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Opinion The latest threat to the GOP: Americans are becoming less religious

Faith leaders pray with then-President Donald Trump during a rally at the King Jesus International Ministry church in Miami on Jan. 3, 2020. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Republicans, as has widely been discussed, face a demographic squeeze. As the country becomes more racially diverse, there is a smaller pool of White voters to sustain a party that has chosen to pander to white grievance. For this reason, the GOP has intensified efforts to suppress the votes of poor and non-White voters. As the second lawsuit challenging the new Georgia voting restrictions put it, “Unable to stem the tide of these demographic changes or change the voting patterns of voters of color, [Republican] officials have resorted to attempting to suppress the vote of Black voters and other voters of color in order to maintain the tenuous hold that the Republican Party has in Georgia.”

Equally threatening to Republicans, however, is the decline in religious affiliation. It is White evangelicals who were and remain the most ardent MAGA followers. Conversely, the most progressive voters, least amenable to the GOP’s brand of white supremacy and cultural memes, are those without religious affiliation.

Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” told me shortly after the 2020 election that the former president won around 81 percent of White protestant evangelicals, with even higher numbers in key battleground states in the Sun Belt such as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. “In these increasingly competitive states, White evangelicals were the decisive force anchoring those states against the strong tides of demographic and cultural change,” Jones said. Meanwhile, those with no religious identification went from 15 percent of the electorate in 2016 to 22 percent in 2020. Among these voters, 65 percent voted for President Biden. Jones commented then that such voters are “more progressive on a range of issues, and more supportive of a religiously and racially pluralistic society” and therefore least likely to be attracted to the GOP message.

Gallup’s latest poll illustrates the depth of the GOP’s problem: “Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.” Meanwhile, the percentage of those with no religious preference has skyrocketed from “8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.”

The problem is largely a generational one. Gallup reports: “Church membership is strongly correlated with age, as 66% of traditionalists — U.S. adults born before 1946 — belong to a church, compared with 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials.” As younger generations become an even greater percentage of the population, the “none of the above” segment of the population becomes more dominant.

One can speculate whether the politicization of religion by evangelical leaders, who increasingly identify with a partisan message of exclusion and resentment, is responsible for turning off younger voters. A PRRI study in 2016 showed: “Young adults (age 18 to 29) who left their childhood religion are about three times more likely than seniors (age 65 and older) to say negative religious teachings about and treatment of the gay and lesbian community was a primary reason for leaving their childhood faith (39% vs 12%, respectively).” Even more ominous for faith leaders is that a large percentage (58 percent) of the unaffiliated are openly hostile to religion, saying “religion is not personally important in their lives and believe religion as a whole does more harm than good in society.”

Religious leaders’ inability to attract and retain large numbers of millennials and members of Generation Z will likely have significant political implications. While MAGA members have been told Christianity is under “siege,” the real issue they face in struggling to exert political and social influence comes not from godless elites but from the disaffection of millions of younger adults. Perhaps evangelical leaders should tend to these flocks rather than to the ranks of the racist, xenophobic MAGA cult.

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