Americans are widely recognized as among the most religious people in the world. That’s changing, and one result is the increased political polarization that has been evident in recent elections.
According to a new study, one out of five adults in the United States says he or she is not part of a traditional religious domination. That’s 46 million Americans, more than a 20 percent increase since 2007.
The trend is more dramatic among younger Americans. One-third of adults under 30 years say they are “nothing in particular,” agnostic, or atheist.
The Pew Research Center, which conducted the survey, said that for the first time, fewer than half of Americans identify themselves as Protestant. The report also noted that Gallup polls have documented a decline in the number of people who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, from 38 percent around 1980 to about 31 percent today.
One-fourth of the people Pew surveyed said they seldom or never attend religious services. That suggests a decline in religious commitment even among people who claim a particular faith.
The growing number of people who claim no religious ties crosses demographic lines. They come from every part of the country. They are male or female, rich or poor, college educated or not. They are largely white.
Is this the secularization of society that many religious leaders complain about? Some form of new-age hedonism? The inevitable result of removing prayer from public schools?
Maybe not. Most of the “nones” claim to be spiritual in some way. Two-thirds believe in God. More than half feel a deep connection to nature and the Earth. Twenty-one percent say they pray.
But the vast majority — 88 percent — are not looking for an organized religion. Religious organizations, they say, are too concerned with money, power, and rules, and too involved in politics.
More interesting, and probably no surprise to the religious right, most of the “nones” identify themselves as moderate (38 percent) or liberal (38 percent) and lean toward the Democratic Party (63 percent). At 24 percent, they are the party’s largest faith constituency.
The Republican Party, in contrast, is becoming the party of white Protestants. White evangelical and main-line Protestants accounted for 57 percent of respondents who said they were Republican or leaned Republican.
Moderation has been the first victim of the growing link between religious and political ties. The result has been more elected officials who represent what used to be the extremes of their parties — one of the causes of congressional gridlock and partisan brinkmanship.
At the presidential level, electoral success still depends on the ability to appeal to the political center. But candidates also have to keep an eye on the fringes, so they try to say nothing of substance, or swerve left and right depending on the audience they are talking to.
The Pew report suggests these trends are likely to become more pronounced. That is not healthy news for democracy.