Religion Is Disappearing. That’s Great for Politics.

Jun 16, 2015

by Michael Shermer

Before the rise of the religious right in the 1980s, most politicians kept their faith to themselves. In 1945, for example, President Harry Truman wrote: “I’m not very much impressed with men who publicly parade their religious beliefs.” After his election in 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower joined a Presbyterian church, but when he heard the minister was publicly boasting about his new member the general commanded, “You go and tell that goddam minister that if he gives out one more story about my religious faith I will not join his goddam church!” John F. Kennedy discussed his Catholicism only when forced to do so by critics during the 1960 presidential campaign. In a 1964 interview with the Baptist Standard, President Lyndon Johnson explained, “I believe in the American tradition of separation of church and state which is expressed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.” Richard Nixon was famously a Quaker, but what he practiced can best be described as religious expediency—whatever worked politically. Gerald Ford called his religiosity “very personal” and wrote, “I am most reluctant to speak or write about it publicly.” Even the openly evangelical Christian Jimmy Carter prioritized his piety below that of most political issues.

This all changed in the 1980s, when evangelical pastor Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority (famously characterized as “neither”) convinced Christian politicians that evangelizing for the Lord included knocking on doors within the beltway. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s Christian sects and faith-based organizations such as Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition of America and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family used rallies and donor support to convince politicians and candidates that if they didn’t pander to religious voters they stood little chance of being elected. The result has been a nauseating display of political cheerleading for Christ, from proclaiming Jesus as your favorite “philosopher” to petitioning the almighty at the end of public political speeches to “bless the United States of America.”

Those days might be over. To those of us who are atheists, agnostics or “spiritual but not religious,” and who prefer to keep the Constitution and the Bible in separate drawers, the Pew Research Center has recently published data from a massive representative survey of 35,000 adult Americans, revealing that the fastest growing religious cohort in America are the “nones”—those who check the box for “no religious affiliation.” Such unaffiliated numbers have been climbing steadily out of the single-digit cellar in the 1990s into a now respectable two-digit 23 percent of adults of all ages, up from 16 percent just since 2007. More telling for politicians who cater their campaigns toward younger voters, 34 percent of millennials—those born after 1981, and the nation’s largest living generation—profess to having no religion. A third! That’s a viable voting bloc.

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11 comments on “Religion Is Disappearing. That’s Great for Politics.

  • I think the religious squawking is the last gasp of a dying institution! They have nothing much to offer a modern world. A few more years of prostration and arm waving and down they go! Frankly, I can’t wait!

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  • If you are a Republican, the purpose of a Christian is to knock on doors and deliver your flyers for free. However, John Roberts decreed the way to settle elections is to see who can get the most contributions from billionaires. That made the Christians a lot less valuable. Christians are quite obnoxious and crazy. They are hurting the Republicans with a bigger and bigger proportion of the population who don’t like fundamentalist Christians.

    Republicans and Christians is a marriage of mutual convenience. It is not so convenient for the Republicans any more, but it would be quite hard to divorce. My hope is the pair will take each other down.

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  • Let’s not forget religion can be useful to our ruling class. In Russia Putin is toadying up with the Russian Orthodox Church. In Britain in the early 19th century, after the upheaval of the French Revolution, the removal of the king’s head and the threat of Napoleon, the hitherto pro enlightenment British ruling class actively encouraged Christianity as at least one way of keeping the workers in their place, in the factories ! Envangalists like Moody and Sankey were welcome here.

    Keep the workers’ knees on the ground, their noses to the grindstone and their thoughts on heaven.

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  • @OP – To those of us who are atheists, agnostics or “spiritual but not religious,” and who prefer to keep the Constitution and the Bible in separate drawers,

    I sometimes wonder if part of the “spiritual but not religious claim” is a reaction of nones in the US, to the theist misrepresentation of atheists as “emotionless Spock clones”!

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  • I am suspicious about a person who claims to be “spiritual but not religious.” It seems to to be a mealy-mouth statement of a wanna be agnostic. Here are definitions from my computer dictionary of “spiritual”:

    1 nonmaterial, incorporeal, intangible; inner,
    mental, psychological; transcendent, ethereal, otherworldly, mystic,
    mystical, metaphysical; rare extramundane.

    2 religious, sacred, divine, holy, nonsecular, church, ecclesiastical.
    faith-based, devotional.

    Take your pick.

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  • I agree completely!! A world without superstition, gods, goblins, and tales of virgin births! A world that doesn’t get its absolute “truths” from Plato or Augustine of Hippo.

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  • For some this may be true, but I think this article gets closer to what’s really behind it for most:

    People in the unaffiliated category are, in general, not hostile to science. They are apt not to reject science’s promise of knowledge based on evidence but, instead, to embrace it.

    But along with that embrace, they also experience their lives through a sense of awe and wonder that they perceive as spiritual. They are, in other words, trying to understand how the worlds of science and the worlds of their own spiritual experience fit together. Thus, many of the “Spiritual But Not Religious” are trying honestly to understand what it means to be both spiritual and scientific.

    [Emphasis mine.]

    I think for most the “but not religious” part of their conflicted descriptor has more to do with a desire to disassociate themselves from the fundamentalism, corruption, abuses, misuses, and other negative connotations of being affiliated with organized religions than with any concern about being seen as “emotionless”, whether that representation is accurate or not.

    And, by the way, I don’t know the origins of the “emotionless Spock clones” characterization, but it couldn’t have been from a true “Trekker”. They should know very well that Spock was a Vulcan/Human hybrid and so was capable of experiencing emotion (though, in a perhaps misguided effort to honor his Vulcan father and maintain some consistency with his physical appearance, he did work hard to suppress it). And frequently he expressed it: one of his favorite exclamations was “Fascinating…”, which, though delivered without the usual human inflection, I think clearly revealed that ability. Presumably any clone of his would have (at least) the potential to develop into a similar individual.

    Also, (apparently) Spock was not (always) an atheist.

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  • Religion Is Disappearing. That’s Great for Politics.

    It seems to be taking a strange hybrid form rather than disappearing here!!!

    Anyone for a heady mix of cocaine, communism and Catholicism to give their god-delusions a boost?
    Bolivian president Evo Morales presented pontiff with crucifix depicting Jesus nailed to hammer and sickle, which pope returned after a brief examination

    Vatican officials appear to have been flummoxed after Pope Francis was presented with a communist crucifix depicting Jesus nailed to a hammer and sickle by Bolivia’s president Evo Morales.

    The gift from the leftwing leader caused an immediate stir among conservative Catholics who said the pontiff was being manipulated for ideological reasons.

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