularists are strongly progressive, strongly identify the with Democratic Party, and in an interesting exception for the lack of civic engagement that you see among secular people, secularists are very active in politics. This, of course, makes them very important in elections and other types of activities, but as the non-religionists are not very involved in politics at all.
Matt Grossmann: There’s been a broad decline in religiosity, but not all these trends go together.
John C. Green: We can say that over the last two or three decades there has been a steady decline in the net religiosity in the United States, but it’s occurred in different ways and the different measures of religion do not necessarily overlap completely. For instance, when you think of the Nones, we’re thinking about people who don’t identify or affiliate with a religious community. Some of the people, however, who affiliate with a religious community, are not particular in terms of their regular attendance, they’re not very active. On the other hand, there are people who never darken of the door of a church or a synagogue or a mosque, but nonetheless very strong religious beliefs.
We see a great deal of diversity. We’re not seeing a uniform decline in religiosity, but overall, the decline is clearly evident. Into that space, if you will, have emerged a growing and large secularist population, people who approach many of the same issues that religious people do, but from a distinctive secular perspective.
Matt Grossmann: Green says religion and politics both cause each other.
John C. Green: As a relationship between religion and politics is reciprocal, it is certainly the case that for many people in particular, in context, their religion leads them to a particular kind of politics, but it’s also the case, particularly after a little bit longer term, that people’s politics can lead them to a particular kind of religion and maybe out of religion completely. That’s one of the fascinating things about studying the religio-secular world and politics because that is very dynamic, and we have [inaudible 00:23:19] on both fronts simultaneously. We have people that are adjusting their religion to meet their politics, but there are people who are adjusting their politics to match their religion.
Matt Grossmann: Part of the non-religious rise is due to backlash to the religious right.
John C. Green: The rise of the religious right is in many ways a reaction to changes in American society, some of them having to do with gender, some of them having to do with race, but what we find, as in recent times, there’s been a backlash in the opposite direction. That a fair number of people who were [inaudible 00:23:51] connected to a religious community, have left religion, they say they no longer have a religious affiliation as a backlash to the religious right.
Now, it’s almost as if these people were saying, “I’m not so sure about religion, but whatever it is, it’s definitely not the religious right.” We did some survey experiments, which were fascinating. We measured people’s religiosity or lack of religiosity at two different time points, and in between, exposed them to a set of stories about candidates, which on a lot of things have voiced support or allegiance with the religious right. We saw some very clear effects on people who were marginally religious deciding that they weren’t religious anymore. This experiment showed that there can be a backlash with regard to affiliation, that people can move from identifying with a religion, to not identifying with it at all. That’s where a lot of the Nones apparently came from.
What’s interesting though, is as far as we could tell in our experiment, that does not necessarily turn people from Nones into secularists. There seemed to be an additional step required there. Part of the interesting politics of secularism these days is to what extent can secularists activists get the non-religionists to adopt their world view and adopt their political positions.
Matt Grossmann: Burge agrees, politics can be a cause of religious change.
Ryan Burge: For a long time in the religion of politics literature, even 30 or 40 years ago, we always assumed that religion was the first cause, and politics is downstream from that. You look at politics through a religious world view. If you grew up in a Christian church, you say a Christian world view, or see the world like Jesus would, or something like that. In the last 10 years or so, we’ve really started to challenge that assumption. Now, especially books like Michele Margolis, From Politics to the Pews, makes this really interesting argument that politics now is the first lens, and everything lies downstream of politics. Now, we’re viewing religion in a political lens as opposed to the opposite.
What we’re seeing in Paul Djupe, and a couple of others, published a piece in APSR a couple years ago where they found that people are leaving churches now in increasing numbers for political reasons. That why would you go to a church where you are having to listen to a pastor say things from the pulpit that you just disagree with over and over again. You don’t have to be there, so what you’re going to do is you’re going to leave and either become maybe like a mainline Protestant if you’re a Democrat or become a None because you just don’t want to be subjected to that cognitive dissonance all the time.
What’s interesting, an interesting caveat that I found in my research is when we ask people to self-identify as Evangelical, we ask everybody that question, whether you say you’re a Muslim or a Jew or a Protestant or a Catholic. We ask you the question, are you an Evangelical, a born again or an Evangelical Christian or not, the share of Americans who say yes to that question who are Catholics, who are Muslims, who are Jews, has gone up significantly over the last 10 years, and if you try to figure out… for a long time I thought it was just survey error, people don’t know what that term means, they’re just checking the wrong box because they’re in a hurry, but if you actually model that stuff and look at it over a long period of time, what you see is that more and more Americans are seeing the term evangelical as a political term and not a religious term. We’re seeing this melding of politics and religion.
For instance, half of Republican Muslims who go attend services once a week or more identify as Evangelical because I think in their minds, what they see is to be religious and to be conservative is to be an Evangelical. What’s made it difficult to understand the causal arrows is, they sort of smoosh together, and politics and religion have sort of melded together where to be a white Christian in America especially is to be a Republican, and to be a None is to be a Democrat, so I think a lot of Americans are having a hard time understanding Evangelicalism as a religious or theological term. They’re understanding it as a cultural or political term, so that makes it even harder for us to understand on surveys how are people and why are people answering the questions the way they do.
Matt Grossmann: Now the Nones are creating a big divide in the Democratic Party, but also, a long-time problem for the right.
Ryan Burge: Half of white liberals today identify as having no religious affiliation, half, so we’ve got to think, this is a growing coalition amongst the Democratic Party that they have to continue to find ways to… I don’t want to use the word pander, but they have to find ways to continue to keep these people in their tent. I think largely what’s happened is the Democrats have gotten the Nones by default up to this point. That’s largely because the Republican Party is so intertwined with white Christianity, especially white Evangelical Christianity, 75% of Republicans today are white Christians. It’s only 38% of Democrats.
The Democratic Party has to find a way, and I think this is actually really difficult, they have to find a way to keep all these different groups happy at the same time. For instance, they’ve got to keep black Protestants happy, but they also have to keep white atheists happy who could not be more different on things like the Equality Act, which is a bill that’s being debated in Congress and being kicked around right now that would basically say that churches could not fire people because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity. Black Protestants do not like that bill. They want churches to have religious autonomy and be able to hire and fire whoever they want based on theological concerns. White atheists could give a rip about that. They want no one to be discriminated against in any institution in America. Those things are at odds with each other.
How do the Democratic Party keep this one coalition happy, the white, liberal atheists, at the same time keeping let’s say groups like black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics and Muslims happy, at the same time we’ll have a completely different set of concerns over time, but the Republicans have a bigger problem, which is you can’t bank your future on white Christians forever because they’re declining as a share of the population every single year because Christianity is declining, and America is becoming more racially diverse.
I think what we’re going to see is Republicans are going to try their best to try to reach out and bring in some of those Nones that are growing so much amongst the younger generation, but how do you do that but at the same time, keep the Christian nationalists happy. I think both parties have a difficult future in trying to keep their coalition while also trying to reach out to the changing American coalition of religious groups. I think that what we’re going to see, is we’re going to see a new group arise in America which are conservative Nones, conservative politically, conservative Nones. Libertarians, a lot of atheists have Libertarian tendencies because they’re high income and high education. I think we’re going to try to see the Republican Party find ways to reach out to this group, and I also think the Democrats are going to have to find ways to keep everyone happy at the same time. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the parties position themselves next 15-20 years when America is 35% Nones, when it’s only 25% Nones right now.
Matt Grossmann: Green says secularists are connected to the rise of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party.
John C. Green: The secularists are having a big impact on the politics of both parties. We have strong religio-secular differences between Republicans and Democrats, but we also have to divisions within the parties based on these same dynamics. For instance, in 2016, and then again in 2020, before the pandemic hit, Bernie Sanders was [inaudible 00:31:27] large cadre of secular activists, which were strengthening and expanding the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
In many ways, that helped the Democratic Party. It gave them new resources, new energy, and ways to be different than the Republicans, but there were tensions as well. For instance, many of the secular activists found themselves in conflict with traditional democratic groups. For instance, black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics who may have come for similar policy positions, but out of deep traditional religious [inaudible 00:32:04]. It was really kind of interesting, many people remember that one of the true [inaudible 00:32:08] in the Democratic Presidential Primaries in 2020 was the South Carolina Democratic primary. Bernie Sanders was riding high at that point, but Joe Biden got strong endorsements from black leaders who are deeply religious and was able to win the South Carolina primary, really turned the dynamic around.
One of the ways that Joe Biden was able to prevail in the general election, obviously a very close and contentious election, is that he was able to hold together the ethnic and racial minorities, which are so important to a democratic coalition, but also, keep the secular activists involved and supportive of him. It will be very interesting going forward how Democrats manage that tension of between very religious Democrats of a certain kind and very secular Democrats of another kind. Here’s where ideology and race play important roles. When I say [inaudible 00:33:08] I would say may be the more important effect, but part of this is a racial dynamic. Secularists tend to be white, other than minority Democrats are dominated by African Americans. [inaudible 00:33:21] all of them tend to be liberal, but they’re [inaudible 00:33:26] in different ways and on different issues, so there’s room for cooperation, but there’s also room for a great deal of conflict.
Matt Grossmann: It’s hard to organize secularists when they have no organizational base.
John C. Green: There’s one important difference between the religious right and those efforts, and what you might call the secular left. I’ve noticed that one of the advantages that religious people have in politics is that they belong to organizations. Many of them show up at the same place every weekend and talk to each other. Whether it’s on Friday night or Saturday or on Sunday morning, secularists while they have common beliefs and common identifications, as far as we can tell, they [inaudible 00:34:08] organizational commitment and they don’t engage in secularist behaviors in a way that religious people engage in religious behaviors.
That poses a real challenge for leaders that want to organize groups and mobilize voters and where do you find secularists? Is it at Starbucks? [inaudible 00:34:26] it’s just a really interesting question, so there’s some real challenges. People who would like to organize a secular left that would be counterpart to the religious right in politics.
Matt Grossmann: We don’t know yet if American trends are like secularization in Europe.
John C. Green: The secular surge has created a lot of interest among theorists of secularization because I always [inaudible 00:34:52] an effort on how do you make Europe and other advanced industrial societies fit with the American case, which at least in terms of religion seem to be quite different. It may very well be that they have a broader secularization theory that would encompass what happened with Europe in the last century with what’s happening in the United States now.
A lot of what’s happening in the US is [inaudible 00:35:16] to the United States. Maybe that’s true of most countries, and it’s partly because of the long history and strong numbers of religious people in the United States. Even after the secular surge, the United States remains distinctive compared to other similar countries as high level, of popular religiosity, it’s just that now, as opposed to 40 years ago, we have a much larger secular population. I think those two things, one is it adds the kind of dynamism that is not [inaudible 00:35:52] diversity to the American religious landscape. It also creates potential for intense conflict. That isn’t as common in the United States as it might have been say in some European countries, but as we point out at the end of our book, we also see some real possibilities for new coalitions, for new forms of cooperation, for different kinds of religious communities might make common [inaudible 00:36:17] with the different kinds of secular people.
Matt Grossmann: Burge says the US still stands out for high levels of religion, which slow change.
Ryan Burge: America is stubbornly religious, and it has been for an entirety of its existence. America has always been more religious than other countries. Secularization says as a country becomes more economically prosperous and it has higher levels of education, there’s going to be less religious people. That’s been absolutely true in Western Europe, you see places like France and Spain and Italy, and they’re largely secular countries at this point. America is way in the outlier if you model things like how important is religion versus GDP. We are way more religious than we should be. Actually, if you look at most models, we should have 0% of Americans say that religion is very important based on how economically prosperous we are.
Now, I think what’s happened is the wave of secularization that swept over Europe let’s say in the post-World War II, period has slowly drifted across the ocean, and it is now lapping on the American shores, and we’re seeing the first leading wave of secularization crest across America, but it’s going to take a long time for that to have an aggregate effect on America because the older generations are still very religious. Only about 15% of the silent generation says they’re Nones. It’s in the low 20s amongst Baby Boomers, which 45% amongst Gen Z. For that really to change America’s religious composition overall, you’re going to have to see a lot of old people die off and be replaced by a lot of young people.
Now, the question that we all have is, is that wave going to continue to rise and rise and rise, or is it going to plateau? I’m a believer that we’re going to see a plateauing of secularization in America where maybe 45, maybe 50% of Americans at some point say they have no religious affiliation, but Evangelicalism is still very strong in America. Even in the future, we’re going to have 20% of Americans still say they’re Evangelical, and probably another 15% say they’re Catholic, but then we have groups like Mormons and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus, and you add all those groups together, I think in the future we see an America where we’re half theistic, half religious, and half secular, which is a tremendous change when you think that even 30 years ago, America was 80% or 85% Christian, to go to a future where we’re half secular, and then even Christians there only make up 35% of the population is a huge change. One that we haven’t even begun to understand the implications for all manners of society.
Matt Grossmann: Burge has an interesting personal story. He’s combined his social science with active work as a pastor.
Ryan Burge: I have been in the ministry my entire adult life, well, since my sophomore year in undergrad. I was a youth pastor for three years, and I pastored a little church in a town called Marion, Illinois for a year. I’ve been at First Baptist Church of Mount Vernon, Illinois for… it will be 15 years in October. I’m the longest serving pastor in the history of the church. I went to a Christian college, a Free Methodist School for undergrad, and I’ve always sort of been between these two worlds of academia and the religious sphere. I wanted to try to meld those in my career and not really segregate those. I think that one informs the other, and I think that my congregation has benefited from my social science background because I often talk about things in social science that I’ve learned and read about society and culture and religiosity and all these things, but I also think it really helps inform my academic work because I’m not just some sort of bland, neutral observer of American religion. I’m a practitioner, so a lot of the questions I have are things that I’ve seen in my ministry career.
What am I seeing? Is what I’m seeing different than what other people are seeing? Why am I seeing the things that I’m seeing? Why is my congregation now 15 people and it was 300 people 50 years ago? The book actually came out of a tweet where I basically just looked at the GSS and showed the Nones had risen exponentially over the last several years and were the same size as Evangelicals and Catholics. That tweet went viral and it’s interesting because it went viral in both the religious media sphere, but also, the general media sphere at the same time. In doing that, I sort of found that people are interested in secularization. They’re interested in the Nones, and people who are Nones themselves are interested in understanding themselves, Christians are interested in understanding the Nones because they want to win them back to faith, and I thought, I sort of stood between these two worlds in a way that most other people don’t. I can speak sort of authoritatively in a social science context about the Nones, what they look like demographically, economically, we can talk about tracking changes over time, but I can also speak to pastors and practitioners and say to them, “Here’s what you need to know about the Nones if you’re trying to win them back to faith.”
That’s what the first book is really about is trying to do both. Reading the reviews on Amazon makes me realize that people get mad at you if you try to do both. They want you to be one or the other. The atheist read my book, go, “I’m really mad at you because you’re trying to tell ministers how to win Nones back.” They get mad at me because I reveal a bias there I guess they think, but then, my pastor friends read the book, and go, “I wish you would have given us more practical advice on how to win the Nones back.”
I love living between these both worlds, but it’s also difficult because you’re never enough for one, and you’re never enough for the other, so you feel like you don’t really fit in either sphere, which is a blessing and a curse at the same time.
Matt Grossmann: He sees change within academia as Christians decline there.
Ryan Burge: The big names in religion and politics from the 80s, the 90s, even in the 2000s were all people who were taught at Christian universities, places like Wheaton and Calvin. Guys like Ted Jelen and Corwin Schmidt and Bud Kellstedt at Wheaton, those guys were all Evangelicals, and they’ve all died off over time. Now, they’re being replaced with a whole new crop of people, and by and large, this new crop of people are Nones, atheists, agnostics would be a significant portion of religion and politics scholars today. Lots of them grew up religious, but then left religion somewhere along the way in their teens and 20s. I think they bring a completely different perspective, but I do agree that I think that when we talk about diversity and academia, we almost always talk about racial diversity and gender diversity, which are absolutely laudable goals. We need to become less white and more female, I think there’s no doubt about that, but I also think that we need to understand that a huge chunk of America is still Christians, and the academy does not reflect America in that way.
I think I’m not an Evangelical myself, I’m a mainline Protestant, but the number of devout academics, religiously devout academics is smaller today than it’s been at any point in the last 50 years, and I think that having academics studying religion who are also involved in religion, brings a nuance to the discussion that we may not see in the future when it’s all one thing, all one note. The one thing that I’ve tried to do is, I’ve tried to become a neutral referee, a neutral party where I don’t want to make one group always look bad and another group always look good. I want to tell people what the data looks, which is difficult. I think that some people, it’s just easier to make one group look bad, another group look good over and over again. I think we need academics to understand their own blind spots as well.
I have a bias. I’m a Christian, I’m a pastor. I have a bias just like atheists and agnostics have a bias when they approach religion and politics research as well. I think the way that we overcome that is by having academics study religion and politics from various backgrounds, various biases, and in all that, the scientific process wins out and the data wins out and the empirics wins out. If we all come at it from the same perspective, I think we’re all missing something. I worry that in the future we’re going to have less religious diversity and we’re going to miss some things because we’re less religiously diverse than we were 20 or 30 years ago.
Matt Grossmann: Next stop, Burge will be doing more myth busting about religion and its role in politics.
Ryan Burge: I just shipped my second book that’s going to come out in March of 2022. It’s called 20 Myths About Religion and Politics in America. It’s 20 little chapters, they’re about 2000 words each, a couple graphs. Just things that I keep hearing people say on social media and when they talk to me at dinner parties and things like that, they’ll say thing that I know are empirically false, but I just don’t have the space to refute them, like say in a tweet or even in a blog post. I wanted to give it a little more heft than that, so 20 things. 10 of them are religion and politics things, and 10 of them are strictly religious things, so things like Evangelicals are in decline that we just talked about. They’re actually not really in decline. Things like Evangelicals did not like Donald Trump. They only voted for him because he was their only option. That’s also not true. If you look at the data, Evangelicals liked Trump even early in the primaries.
Ryan Burge: Just trying to upset what people think about the world, trying to make them think about the world in a different way, that’s always been my goal. That book is slated to come out in March of 2021. It’s going to be pitched more towards the blended audience, the popular audience in terms of not strictly academics. It’s more for a general audience, an educated audience who are interested in religion and politics and the interplay between both.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and part of The Democracy Group Network. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you like this discussion, you should check out our previous episodes on How Americans Politics Changes Their Religion and Are Americans Becoming Tribal. Thanks to Ryan Burge and John C. Green for joining me. Please check out The Nones, and Secular Surge, and then listen in next time.