It wasn’t that long ago that the United States was a largely Christian nation. As recently as 2004, Gallup’s poll showed that 84 percent of Americans identified as Christian in some fashion. This had political corollaries: Back then, a CBS poll found that 59 percent of Americans favored a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, while only 22 percent favored legalizing the practice. (Another 33 percent favored legalizing civil unions, a status that gave LGBTQ people similar rights as marriage but stopped short of full marriage equality.) President George W. Bush won his tight race with then-Massachusetts Sen. John /F. Kerry (D) in part because an initiative in Ohio, then a swing state, that banned same-sex marriage increased turnout among religious conservatives.
Today’s landscape is much different. Only 65 percent of Americans are Christians, and 28 percent say they are atheist, agnostic or have no religious preference. The decline in Christianity is likely to accelerate in the coming years, as Christian preference is closely tied with age. Fully 84 percent of people born between 1928 and 1945 are Christian compared with only 49 percent of millennials. Forty percent of millennials are nonbelievers or have no religious preference compared with only 10 percent of the oldest Americans.
Such numbers might give Republicans heartburn. Religiously observant Christians are the party’s largest group of voters, while nonreligious Americans are strongly Democratic. Former president Donald Trump won White evangelical Christians by a 76 to 24 percent margin in 2020 and carried White Catholics by 56 to 44 percent. Democrat Joe Biden carried other religious affiliations overwhelmingly, including a 65 to 31 victory among voters with no religious preference. As fewer Americans identify as Christians, it’s easy to imagine a future dominated by the Democratic Party.
The trouble with this analysis is that it hasn’t happened in other countries that have already experienced a shift toward secularism. Christian belief and worship have declined in Western Europe, Canada and Australia more than they have in the United States, yet conservatives govern many of these countries and are competitive in most of the others. Australia is a case in point. Its 2016 Census found that 30 percent of Australians had no religion, up from 22 percent just five years earlier. Only 58 percent were Christian, and only 8 percent of Australians attend church every week. Yet the conservative Liberal-National Coalition has won the past three elections and Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a church-going Pentacostalist who staunchly defends religious liberty. Secularization, it appears, doesn’t mean traditional Christian belief is doomed to political irrelevance.
Secularization does, however, lead to laws that many religious conservatives find anathema. Abortion is legal in all these places, although it is often more strictly regulated than in many U.S. states. Same-sex marriage is also legal in most of these countries, often by popular referendum as was the case in once devoutly Catholic Ireland. Secular nations also often approve euthanasia laws that Christian conservatives oppose, and they often reduce the role of religion in public ceremony. (It’s hard to find many politicians from countries more secular than the United States refer to God as often as American pols do.)
This doesn’t mean religion completely disappears from political life. Germany has an officially secular government and has seen religious affiliation decline, yet the nation’s traditionally Catholic Bavaria is still governed by a party, the Christian Social Union, that has proud ties to the Roman Catholic Church. In 2018, CSU State Premier Markus Söder ordered all state buildings in Bavaria to hang a cross in their entryways as a reminder of the historical roots of Bavarian culture. He was reelected in that fall’s election and could be tapped as the conservative’s candidate to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel in September’s national vote.
Social conservative policies can also be advanced without Christian packaging. The Canadian province of Ontario has also been de-Christianizing as more people report no affiliation and immigration from South and East Asia increases. Yet the Progressive Conservatives won 2018’s election in part because they pledged to reverse the Liberal government’s policy of including gender identity in the province’s sex education curriculum for students as young as 8 years old. Many immigrants applauded this pledge, helping the PCs to carry 12 of the 17 districts in immigrant-heavy Mississauga, Brampton and Scarborough.
American conservatism will change as the country’s religious beliefs change. Social and religious conservatives will still be an important part of the public debate, and a crucial part of the conservative coalition, if they adapt to rather than resist the transformation.