In the past several years, many trees have been felled and pixels electrocuted in the service of discussion about the impact of Hispanics on the American electorate. No one knows for sure which way they’ll vote in the future but everyone is interested in discussing it. Curiously, though, an even larger political shift is taking place yet receiving almost no attention whatsoever from political reporters—the emergence of post-Christian America.
Judging solely from the rhetoric and actions of the Republican presidential candidates this cycle, you would be hard-pressed to tell much difference between 2016 and 1996, the year that the Christian Coalition was ruling the roost in GOP politics. Sure there’s a lot more talk about the Middle East than before, but when it comes to public displays of religiosity, many of the would-be presidents have spent the majority of their candidacies effectively auditioning for slots on the Trinity Broadcast Network.
Even Donald Trump, the thrice-married casino magnate turned television host, has gone about reincarnating himself as a devout Christian, despite his evident lack of familiarity with the doctrines and practices of the faith.
Thus far, however, the public faith efforts of the candidates not married to a former nude model have all been for naught. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, both of whom won Iowa in past years, dropped out after failing dismally in the Hawkeye State’s caucuses. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal quit months before even a single vote had been cast. Texas senator Ted Cruz, despite being significantly better financed and supported by more conservative leaders than previous Christian nationalist candidates, hasn’t been able to do more than eke out a victory in Iowa.
Christian Right candidates have always had a difficult task in running for president (none has ever even gotten close to the nomination) but their even worse track record this cycle—in contrast to that of Donald Trump—is a perfect window into trends that will set the pace of American politics for decades to come: Americans are moving away from Christianity, including people most likely to vote Republican. In this changed politics, which exists right now, the GOP can only hope to succeed by greatly expanding its appeal to non-Christians.
While the process of secularization has been slower-moving in the U.S. compared to Europe, it is now proceeding rapidly. A 2014 study by Pew Research found that 23 percent of Americans say they’re “unaffiliated” with any religious tradition, up from 20 percent just 3 years earlier. The Public Religion Research Institute confirmed the statistic as well with a 2014 poll based on 50,000 interviews indicating that 23 percent of respondents were unaffiliated.
The trend away from faith is only bound to increase with time. According to Pew, about 36 percent of adults under the age of 50 have opted out of religion. At present, claiming no faith is the fastest growing “religion” in the United States. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of people claiming “nothing in particular” increased by 2.3 percent, those saying they were agnostics increased by 1.2 percent and those claiming to be atheists increased by 0.8 percent. No actual religious group has experienced anywhere near such growth during this time period.
Looked at over the longer term, the trend is even more discernible. In 1972, just 5.1 percent of Americans said they had no religious affiliation, according to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey. In 2014, that number was 20.7 percent, an increase of more than 400 percent.
To put that growth in perspective, consider that Hispanics were 4.5 percent of the U.S. population in 1970 (according to the Census Bureau) and 16.9 percent by 2012 (according to GSS). Despite receiving almost no attention whatsoever, people with no religion are both more numerous and increasing their numbers at a faster pace than people of Hispanic descent. (Unfortunately GSS did not measure Hispanic origin until 2000 so the comparison isn’t completely perfect).
While those statistics on the growth of religiously unaffiliated ought to be impressive enough to warrant serious discussion, the reality is that public polling almost certainly underestimates the numbers of the faithless because many religious Americans have strongly negative opinions of those who are atheists or agnostics. This negativity makes non-believers less willing to publicly admit to their opinions.
A 2014 study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that people of all races and religious creeds (or lack thereof) were more likely to claim they attended church services in a telephone survey than they were during a self-administered web survey where their opinions would not be solicited by a person in conversation.
According to the research, religiously unaffiliated people were 18 percent more likely to say they attended church services on the phone than they claimed to online. Americans in general were 13 percent more likely to give the religiously correct answer in a phone survey.
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A writer, television producer, and cybersecurity consultant, Matthew Sheffield is a Bold contributor. He currently is a producer and reporter at The Hill's video division, Hill.TV.