The Politics of Religion
Rep. Pete Stark, America's first openly-atheist congressman
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.