Mandy will always remember Jan. 6, 2021, in a deeply personal way. Because she was there, inside the U.S. Capitol, supporting her president.
The images she saw that day remain sharp: The giant American flag carried by the crowd as they marched from the Ellipse. Singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the Capitol steps. And finally, entering the building through open doors and standing peacefully in its cavernous Rotunda.
She’s aware of the videos showing mob violence. But that must have been on the other side of the Capitol, she says. For her, it was a day of jubilation, of like-minded people joined in common purpose to “stop the steal” of the 2020 election.
Why We Wrote This
For many Americans on the left and right, politics has become imbued with a kind of religious fervor – while at the same time, participation in actual, organized religion has plummeted.
“This was probably the most patriotic day of my life,” says Mandy (not her real name), who asks to remain anonymous so as not to risk her job. With a Facebook page that’s a hub of pro-Trump connections, she says she’s traveled to 21 rallies for now-former President Donald Trump since 2016. “I go for the people as much as I do for Trump.”
Similar stories of secular communion have given rise to a theory that has gotten considerable attention of late: that for many Americans, politics has become a quasi-religion – especially as participation in actual, organized religion has plummeted. Indeed, Mandy says she believes in God, and grew up Southern Baptist, but is not currently a churchgoer.
The United States has long been known for what some sociologists call “civil religion” – a shared, nonsectarian faith centered on the flag, the nation’s founding documents, and God. But the God factor is waning, as so-called nones – atheists, agnostics, and those who self-identify as “nothing in particular” – have risen to more than a third of the U.S. population, according to a major 2020 survey out of Harvard University.
From MAGA devotees on the right to social justice warriors on the “woke left,” political activism that can feel “absolute” in a quasi-religious way is rampant. At the same time, American membership in houses of worship has plummeted to below 50% for the first time in eight decades of Gallup polling – from 70% in 1999 to 47% in 2020.
And as American politics has become polarized, so too has the nation’s religious profile. The mainstream Protestant center has hollowed out, its population shrinking dramatically. Today, religious Americans tend to choose their congregation with an eye toward partisanship – to the point where the choice of presidential candidate can lead a voter to move to a new church.
“Liberals and ‘nones’ went to the left; conservatives and Evangelicals went to the right,” says Ryan Burge, an expert on religion and politics at Eastern Illinois University, and author of a new book called “The Nones.” “There’s no middle anymore.”
Atheists, he says, are now the most politically active group in the U.S. They’re far from the largest, at 6% of the population, but statistically they are the most likely to engage in political activity.
“Our politics has become religion. It has a religious fervor to it now that it didn’t have even 20 or 30 years ago,” says Professor Burge, who is also a Baptist pastor.
Why is this happening? Some point to social media and news consumption habits that have cordoned Americans off into ideological echo chambers that are all-consuming and provoke emotional responses. The sense of connection some find online may be replacing social networks once formed by houses of worship.
Geographic sorting, in which people tend to live near those with similar political views, is another component. Higher education, dominated by professors who lean left, may help explain why so many college-educated young people now reject religion, with some instead finding a sense of purpose and meaning in political activism. A cultural emphasis on science and “rationalism” is also a factor.
Still, there’s a lot of nuance. President Joe Biden, a practicing Roman Catholic, is the first American president since Jimmy Carter to attend church regularly. In general, people of faith – particularly in the Black community – remain a key component of Democratic politics. Newly elected Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock was the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached.
Unlike the 1960s civil rights movement, however, the main leadership of today’s Black Lives Matter movement did not spring from Black churches. And the same forces driving down religious participation among young Americans, in particular, are also affecting Black churches. Between 2008 and 2020, religious disaffiliation among African Americans soared from 17.7% to almost 35%, according to the Harvard study, known as the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey (CCES).
Even for Americans of faith, the role of traditional houses of worship is shifting. The pandemic has given rise to “online church,” allowing some congregants to find a spiritual home far from their physical home. But the larger trend is clear: Americans overall are moving away from organized religion, particularly the mainline faiths. And that shift has dovetailed with the rise of an intense form of partisan politics that some see as quasi-religious, providing adherents with a sense of devotion, belonging, and moral certitude.
Especially among young people, “if your candidate wins, you have that ecstatic feeling,” Professor Burge says. Political conventions can have the feel of old-time denominational meetings. A stump speech is like a tent revival. Donating regularly to candidates is like tithing.
Still, he suggests, some who eschew religion in favor of politics may ultimately find it lacking in certain ways. Politics “doesn’t have the legs that religion does – which carries you through all parts of life.”
Finding a spiritual home
For Bentley Hudgins, a nonbinary Asian American community organizer in Atlanta, it was the realization of their gender identity that drove them from the Southern Baptist church they had attended through childhood and into college. Until that break, the church seemed a positive force in their life.
Bullied in school, “I found refuge in the structure of a church,” Mx. Hudgins says. “People told you that you were judged by the content of your character, and that your job on this earth was to make people feel loved. That message was compelling to me.”
As Mx. Hudgins came to terms with their gender identity and the church’s nonacceptance, separation from that community shook their world. Yet in many ways, the core of Christian teachings still permeates Mx. Hudgins’ life and work.
“This radical love of Christ is something that is still a model for my activism,” Mx. Hudgins says. “If people are hungry, feed them. If people need healing, give them health care.”
Mx. Hudgins is far from alone as a young adult for whom some of the basic themes of Christian teachings have instead been channeled into nonreligious forms of activism.
“A lot of people my age have found our spiritual home in the movement to restore and expand civil rights,” they say.
It has become almost a cliché to suggest that atheism is itself a form of “religion.” Writer Andrew Sullivan, who is gay and Roman Catholic, maintains that “everyone has a religion,” that it’s “in our genes.” Seventeenth-century mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal conceptualized what in Christian circles became known as “the God-shaped hole” – the idea that all humans contain an “infinite abyss” that can only be filled by “an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
Calling partisan politics a form of “religion” can be offensive to believers and nonbelievers alike, as it seems to equate human activity with the spiritual. And not surprisingly, most atheists reject the use of the word “religion” to describe their beliefs. But many are well aware of their growing influence in American society as a political force.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) – which runs ads featuring Ron Reagan, son of the former president – argues that atheists, agnostics, and otherwise nonreligious people have in the past been woefully underrepresented in public life.
That’s changing as their numbers rise. Ms. Gaylor ascribes this shift in part to “antiquated” attitudes in some churches toward women and LGBTQ people, which have turned young people in particular away from organized religion.
“We are seeing our country waking up, as it had already in much of Europe and the U.K.,” Ms. Gaylor says. “It took a long time, but once you turn that light switch on, I don’t think you turn it back off.”
For members of Congress, where a stated religious affiliation has long been near-universal, that’s changing. In 2018, the Congressional Freethought Caucus was founded to promote public policy “based on reason and science” and “to protect the secular character of our government.”
Today the group has 14 members, all House Democrats, or 2.6% of the 535 members of both chambers. While that’s still a small percentage, those numbers in Congress – and in politics in general – seem almost certain to rise as younger generations grow into positions of power.
Acceptance of nontheistic thought is growing. Yet activists say they can still get shocked looks when they identify themselves as atheists.
“My theory is that a lot of people were taught by churches that atheists are bad, believe in the devil, and have no morals,” says Judy Saint, a retired math teacher who started the FFRF chapter in Sacramento, California. “We have our morals from inside, not from outside.”
FFRF advocates on issues such as tax preferences for religious groups and end-of-life laws. And members participate in secular efforts to help people in need. But there are times when an FFRF activity can, in fact, seem quasi-”religious” to some. In Sacramento, during the December holidays, the local chapter puts up a display on the State Capitol grounds that looks like a Nativity scene. It features the Founding Fathers signing the Bill of Rights – which was ratified in December 1791. A Christian Nativity scene sits nearby.
“Worshipping at the altar of politics”
During President Trump’s time in office, even high-profile supporters asserted at times that he had been chosen by God to serve. “I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times, and I think that He wanted Donald Trump to become president,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in 2019. Energy Secretary Rick Perry called him God’s “chosen one.”
That belief grew markedly among conservatives in his final year in office. Among white Protestants who attend church at least weekly, the portion who said Mr. Trump had been “anointed by God” to be president rose from 29.6% in May 2019 to 49.5% in March 2020, according to polling by Paul Djupe of Denison University and Professor Burge.
QAnon – the online theory that a satanic ring of pedophiles was operating inside the “deep state” to undermine the Trump presidency – also gained considerable currency on the right. At its height, it may have functioned as a quasi-religion for some believers. Adherents of QAnon were prominent among the Capitol invaders, though the theory seems to have faded somewhat since Mr. Trump left office.
All the Christian imagery and objects present at the Capitol insurrection suggested another cultural trend. Crosses, Christian flags, Bibles, and signs equating President Trump and Jesus – along with the presence of Confederate flags and antisemitic slogans – exposed the “comfortable juxtaposition” of Christian and white nationalist imagery, says Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.
He rejects the idea that politics is replacing religion in America, instead characterizing the prevailing political dynamic as tribalism. “What we see is an overwhelmingly white and Christian reaction to the changing demographics and culture of the country,” says Dr. Jones, author of the book “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.”
Even if the focus today is more on political tribalism than on religious practice, some observers warn we may be heading down a path toward full-on sectarian conflict – a threat to democracy itself.
“Whether religious or political, sectarianism is about two hostile identity groups who not only clash over policy and ideology, but see the other side as alien and immoral,” writes Nate Cohn, a polling expert at The New York Times. “It’s the antagonistic feelings between the groups, more than differences over ideas, that drive sectarian conflict.”
Mainstream evangelical leaders who support Mr. Trump recognize the risk that far-right extremism poses to their community’s image. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and an informal adviser to Mr. Trump during his presidency, has consistently condemned the assault on the Capitol – and makes clear in an interview that not all Trump supporters are alike.
Those on the right whom he calls “SAGE Cons” – spiritually active, government-engaged conservatives – know how to “keep things in perspective,” Mr. Perkins says. “Their allegiance to Trump was based on his policies, such as abortion and religious liberty. It’s not a personality cult, as some would like to explain it.”
“You have people saying, ‘Evangelicals are making politics their religion,’” he adds. “We’re just responding to what the left has been doing – worshipping at the altar of politics.”
The Great Awokening
In liberal neighborhoods across the country, a rainbow-hued sign can be seen dotting lawns. It proudly lists a set of principles: “In this house we believe: Black lives matter; Women’s rights are human rights; Love is love; Science is real,” and so on.
“It’s a faith that’s rapidly won converts at the highest levels of American politics and society,” Mr. Juul writes, “one that uncannily mirrors much of the thinking and many of the practices of its ancient predecessors, complete with its own dogmas, heresies, and rituals as well as apocalypses and forms of mysticism.”
Dating back to Colonial times, religious “awakenings” in America have come and gone. At times of upheaval, a flocking to religion has often been a central feature.
“The Civil War was in many ways fought and understood in religious terms on both sides,” says Tisa Wenger, associate professor of American religious history at Yale Divinity School.
During the Cold War, too, existential anxiety – driven by fear of nuclear weapons and “Godless communism” – led to another rise in religious affiliation in the U.S.
Today, amid a once-in-a-century pandemic, major economic disruption, and upheavals around issues of race and sex, the reverse is underway. Instead of another “Great Awakening,” America is experiencing what some have dubbed the “Great Awokening” – centered on calls for social justice.
The term “woke,” slang for “awake,” came into common usage with the birth of Black Lives Matter in 2013 and became further entrenched last year after the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, sparking a summer of racial unrest.
“There’s a real wrestling right now on the left with trying to negotiate new cultural norms, in which casual racism and homophobia should no longer be acceptable,” Professor Wenger says.
At heart, “woke” refers to awareness of racial and social justice issues. Increasingly, however, it has been weaponized by conservatives mocking what they see as excesses on the left.
Even some Democrats express concerns about the larger movement promoting “anti-racism.” John McWhorter, an African American linguist and social critic at Columbia University, describes white people’s expressions of “wokeness” as a form of virtue-signaling that has morphed into a misguided civic religion.
“White people – educated white people, especially – really enjoy the idea of showing that they’re not racists,” Professor McWhorter said in a recent discussion with Reason magazine. “It has slowly transmogrified into a kind of replacement for Protestantism … where your grace is that you are not a racist.”
Some observers draw a straight line from the Puritans of Colonial times to the “woke scolds” of today who are quick to “cancel” transgressors and see no room for grace and forgiveness. Indeed, enforcement of progressive standards today can seem even harsher than Christianity’s approach, which allows space for sinners to atone and be given another chance.
Still, progressives argue it’s important not to lose sight of the goal of the “anti-racist” movement, which is to expose and uproot injustices that have been entrenched in U.S. society throughout its history.
Human belief systems can be complicated. Professor Burge, the political scientist who is also a Baptist pastor, sees some hope in the data. Yes, the “nones” are a rising cohort in the nation’s religious landscape. But stating a lack of religious affiliation has also become far more socially acceptable, so in reality the shift may be less dramatic than it seems.
Among those who checked off “nothing in particular” on the CCES survey on religion in the Harvard study in 2010, follow-up interviews over four years showed that 1 in 6 migrated toward a Christian tradition.
And some young adults today have never left their church. Joey Wozniak, of Atlanta, is a civically minded 20-something who belongs to an Episcopal congregation. Its membership skews older, he says, but there are others his age.
While the pandemic has made it hard to stay active in his church, he says he’s applying its basic tenets to his work, which is nonpartisan but in the realm of politics. His religious convictions have reinforced certain principles, such as “being respectful to people, being kind to others, reaching out across differences, reconciling with folks.”
“I try to just listen to them and find out where they’re coming from,” he says. “Somehow, even amongst the political rancor of today, I’m still able to move forward with those convictions and try to find the common ground.”