What’s surprising about rapper Lil Nas X’s effort to stir up controversy by selling Satan-themed sneakers isn’t really that he’s leveraging religion for outrage. It’s a tried-and-true technique for entertainers, particularly those whose futures might look a bit dimmer than their pasts. What’s surprising is more that the outrage attempt actually got some traction.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) attacked the sneakers as “outrageous, disgusting and perverted,” an excoriation that the rapper quickly embraced. Over at “Fox & Friends,” co-friend Pete Hegseth got mad about Nike producing the shoes … until the show’s meteorologist informed him that Nike wasn’t making them.

The sneakers were part of an effort by Lil Nas X to draw attention to his new song, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” — the video for which includes his giving the Dark Lord a lap dance. It’s just pure, distilled controversy bait of the sort we’ve seen so many times over the past few decades. And yet it still manages to gin up controversy.

All of this overlaps with a more interesting bit of news centered on America’s religious fervor. In 2020, Gallup’s measurement of the percentage of Americans who identified religion as very important dropped to 48 percent, the lowest on record. The change since 2019 was not significant; two years ago, the figure fell beneath 50 percent for the first time. But that the figure remains so low is remarkable.

Particularly when coupled with another record low found in Gallup’s poll. Last year, only 30 percent of the country reported having attended a religious service in the prior week.

There is, of course, a massive caveat to that number, which Gallup’s Megan Brenan is quick to note: The coronavirus pandemic made it far more likely that Americans would avoid in-person services. Nonetheless, the figure is the continuation of a trend. In 2019, the three-year average of this figure was about 34 percent, down from the three-year average in 2009 of 41 percent.

The shift toward a less densely religious country has been predicted for some time. In 2015, Pew Research Center released projections of religious density around the world, estimating that between 2010 and 2050 the percentage of Americans identifying as Christian would decline by 12 percentage points and the percentage of “unaffiliated” Americans would increase by nine points. The new Gallup data reflects movement in the same direction.

What isn’t clear, though, is how much of this is a shift in behavior and how much is a shift in identification. This was the point made by CEI’s Richard Morrison on Twitter: maybe there’s just less of a cultural push to affiliate with religion as robustly as was once the case. Maybe, in other words, the number of Americans identifying as religious and saying they went to church or synagogue within the past week was inflated by the sense that such things were believed to be culturally important or by actual attendance at services for the same reason.

There are underlying demographic shifts which might contribute to the shift as well. Younger people are less likely to identify as religious than older Americans, for example. As America’s older population declines in size (he said gently), the density of nonreligious people might be expected to increase.

America’s older population is also more likely to be White and presumably less likely to listen to artists like Lil Nas X. So even as religion grows less important to Americans overall, it remains very important to a lot of Americans — particularly older, more conservative Americans. And so, despite how nakedly eager the ploy was for attention, a Republican governor and a conservative television show take Lil Nas X’s bait.