The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The trend against religious affiliation is a grave threat to the GOP. But don’t count on it to save democracy.

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

New polling data highlight the extent to which Americans are continuing to abandon organized religious institutions. That’s ominous news for the far right, which overwhelming relies on White evangelicals for political power.

The Pew Research Center reported on Tuesday that a “survey of the religious composition of the United States finds the religiously unaffiliated share of the public is 6 percentage points higher than it was five years ago and 10 points higher than a decade ago.”

Perhaps most significantly, “Christians continue to make up a majority of the U.S. populace, but their share of the adult population is 12 points lower in 2021 than it was in 2011.” In particular, the group that is the core of the GOP base is in steep decline: “Today, 24% of U.S. adults describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Protestants, down 6 percentage points since 2007.” Meanwhile, the religious group that leans heavily to the left is growing: “Currently, about three-in-ten U.S. adults (29%) are religious ‘nones’ — people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or ‘nothing in particular’ when asked about their religious identity.”

Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, tells me that his organization’s own surveys show the same sort of drop-off among religiously affiliated Americans. Democrats are doing three times as well as Republicans in attracting the growing market of “nones." One in 3 Democrats is a “none,” compared with 1 in 10 Republicans.

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“As the country’s religious and racial demographics have shifted, particularly over the last decade, the Democratic Party has changed with the times, while the Republican Party remains rooted in the past,” Jones tells me. “To put this starkly, in terms of their religious and racial composition, the Democratic Party mirrors 30-year-old America, while the Republican Party mirrors 70-year-old America.”

Rather than address this problem by expanding their appeal, White evangelical Republicans have panicked and doubled down on their politics of grievance and resentment. Their aim, it seems, is to attract every White evangelical they can find and disable the votes of everyone else.

“These dynamics are one of the chief drivers not only of the MAGA appeals to nostalgia for a 1950s-era White Christian America, but also for the heavy-handed tactics of extreme gerrymandering, restrictive voting laws, voter suppression and the ongoing attempts to allow Republican-controlled state legislatures to throw out the results of fair elections,” Jones explains. “These anti-democratic bulwarks represent a visceral, desperate attempt to retain a minority, White Christian rule against the rising tide of religious and demographic change.”

Democrats and our democratic system cannot simply wait for the demographic wave to save the country from the authoritarian right. Our democracy is in peril now, and the future of democracy in just the next few years is in doubt. Democrats have the numbers on their side, but they won’t have the votes or the counted votes if antidemocratic tactics succeed.

So long as Republicans make it harder for Democratic voters to cast ballots and booby-trap election administration, White evangelicals’ antagonism toward democracy and diversity will retain, if not expand, their disproportionate power. Refusal to address this issue directly advantages the pro-authoritarian right and erodes the concept of democracy. Whenever the minority abuses the system in order to enhance its power, voters will find the government increasingly out of sync with their views, values and concerns.

The most egregious example of White minority rule reflecting an outdated set of values might be the right-wing justices on the Supreme Court, appointed by presidents lacking a popular-vote majority and confirmed by the disproportionate power of red-state senators. As they impose a set of religious views on the rest of the country (e.g., insisting a fetus is a person from conception), the court and our democracy face a crisis of credibility.

Likewise, when White evangelicals can stymie popular legislation through a minority of their red-state senators via the filibuster, the majority will discover how broken our system has become.