Beyond the Gummed Labels

‘Secular Surge’
Atheists and nonbelievers gather at the Reason Rally in Washington D.C., March 24, 2012 (CNS photo/Tyrone Turner courtesy of Religion News Service).

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.

Most of us, it turns out, are a mix of religious and secular, but which orientation predominates is crucial.

So who are the Nonreligious and how do they differ from the Secularists? Technically, they represent the 16 percent of Americans who score low on both personal religiosity and secularism. That is, they are defined by what they are not. They are also less educated (fewer than half have a high-school diploma) than the other three groups; they are lowest in income and disinclined to participate in civic and political activities and organizations.

The Nonreligious may or may not identify with a religious label when polled, but here, too, apathy and inertia prevail. In one of the many fascinating political avenues the authors explore, they find that in the 2016 primaries, Nonreligious Republicans were more supportive of Trump and Trumpism than were Religionist Republicans. Some of the reasons were economic but some, they argue, were Trump’s “appeals to nativism and white racial grievance.”

By contrast, Secularists (28 percent of Americans) are self-affirming and activist in their non-religiosity. They identify personally as Secularists, look exclusively to secular sources for ethical guidance, and place their faith, so to speak, in reason alone. Secularists tend to be better educated than both the Religionists and the Nonreligious, but less so than Religious Secularists. Like the old advertisements for the Sunday New York Times, they are likely to be found in bed on Sabbath mornings reading the newspaper.

But until I read this book, I was not aware of how visible Secularists had become or the number of organizations they had created. I’d forgotten the inclusion of “nonbelievers” along with the various religious groups President Obama mentioned in his first inaugural address—a sure sign that political attention must be paid—or that thousands of Americans had gathered on the Washington Mall for a “Reason Rally” in 2012. Among the organizations that figure in the Secular Surge are the American Humanist Association (whose members the authors survey), the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, the Center for Inquiry, the American Ethical Union, and, among the newbies, the Secular Coalition of America.

Some of these groups were created in reaction to the old Religious Right and, as the authors demonstrate, have been strengthened by the identification of assertive white Evangelicals with the GOP. Some aim to “build community” through humanist charity drives, or to counter religious symbolism by, for example, matching Christmas crèches in public buildings with miniature Washington, Jefferson, and Statue of Liberty figures in adoration of the Bill of Rights—and by contesting in court what they regard as breaches in the wall between church and state.

Party politics does indeed rest precariously on a subterranean fault line between Religionists and Secularists.

Not surprisingly, Secularists favor the Democratic Party, but until Secular Surge, we didn’t know to what extent. In their study of party activists, the authors find that among those who attended the 2016 national Democratic convention, a near majority were Secularists; Secularists also dominated that year’s state conventions in Iowa, Texas, and five other sampled states. Conversely, 70 percent of those who attended the 2016 Republican National Convention were Religionists. Religionists were also majorities in every Republican state convention. In short, party politics does indeed rest precariously on a subterranean fault line between Religionists and Secularists.

 

That line extends inside the parties as well, though it is more pronounced among Democrats. There the authors find that most Secularists tend to be white, better educated, more liberal, and more ideologically driven than other members of the Democratic coalition, and therefore less open to political and policy compromises. This is a key demographic that the McGovern party reforms of 1972 were designed to woo, and the long-term success of that strategy is manifest by a cleavage between the party’s Secularists and Religionists. Most of the latter are African Americans and Hispanics, another demographic target of the McGovern reforms.

In light of the Secularists’ rapid growth, the authors predict that “it will soon be common for politicians to wear their lack of religion on their sleeves” the way that Religionist politicians do—as long as candidates avoid the word “atheist” and never declare that they do not believe in God, a no-no for Democratic as well as Republican voters. Indeed, just as the Religious Right provided common political identity for disparate kinds of white Evangelicals a half-century ago, the authors believe that a Secular Left could emerge by providing a common Secularist identity for the nation’s diverse groups of non-religious citizens.

The book’s generous footnotes explain how the authors went about generating their data, the sort of questions they asked, the quantitative and qualitative techniques they used, plus the assortment of other studies that add dimension to their own. There is even an online address where this technical material can be accessed. Some of this is clearly meant for specialists but much of it is clear enough for non-specialists like this reviewer.

One great limitation of Secular Surge is the lack of attention it gives to the Religionists (high on personal religion and on religious worldview) and Religious Secularist (high on personal religion and on secular worldview). Here these categories are used chiefly for contrast. But without further elaboration, it is hard to visualize who exactly these believers are—though I suspect that many readers of Commonweal, not to mention the three authors themselves, are Religious Secularists. Given the amount of data they’ve accumulated, they may be planning a sequel focused on the religious end of the spectrum. A nuanced study of levels of American religiosity would certainly be welcome; until then, we are left with polls that give us only respondents with gummed labels attached.

Even so, Secular Surge ventures a long way toward diminishing the modern religious version of American Exceptionalism: the assumption that the United States, alone among advanced industrial nations, has escaped the tide of secularism that has emptied European churches. I tend to agree with sociologists like Mark Chaves and David Voas that the United States, too, is drifting toward secularization, though at a slower pace. Which, with apologies to Mathew Arnold, suggests a title for that companion to this volume: Religious Retreat: The Long Withdrawing Roar.

Secular Surge
A New Fault Line in American Politics

David E. Campbell, Geoffrey C. Layman, John C. Green
Cambridge University Press
$29.99 | 268 pp.

Published in the June 2021 issue: 

Kenneth L. Woodward, author of Getting Religion, was the religion editor of Newsweek for thirty-eight years and is currently writer-in-residence at the Lumen Christi Institute.

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