Since Barack Obama took office, the Democratic Party and its liberal supporters in the media have told and retold a story that attempts to explain why the Republicans lost the White House, and will continue to lose it in years to come: The United States is growing more racially, culturally and religiously diverse, while the older and whiter base of the Republican Party remains stuck in the past. Implicit in this narrative is an assumption that with pluralism comes progress, an advance from an America that’s old and rigid to an America that’s rational, pragmatic and enlightened.
A new report by the Pew Research Center seems to support this narrative. The study found that the percentage of those who identify themselves as Christian is on the decline, while the percentage of those who did not identify with any organized religion is on the rise. Between 2007 and 2014, the study found, the “Christian share of the population” fell by nearly eight points (78.4 percent to 70.6 percent) while the ranks of the “unaffiliated” rose by nearly seven points (from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent). The Pew poll also found slow but steady growth in non-Christian faiths.
Many progressive Democrats greeted the news with optimism. Christian conservatives make up one of the most powerful factions of the Republican Party, second only to the GOP’s Wall Street and big-business wing, and any sign of their decline is cause for partisan celebration. The Prospect’s Paul Waldman, a true-blue liberal, argued that the Pew report is another example of the Republican Party’s being in a demographic downward spiral.
“Part of the problem is that the more diverse the country becomes, the more embattled and oppressed conservative whites and Christians feel,” he wrote.
Republican politicians respond to those feelings by reinforcing their victimhood narratives and emphasizing identity politics. That then further alienates non-whites and non-Christians, hardening the limits of the GOP’s appeal and making it more difficult to ‘reach out’ to those voters they’re going to need to stay competitive. It’s a vicious cycle, and one they can't quite figure out how to break out of.
However, a closer look at the Pew study suggests the celebration is premature. Christianity hasn’t declined among those who would presumably support the Republican Party. Among evangelicals, the percentage change is insignificant: less than a tenth of a point. The big change was in religious categories already aligned with the Democrats’ priorities: mainline Protestants and Catholics. They dropped by nearly three and a half points.
And the godless unaffiliated aren’t even necessarily beacons of liberalism: Ayn Rand, an icon to the GOP’s libertarian wing, was also a hard-core atheist.
In concluding that American Christianity’s decline foreshadows the decline of the Republican Party, otherwise very smart people like Paul Waldman reveal something important: Mainstream liberals make few, if any, distinctions between creeds of Christianity, despite differences going back to St. Peter and the founding of the church, and disagreements among Protestants that date all the way to Martin Luther’s original 95 Theses.
This monolithic view of Christianity emerges from two things: One is the dominating voice of evangelical Christians in the country’s political discourse. Since Bob Jones University fought the Internal Revenue Service over its anti-integrationist admission policies in the 1970s, evangelical Christians have railed against the federal government interfering with their rights and liberties, making them natural allies in the rise of movement conservatism.
Second and perhaps more important is the generally secular outlook of most mainstream liberals and Democrats, even if they go to church every Sunday. In other words, their worldview is not seen through the lens of religion.
Because this outlook is tolerant, it paves the way for right-wing voices to make absolutist authoritarian claims on religion, even if there are religious Democrats and godless Republicans. What that also means is that non-religious mainstream liberals who don’t personally know anyone who attends church regularly wind up believing that the loudest Christian voice speaks for all Christians – and thus celebrating the decline of the religion in the United States.
In doing so, though, mainstream liberals are accepting the terms of debate created by evangelical Christians more than 30 years ago when they came out of the political wilderness to claim that theirs is the only religion that matters.
And this represents another downward spiral — one that may hurt liberal causes. There are millions of Americans who might otherwise be attracted to (and, indeed, need) a party that pursues liberal principles and policies, but who are offended by the habit of equating faith with superstition, with relegating religion to the dustbin of history. Given the choice between the two, most people are going to side with their faith.
Despite strong arguments to the contrary, Americans are a religious bunch. Religion, therefore, shouldn’t be seen as an obstacle to advancing a political agenda. On the contrary, given the role of religion in achieving the progressive victories of the past, it can be an advantage.
We all tell ourselves stories, but the stories we tell can mislead as well as explain. The Pew poll gave Democrats and liberals an occasion to retell the story of a Republican Party stuck in the past. But if they are serious about achieving a truly majoritarian agenda over time, they won't let their stories blind them to reality.