Secularism and American Politics

Lecture Discusses the Political Causes and Effects of Non-Religion

The Center for Social Concerns and ND Votes hosted a lecture entitled “Godless Politics” as part of the “Pizza, Pop, & Politics” Series on October 24. With the goal of inspiring political discourse on campus, political science Professor Geoff Layman discussed his research on growing secularism and its effects on American democracy.

Layman began the event, intended to discuss “the political causes and consequences of America’s secular turn” by introducing his work on religion and politics. This research was conducted along with Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy and Chairman of the Political Science Department David Campbell and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Akron John Green. Layman explained how their work was motivated by the perception that the United States is an exception to a “pretty strong negative relationship between wealth, or how economically developed the country is, and how religious the country is.”

Layman then presented a graph comparing the percentage of people in a country who believe that “religion is very important” to “per capita gross national income,” which illustrated “that as [a] country grows wealthier, religion seems to become less important to its citizens.” He noted that there were a couple of outliers to this trend, however: Kuwait and the United States. Because “in comparison to most countries the United States is much more religious [and] much more likely to hold orthodox religious beliefs,” he explained, “the U.S. has been thought of as the great exception to secularization.”

This may no longer be as accurate of a characterization as it was in the past, though. “In the past 25 years, we have seen what has become known as ‘the rise of the nones,” Laymen said, meaning a large increase in the number of people who respond to surveys by stating that they do not identify with any religion.

This is a relatively recent development, he argued, while referencing another graph of American religiosity over time. “From 1972 until 1992,” Layman explained, “the percentage of people who said they had no religion or no religious affiliation was quite small; it was somewhere between five, seven, [or] eight percent.”

“Around the early 1990s,” he continued, “things began to change and since then there has been a sharp increase in non-religion… and now we are to about 22% or 23%.” This means that “nones,” as Layman refers to those who are not affiliated with any religion, “would perhaps be the largest religious tradition in the United States [today].”

Layman next discussed the two main questions that he and his two colleagues considered, “what’s caused this and what are the consequences… from the perspective of politics?” For the first question, they investigated “the idea that politics is partly to blame for this rise in non-religion, and in particular the growing association in the United States between religion and one side of our political divide, particularly the Republican/conservative… divide.”

This divide is manifest on the GOP side by a marked increase in religiosity among its voters. “Over the last three or four as the so-called ‘religious-right’ has emerged and mobilized conservative evangelical Protestants into politics and it has become increasingly influential within the Republican Party, and the Republican coalition and base of political activists have become increasingly religious.” This trend is primarily manifested through the growth of two groups within the Republican base, evangelical Protestants and traditionalist Catholics, he noted.

Layman hypothesized that voters may have begun associating religion with Republicans, causing a rise in secularism among independents and those on the Left. “If you’re a Democrat, a liberal, or an independent,” he explained, “you may have begun to think that… religion is not really for me, religion is not part of my social identity.” He continued, “this increasing associating of religion with only one side of our politics… may have alienated Democrats and liberals from religion itself and helped to drive this increase in non-religion.”  

Layman then provided his research’s statistical backing for this theory, first by presenting the results of a survey that showed that voters much more closely linked religious affiliation to the Republicans than to Democrats.

Next, he shared data collected in a “survey-experiment” he conducted, showing the contributions of politics to the growth in secularism. This study consisted of creating hypothetical news stories “about two candidates competing for a U.S. House seat, and then we vary, randomly, the degree to which each is portrayed as religious,” Layman explained. This, therefore, created four different possible combinations of news stories for the voters to read, no mention of religion for either candidate, discussion of the Republican’s religion but not the Democrats, reference to the Democrat’s faith but not the Republican’s, or representation of the religious beliefs of both.

The results clearly showed that politics is a factor in the decline of religion in the U.S., Layman demonstrated, specifically regarding Democrats. “When we present our respondents with the typical scenario, which you would tend to see in American politics, where the Republican is religious – and has infused religion into his campaign – and the Democrats is not, that seems to turn Democrats… away from religion.” Thus, the perception that Republicans are religious and Democrats are not can drive Democrats away from their own religion, Layman concluded, revealing how closely linked politics and faith have become in America.

Nicholas Gadola Holmes is a first-year political science major living in Keough Hall, who watches Monty Python while dreaming up new dining hall recipes. Email him new concoctions at nholmes1@nd.edu.

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