« Previous | Main | Next »

The Politics of Religion

Post categories:

William Crawley | 11:45 UK time, Friday, 13 April 2012



Rep. Pete Stark, America's first openly-atheist congressman

American politicians know how important it is to chase the religious vote, especially during a presidential election year. Of the 535 members sitting in the US House of Representatives, only one claims, in public at least, to be an atheist (Pete Stark, a Democrat from California) and polling suggests that American voters are more likely to vote for a Muslim president than for an atheist or agnostic candidate (and they're extremely unlikely to vote for a Muslim).

Religion is politically important in the US because this is a society with high levels of religiosity, at least by European standards. When asked how important religion is to them, 56 per cent of Americans say it's very important. The British figure is only 17 per cent. It would, however, be a mistake to conclude from this that America is unusually religious. By global standards, religiosity in the US Is mid-range; secularisation in Europe is the exception to the general pattern across the world.

That said, the religious landscape of America is undergoing massive change. Twenty-five years ago, two-thirds of Americans were Protestant. Today, Protestantism is on the verge of falling below 50 per cent of the population. Half of the Protestant category is made up of evangelicals; thus, in total, one in four US voters is an evangelical. Keep this figure in mind the next time you wonder why American politicians talk so much about the Bible or their own personal faith in Jesus. Some politicians even surprise those who know them best when, in an election run, they voice religious commitments their friends never knew they had. Ray Suarez, a well-known journalist with PBS Newshour told me today: 'Nothing is more painful than watching people invent a religious history for themselves.' Though not everyone is prepared to play that game. Ray also quoted a New York state senator who said this week: 'I put my hand on the Bible and promised to defend the Constitution; I didn't put my hand on the Constitution and promise to defend the Bible.'

The Catholic population remains stable (mostly due to Hispanic migration) at about a quarter of the population, and the 'other' quarter is made up of smaller religious denominations such as Jews (roughly 2 per cent), Muslims (0.8 per cent) and Mormons (just under 2 per cent). Statistically, the most interesting section of the other quarter is the 'unaffiliated'. This category is one to watch: it's growing significantly, and currently adds up to just under 20 per cent of the entire US population.

'Unaffiliated' includes non-denominational yet spiritually minded people (about 4 per cent), atheists and agnostics (about 4 per cent) and those who happily describe themselves as 'nothing in particular'. These figures come courtesy of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; I spent a very valuable few hours this week visiting the Pew Forum at their headquarters in Washington, DC, and I'm immensely grateful to Alan Cooperman and his team their for their extremely helpful briefing.

Not that these religious 'blocks' are fixed and unchanging. There is considerable switching: one in every ten Americans is a former Catholic, and 44 per cent of US adults have changed their religious affiliation from their original group membership. Migration, as I say, is bolstering the Catholic population, but it is not significantly challenging America's overwhelmingly Christian identity. Contrary to what some culturally paranoid Americans may believe about how immigration is a threat to those values, it turns out that 78 per cent of migrants are in fact Christian.

It's always dangerous to try to predict the future on the basis of trends, but we might risk a few educated guesses. We can expect the Protestant population to continue to drop, and the unaffiliated category to grow. We already have evidence to show that the 'next generation' of evangelicals will differ significantly from previous generations in terms of the values that matter most to them -- which may mean an end to some traditional culture war issues such as gay marriage (which is now supported by more than 50 per cent of the American population). Contrastingly, recent polls suggest that abortion will continue to be a focused issue of concern, both for many Christians, both also, increasingly, as a mainstream concern.

New research from Pew also shows a statistically significant increase in the number of Americans becoming uncomfortable with politicians talking about religion, so future candidates for president or congress may feel less inclined to invent a religious history for themselves or to draw on their own religious narrative in elections.

One politician who is already down-playing his obviously very genuine religious narrative is Mitt Romney. He is clearly worried that his Mormon faith could alienate many voters, particularly evangelicals. I spoke to one leading evangelical this week who speculated that 25 per cent of US evangelicals would never vote for a Mormon (since they regard the church as a cult). But that speculation is challenged by other research which suggests that Romney's so-called 'Mormon Moment' is an issue for the Primaries which will recede in importance once we enter the general election, which will be dominated by domestic economic issues rather than religiously-based culture wars. Another evangelical told me, earlier this week, that he'd probably vote for Romney 'with a heavy heart'. If I had to make a prediction, I'd say that Romney's faith will not ultimately prove to be a deal-breaker for those evangelicals who typically vote Republican.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    The above comment broke the house rules because those rules have been set by the thought police to serve the interests of a particular minority which no one is allowed to criticise.

  • Comment number 3.

    "Migration, as I say, is bolstering the Catholic population, but it is not significantly challenging America's overwhelmingly Christian identity. Contrary to what some culturally paranoid Americans may believe about how immigration is a threat to those values, it turns out that 78 per cent of migrants are in fact Christian."

    How would immigration 'boster the Catholic population' and at the same time 'challenge America's overwhelminly Christian identity'? If i didn't know you better Will, i'd start to think you hadn't picked up on the fact that Catholics are Christians.

  • Comment number 4.

    Actually, sorry, scrub #3, i'm thinking about it now and it could be that immigration 'bolsters the Catholic population' while the overall 'market share' of Christianity goes down. Sorry - i'll shut up for a bit.

  • Comment number 5.

    Dear Mr. Will,
    There's a lot of vibrant faith in the "flyover" zones of America-Amish/Mennonite communities, Orthodox Jewish, Pentecostal, monastic communities,etc.Hope you get to experience some of them.

  • Comment number 6.

    Theo: I said that immigration is NOT challenging America's Christian identity.

  • Comment number 7.

    The website of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Policy that you link to is certainly one for number crunchers! In Mississippi 91 per cent of people say they believe in God with absolute certainty and 60 per cent say they attend church services at least once a week. These are very high figures, the highest in fact out of all the states.

    The findings of an interesting survey concerning prison chaplains and religion in prisons is also available. Twenty-eight per cent of the chaplains surveyed believe that requests by inmates for "special hairstyle or grooming" on religious grounds are usually approved.

  • Comment number 8.

    Theophane,

    Maybe catholics have just become catholics, much of what is preached as catholicism has little to do with the christ of the bible but simply dogma made up over the years to support the men in power. Even as an atheist I can spot that. Maybe it is time for some groups to stop calling themselves christian as they completely fail the "does what it says on the tin" test.

  • Comment number 9.

    It seems to me to be an irony that the party in the US more linked to the christain lifestyle the GOP, are the ones to whom the parable of the good samaritan does not seem to apply being against universal healthcare for the poor

  • Comment number 10.

    Gerry,

    It's not just on the issue of health care of course. On Pharyngula I came across some words from Rick Warren. I think of those who would listen to Warren, more would vote Republican than Democrat. And Warren's message is clear: don't help out the poor, because that creates dependency and robs them of their dignity.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/04/10/rick-warrens-libertarian-jesus/

  • Comment number 11.

    In principle I think most will agree with helping the poor; even if we're not very good at it. Wealth redistribution through taxation, however, is just one way of the helping the poor. There are arguments for it and arguments against it. There are different forms of it, and different degrees of it. That one opposes welfare programmes (of varying degrees) does not mean they oppose helping the poor. I would also add that nationalised health care is not a corollary of the parable of the good samaritan.

  • Comment number 12.

    Under Obamacare the good samaritan won't be stopping to help. The victim will have been mugged by the Federal Government when they forced him to buy health insurance. unfortunately the fund will have run out having been used to fund abortion and contraception, sex realignment, IVF and breast implants.

  • Comment number 13.

    10.At 15:07 15th Apr 2012, PeterKlaver wrote:
    Gerry,

    It's not just on the issue of health care of course. On Pharyngula I came across some words from Rick Warren. I think of those who would listen to Warren, more would vote Republican than Democrat. And Warren's message is clear: don't help out the poor, because that creates dependency and robs them of their dignity.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/04/10/rick-warrens-libertarian-jesus/
    **********
    The message is correct if applied to longterm, ongoing welfare which does create a dependancy.It also creates a voting block which enables politicians to stay in office.It's not a system for a healthy society.Short term welfare to get folks back on their feet is a good thing.When it continues for two or three generations there's a problem.

  • Comment number 14.

    9.At 11:10 15th Apr 2012, gerry wrote:
    It seems to me to be an irony that the party in the US more linked to the christain lifestyle the GOP, are the ones to whom the parable of the good samaritan does not seem to apply being against universal healthcare for the poor"
    **
    gerry,
    We do have health coverage for the poor.It's called Medicaid.We also have state run children's health insurance which is billed per a family's income level.It's very affordable.So the truly poor, & also lower income kids are already covered for health insurance in America. The issue has been with working folk who do not qualify for Medicaid.
    I believe our insurance & healthcare systems do need an overhaul but not the one Pres. Obama is calling for.

  • Comment number 15.

    @12. Fionnuala,
    You know, the US Catholic bishops mostly endorsed the healthcare bill until the details came out.It's a shame that we can't come up with a better solution.There's a very real need for reform.

  • Comment number 16.

    The bishops generally have been fans of big government, since they didn't have to pay for it and Catholic charities were often beneficiaries of it. Fundamentally I don't believe in forcing people by law to buy something (health insurance), particularly when you dictate the coverage levels. Even leaving aside the attack on First Amendment rights, why would I pay for insurance for things which will never happen to me, and to cover things which in most cases aren't medical but the choices people make. Insurance is about risk, not certainty - including ordinary contraceptives under insurance is ludicrous even if you support contraceptives which I don't - it's like including cheese (which I don't eat).

  • Comment number 17.

    @16. Fionnuala ,
    I agree with you about the wrongness in govt. forcing folks to purchase health insurance.I guess we have to wait & see if the Supreme Court agrees, too.

  • Comment number 18.

    A report entitled "Belief about God across Time and Countries" was published a couple of days ago (Tom Smith, University of Chicago).

    "For 1998 to 2008 belief in a personal God declined in 20 of 30 countries by an
    average of 2.0 points."

    The author points out that the decline has not be great. There is still quite a lot of belief in God amongst Northern Ireland folk!

    "I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it."

    45.6 % of NI respondents agreed. Ireland (43.2%) Great Britain (16.8 %) United States (60.6 %) The Philippines (83.6%).

    "I don't believe in God."

    6.6 % of NI respondents agreed. Ireland (5%) Great Britain (18%) United States (3%) Germany [East] (52.1%) The Philippines (0.7%).

    "I don't believe in God and I never have."

    4.6% of NI respondents agreed. Ireland (3.3%) Great Britain (20%) United States (4.4%) Poland (1.9) Germany [East] (59.4%).

    http://www.norc.org/PDFs/Beliefs_about_God_Report.pdf

  • Comment number 19.

    @18.newlach,
    It looks like we need to be sending Filipino missionaries to Eastern Germany. :)
    Have a good weekend!

  • Comment number 20.

    newlach

    Was there a category for, "I used to be an evangelical but I'm all right now... now is the time to worship... now is the time to give your heart..."?

  • Comment number 21.

    "I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it."

  • Comment number 22.

    This may be answered by reading the report but...how come in GB and the USA more people 'don't believe in God and never have' than just 'don't believe in God'?

    If I'm being stupid I promise I have a good excuse!

  • Comment number 23.

    Andrew

    You are not being stupid. I have not provided all the necessary details. One question concerns responses given in the year 2008, and the other concerns responses "over time".

    Peterm2

    I didn't see that one. But a lot has changed since 2008!

    mscracker

    Well, you'll not catch me going to the Philippines. I heard today that the Philippines is the country with the highest death rate for UK citizens (apart from the UK). More UK citizens die in Spain than the Philippines, but more UK citizens live and holiday there. Have a good weekend too.

  • Comment number 24.

 

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.