The Dangerous Paradox of Religious Polarization in American Politics


A key factor in political polarization in the United States today is religion – not What religion you are, but how religious you are.

Here is the paradox: Americans lost their religion for years.

The Pew Research Center reports that “the country has become less religious over time,” as evidenced by a decline in the share of the population that identifies as “Christian” from around 90% in the early 1990s to just over 60% in 2022, plus a growing number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation (those who have “no religion”, atheists and agnostics now total around 30%).

At the same time, Pew examined the role of religion in people’s lives in dozens of countries around the world. The key finding: “The richer a country, the less religious its people tend to be – except America.”

The United States is by far the richest country in the world. At the same time, Americans are more religious than people in other rich countries. More Americans say religion plays a “very important role in their lives” than in any other high-income country – 53% in the United States, about double the percentage in the other three richest countries (27% in Canada, 21% in Germany and 18% in Australia).

Why are Americans only religious? Most likely because so many groups came to the United States seeking religious freedom, starting with the Puritans. Many of the immigrants belonged to religious minorities and belonged to “dissenting” (i.e. not established) churches. Those who immigrate for religious reasons generally have deep religious beliefs and strive to preserve them over generations.

The division between religious and irreligious Americans is growing. And that shapes our policy.

In the 2020 elections, voters who attended religious services at least once a month voted for Donald Trump over Joe Biden, 59-40%. Less religious voters opted for Biden over Trump, 58-40%.

In 1992, I held a visiting professorship in American politics at a major Jesuit university. One of the benefits of this position was an invitation to have tea with the cardinal. After exchanging pleasantries, the cardinal asked, “Is there anything going on in American politics that I should know about?”

“Actually, there are,” I replied. “Since Ronald Reagan welcomed the religious right into the Republican Party, American religious people of all faiths—fundamentalist Protestants, practicing Catholics, even Orthodox Jews—have drawn closer to the Republican Party. At the same time, secular Americans found a home in the Democratic Party.

I explained, “This division over religiosity is something new in American politics.” Then I took a fateful step by adding, “We’ve never had a religious holiday in this country, and the idea makes me a little uneasy.

The cardinal pounced: “Well, I’m a little uncomfortable with an irreligious party in this country.”

To which I replied, “Your Eminence, I think I’ll have more tea.”

Religious commitment has a lot to do with the radical right’s takeover of the Republican Party. What animates the radical right is the resentment of the educated elite, today rather democratic and resolutely secular.

Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, attacked his Democratic opponent for sending his children to an “exclusive, elite” [Jewish] day school, saying it shows “contempt for people like us”.

“Christian Nationalism” becomes an influential force on the radical right. Christian nationalists raise objections to the separation of church and state – an idea entrenched in the US Constitution. They want the United States to officially declare itself a Christian nation and give Christianity a privileged place in public life.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) told the Conservative Political Action Conference in August, “I am a Christian nationalist. I have nothing to be ashamed of because that’s what most Americans are. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said in june that she is “tired of this separation of church and state junk”.

A Catholic bishop once explained his church’s position on abortion to me this way: “Abortion should never be considered a legitimate ‘choice’. It’s like human slavery. The law shouldn’t allow you to say, “I think slavery is immoral, but if you feel different about it, you should have the right to buy yourself a slave.” This is a choice that cannot be allowed in a civilized society.

When issues become matters of faith, they cannot be resolved politically – which is why so many believe the country’s extreme political polarization can only be resolved through violence: 43% of Americans polled in late August by YouGov and the Economist expect a civil war to break out within the next ten years.

Bill Schneider is Emeritus Professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

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