The Pew Research Center recently declared that so-called nones, or the religiously unaffiliated, make up 26 percent of the U.S. population, up from 17 percent only a decade ago. Over the same period, those identifying as Christian dropped from 77 percent to 65 percent, and Catholics fell from 23 percent to 20 percent of the population. It would be simplistic to say, as Attorney General William P. Barr did in a recent speech at the University of Notre Dame, that organized “secularism” is the cause, as surveys also suggest that most nones do not consider themselves atheist or against spirituality. Still, Pew decided there was enough evidence to headline its report “Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.”
This kind of alarmism can be infectious, but better to pause and consider the context. Polls suggest that institutions of all kinds, from the federal government to local newspapers, are experiencing a loss of public confidence in their ability to respond to a period of great political, economic and social change. Getting better poll numbers (or exulting that the church is still more popular than, say, the U.S. Congress) is not the point here.
Of greater concern is the possibility that Americans are coming to associate faith with a particular ideological bent. Religious affiliation has fallen especially among Democrats, and the University of Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell recently said to The Associated Press, “Increasingly, Americans associate religion with the Republican Party—and if they are not Republicans themselves, they turn away from religion.” (It would help if the Democratic Party made it clear that it regards religious faith as compatible with good citizenship, rather than a threat to it.)
Political scientists once praised the United States for its “cross-cutting cleavages”—a phenomenon in which a voter simultaneously identified with different, overlapping groups. In practice, that meant that each citizen belonged to a different combination of political party, church, fraternal or neighborhood groups, and unions or professional organizations. The ideal was an interlacing of groups rather than mutually exclusive identities (for example, doctors cannot be Democrats or Catholics cannot be vegetarians) that reinforce division. As a new study of the Troubles in Northern Ireland suggests (see Short Take, Page 10), the loss of regular contact with people outside of other faiths and political beliefs can lead to destabilization and violence.
The rise of the nones should not be a reason to ramp up a culture war or to force a choosing of sides. Instead of raging at the polls, we should be inviting our neighbors, both the faithful and the nones, to join us in pursuit of the common good.