WASHINGTON, May 14, 2015 — The Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study shows Americans are becoming less religious and less Christian in particular. If the trend continues, it’s especially challenging news for conservatives of all stripes — and not only social conservatives.
The survey – which compares 2014 results to 2007 results — shows that 22.8 percent of Americans identify as non-affiliated with a religious group, representing nearly a 7 percent increase in seven years. The “unaffiliated include atheists (who increased from 1.6 to 3.1 percent), agnostics (2.4 to 4.0 percent) and those who identify as “nothing in particular” (12.1 to 15.8 percent). Meanwhile, self-identified Christians declined as a percentage of the population, falling to 70.6 percent from about 78.4 percent.
The Pew study seems to provide empirical evidence of a trend many have reported anecdotally: Though Americans remains predominantly religious (and Christian), that’s becoming less true over time.
The political challenges for social conservatives are immediately obvious. Starting in the late 1970s and 1980s, organizations like Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition sought to engage religiously devout but politically inactive segments of the populace. So-called “values voters” have been a rock upon which successful Republican electoral coalitions have been built ever since, especially during presidential years. If fewer Americans are religiously devout, this important constituency becomes smaller and less important.
The simple solution would be for conservative groups and Republican candidates to change their rhetoric. Campaigns of the future would prioritize messages about pro-growth economic policies and smaller government. Social issues would become less relevant. There are many libertarian-leaning conservatives or centrist Republicans who would probably welcome such a focus and would rather see the overall conservative movement focus in personal liberty issues rather than frame policies in terms of morality.
There is plenty of validity in that line of thought, but a major problem with this solution: simply shifting the message won’t work. In fact, the decline in religiosity threatens the electoral palatability of conservative economic ideas, too — creating profound consequences for free market conservatives and libertarians.
A Baylor University study released in 2011 explored links between religion and personal outlooks and found that those who believe the statement “God has a plan for me” were also much more trusting of America’s capitalist economic system. Believers were more likely to believe hard work and ability would pay off; non-believers were more likely to attribute success to an accident of luck. Believers were also more likely to agree with the statement, “The government does too much.”
Religious Americans have become essential to any victorious conservative campaign not only because of their social values, but because those values inform their outlook on other issues.
The logic makes sense: voters who are more religious are probably more likely to see their church performing good works in the community, such as assisting the needy. Those who support things like entitlement reform, corporate tax reform, income tax reductions and other fiscally conservative policies understand that the social safety net need not be a government monopoly because they see alternatives in action. Voters who are a part of a vibrant, caring, close-knit community are less likely to seek answers from the state. It’s no wonder that churchgoing Americans have overwhelmingly supported Republicans over Democrats since 2000 with remarkable consistency.
Secularization is not so much a Republican problem as it is a conservative problem.
As free-market enthusiasts understand, successful enterprises go where the customers are. Because the Republican Party’s ultimate goal is to win votes, it can adjust (albeit slowly) to a changing electorate. Eventually, mass-secularization figures to moderate GOP candidates on a wide range of platform issues, from the defense of unborn life to entitlement reform and tax policy. In a few decades, conservatives, libertarians and other freedom loving-voters could become a bloc too small to field mainstream candidates.
This is not an impending problem for 2016. Republican political operative Dave Carney points out that voter registration and participation among Evangelicals runs low even in years like 2004, when President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign set what was, at the time, the standard for base voter turnout. There are plenty of potential values voters on the table for the foreseeable future. Still, should the secularization trend continue, conservative and libertarian organizations will have to contend with its electoral reverberations – possibly in a generation or two.
Political solutions can only go so far. For example, in the 2000s, then-President Bush incorporated faith-based initiatives as a way to help administer social programs; this type of outreach can elevate the importance of churches to some degree. School choice initiatives in many states empower religious schools and home school groups.
The most effective solution, however, will be for churches and similarly affiliated groups to become stronger, more visible members of the community. No just law can put people in the pews; only the churches and parishioners themselves can do that. A conservative activist looking to impact a 2016 election might volunteer to drive people to the polls; an activist looking to impact a 2036 election might volunteer with his or her church.