The first speech President George H. W. Bush gave after the 1992 GOP convention was to the Religious Roundtable, an annual gathering of leaders of the Christian Right, which by then had become a constituency of the party that even a relaxed Episcopalian and boat-shoe Yalie like Bush could not ignore. Despite his visible unease (I covered the event for Newsweek), Bush managed one reverberative line. The Democrats’ party platform, he declared, “left out three simple letters, G-O-D.”
The next day, an editorial in the New York Times complained that Bush’s rhetoric threatened to “divide the country along religious lines.” A quarter century later, the United States is indeed deeply divided. Not by religion—to the contrary, interfaith and Christian ecumenical relations have never been more cordial—but by politics. The major issue addressed by Secular Surge is to what extent party politics is further polarized along a “fault line” separating religious Americans from secularist Americans.
Despite the jaunty title, this study is not another addition to the alarmist literature of recent vintage, the kind that relishes forecasting the demise of “white Christian America” or sounds alarums about Christian nationalists determined to turn this country into a theocracy. The three authors—David E. Campbell, Geoffrey C. Layman, and John C. Green—are distinguished political scientists and specialists in the application of social theory to religion and politics. What they have given us is a sober, wide-ranging, and often witty analysis that goes much deeper than conventional polling and its byproducts.
For example, most polling organizations put the percentage of religiously non-affiliated Americans (the “Nones”) at around one in four—up from 7 percent in 1972 and 14 percent in 2000. That’s more than the 20 percent who identify as Catholics and the 16 percent who identify as mainline Protestants.
Using data from the Secular America Studies (a survey instrument of their own devising) in conjunction with the General Social Survey, the authors find that 43 percent of Americans are either “Non-Religionists” or “Secularists.” The other 57 percent register as either “Religionists” or “Religious Secularists.” These categories are based on SAS measurements of personal commitment and worldview, yielding a continuum from deep religiosity to robust secularity, the one orientation bleeding into the other like the spectrum of colors. Most of us, it turns out, are a mix of religious and secular, but which orientation predominates is crucial. For instance, 29 percent of American Jews, 16 percent of mainline Protestants, and 10 percent of Catholics register as Secularists—meaning that their religious identification is purely nominal.