Religion in Politics: A Turning Tide?

July 25, 2023  • Charlotte McAdams & Religion & Society Program

Popular discourse on issues in American politics often revolves around emotionally charged topics, highlighting vast political division in the country. People of all levels of political engagement will recognize fights for and against gun control, affirmative action, reproductive rights, religious liberty, and more. While religion has traditionally played a significant role in shaping political beliefs, recent trends show a decline in religious affiliation and the closure of numerous churches across the United States. The influence of religion on American politics persists, regardless of the decline. Despite the decreasing number of religious American adults, why does it feel that our politics are as influenced by religion as ever? Will the trend away from religion eventually lead to a separation of political issues from religious reasoning?

As involvement in faith communities wanes, a significant portion of the American population is identifying as religiously unaffiliated, often referred to as “nones,” because they identify as nothing in particular. Belief for members of this group is not monolithic, but can lie on a range of religiosity from atheism to deep spiritual seeking. Nones now comprise one of the three largest religious groups in America, alongside Catholics and evangelical Protestants. The majority of religious Nones formerly belonged to a religion. Given that only 9% of the adult population grew up in a household without religion, the surge in disaffiliation has mainly come from young adults leaving the religion of their childhoods. Catholics have had the largest decline in affiliation, losing 10.3% of attendees, followed by white mainline Protestants. This trend started in the 1990s and the unaffiliated are now raising children in non-religious homes, lending to the growth of this population.

Despite the declining affiliation with organized religion, the influence of religion on American politics remains substantial. However, the political leanings of the religiously unaffiliated provide insight into potential changes in the relationship between religion and politics. Nones display variation in political belief and involvement, but are overall a reliably Democratic group. Of this group, atheists are the most liberal, coming in at 73%. Political beliefs, particularly related to social issues, are a cause of disaffiliation for some. Among Nones, 29% cite negative religious teachings on LGBTQ+ people as a reason for leaving and 16% state that they left because their congregations became too focused on politics. The politics of Christian leaders has led to the perception that religion upholds discriminatory ideals, driving some socially liberal members away from religious institutions. 

The differing views between Republicans and Democrats regarding religion’s impact on American public life further highlight the complexities of the intersection between religion and politics. Republicans are more likely to view churches and religious organizations positively, perceiving them as institutions that do more good than harm, strengthen morality, and bring people together. In contrast, Democrats, and therefore Nones, tend to hold less positive views toward religious organizations, indicating a desire for a separation of religion and politics. Though the majority of the disaffiliated are Democrats, their influence is not yet proportionately represented in politics. Nearly 89% of Congress is Christian, while only 65% of the general population identifies as such. In addition, there is only 1 Unaffiliated Congressional member, compared to 26% of the general population. The leading voices in politics may represent a more religious standpoint than the public holds. The unaffiliated are also half as likely to be registered to vote than white evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants, or white Catholics. This gap in voter registration lends to the continuing influence of organized religion in politics. 

While the trend away from religion may influence the way political issues are framed and discussed, it is unlikely to result in a complete separation of religious reasoning from political discourse. Religion has long played a role in shaping individuals’ values, morals, and worldview, which naturally impact their political beliefs. Furthermore, for many Americans, religious faith remains a source of guidance and inspiration in navigating societal challenges and moral dilemmas. Though the religiously unaffiliated eschew organized religion, they may still turn to spiritual teachings or draw on the religious teachings that they learned in childhood to shape their worldviews. Despite a potential movement away from using overt religious reasoning in politics, religion acts as a shaping force for people of all religious backgrounds that will continue to inform the values that underlie political belief. For Nones, this shaping force may come from the religion of childhood, new age spiritual teachings, or thought leaders on social media. Politics and religion may be deeply intertwined, but the influence of religious “nones” on the political landscape will continue to develop for years to come.