The Long, Withdrawing Roar

‘Secular Surge’
After the pandemic, will people return to fill the pews, or will this crisis accelerate a trend in declining religiosity? (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Will we U.S. Catholics return to the pews once the pandemic is over? Of course, some of us have already returned. Others fully intend to do so. Probably there are yet others, however, who have discovered that they enjoy Sunday mornings free and have begun to wonder why, apart from a feeling of guilt, they used to spend that time in church. And then there are the people—who knows at this point how many?—who have found new and different spiritual practices and nourishment over the course of the past year. Maybe they are Zooming with a community hundreds of miles away from where they live. Will they want to return to their parishes? Will they be willing to put up with the old normal—the poorly prepared homilies and lackluster music of many parishes; in English-speaking parishes, the insults to robust, plain-spoken English that abound in the 2011 translation of the Mass? What if these Catholics have even (heaven forfend!) been listening to women preach? Will they still be willing to attend and support a Church that is sunk in antiquated patriarchy? It isn’t hard to imagine that, for a lot of us, the answer might be yes. Old habits can reassert themselves quickly. But one can also imagine 2022 accelerating the rate of attrition by a couple of decades, leapfrogging ahead to what 2042 would have been like without the pandemic. Dissatisfactions that might have festered for decades might burst forth all at once. If they do, how will bishops and pastors respond?

David E. Campbell, Geoffrey C. Layman, and John C. Green have produced an essential study of a trend that was well under way before the pandemic; as they simply put it, “Americans are pulling away from religion.” (Full disclosure: I participated with Campbell in an Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies project on the growth of religious non-affiliation, and I hosted him through the center I direct to speak on that topic.) This is a work of political science, with an emphasis on science. The stories that the authors tell are grounded in data sets and experiments, the full details of which are available in a fifty-page online appendix. The book’s basic aim is to understand the political implications of what the authors call a “secular surge” in the United States, by which they mean “the expanding size, increased political engagement, and emerging collective identity of secular Americans.” The main lessons have to do with U.S. politics, but there are plenty of other lessons here both for Church leaders and for those who work in Catholic education.

Before the book turns to “political seismology”—its account of what changes the new fault line between secularists and religionists might bring to the political landscape—it surveys the lay of the land and clarifies such terms as “secularists” and “religionists.” People without religious affiliation—the so-called Nones—now constitute somewhere between 18 and 25 percent of the U.S. population, up from 5 percent in 1972. But, as the authors point out, there is considerable diversity among these people. The key distinction for this book is between non-religiosity and secularism. Some people without religious affiliation embrace distinctively secular beliefs, identities, and activities. These are the secularists: they have a “secular worldview,” and can thus be defined by what they are, not merely by what they are not. By contrast, non-religionists lack both religious and secular beliefs and values. As such, they are typically disengaged both from religious and civic institutions. Many of these disaffected non-religionists gravitated to Donald Trump in the 2016 primaries, drawn to his appeals to nativism and white racial grievance. According to the authors’ research, “only 43 percent of Nones are Secularists, while 45 percent are Non-Religionists.” The secularist Nones tend to have more education and higher incomes than the non-religionists.     

Does my holding secularist principles make me a secularist Catholic, or should we conclude instead that Catholicism is a “secularist religion”?

What makes for a secularist worldview is a fraught question. The authors propose three core principles: first, “a commitment to science and objective evidence as the basis for understanding the world”; second, “the view that only human experience and knowledge provide the proper basis for comprehending reality and making ethical judgments”; and third, “the idea that human development and understanding should be based on logic and reason, rather than received authority, dogma, or tradition.”

It seems fair to ask whether this simply describes what it is not to be an Evangelical Protestant. The authors acknowledge that “many religious traditions have space for beliefs that come from the natural realm, such as science and philosophy.” They accordingly insist that a secularist worldview “is not zero-sum with religiosity”—and in fact they recognize not only non-religionists, secularists, and religionists, but also what they call “religious secularists,” people who blend secularism and religiosity. According to the authors’ research, non-religionists, who are low in both religiosity and secularism, now make up 18 percent of the U.S. population; secularists, who are low in religiosity and high in secularism, make up 28 percent; religionists, who are high in religiosity and low in secularism, make up about 37 percent; and religious secularists, who are high in both religiosity and secularism, make up 16 percent. Some 23 percent of Catholics count as religious secularists, along with 21 percent of Jews and 23 percent of mainline Protestants.

The authors’ taxonomy led me to wonder: Does my holding (with due qualifications) secularist principles like the three above make me a secularist Catholic, or should we conclude instead that Catholicism is a “secularist religion”—or at least that it has a more secularist incarnation? Further, the authors sometimes seem to disregard the nuances of their own taxonomy. For example, they write that “we have seen that the United States is more secular than suggested by the common narrative of Americans as a highly religious people.” Here “secular” does seem to be “zero-sum with religiosity,” which leaves Catholic who identify, at least to some extent, with the authors’ three principles of secularism in an awkward position.

 

That there is a secular surge in the United States, however, is undeniable. People who identify as atheists or agnostics now constitute between 7 and 12 percent of the U.S. population, and the more religion has become associated with reactionary politics, the more non-reactionaries have been driven away from it—especially young people whose attachment to religion hadn’t yet solidified. As the authors observe, “politics drives nonreligiosity,” but they also report that “secularism...drives political views,” which is not surprising inasmuch as it “encompasses commitment to a set of distinctive beliefs and a sense of social identity.” In particular, “secularism is connected to greater liberalism, commitment to ideological goals, opposition to political compromise, and support for progressive candidates” (for example, Bernie over Biden in the 2020 primaries). At the same time, while the association of religion with right-wing politics turns liberals off religion, the authors found that it “spurs Republicans and conservatives to grow even more religious.” The upshot is that the secular surge has the potential to give rise to a “confessional” party system, further deepening so-called affective polarization between the burn-it-down Left and the burn-it-down Right.

The secular surge has the potential to give rise to a “confessional” party system, further deepening so-called affective polarization between the burn-it-down Left and the burn-it-down Right.

If that story isn’t scary enough, the authors document potential risks posed by the surge of secularists into the Democratic Party. In brief, “the growth of secularism in the Democratic activist base may antagonize the party’s traditional bases of support among people of color and working-class whites.” We already saw signs of this in the 2020 general election. Black and Latino Democrats tend to be strong religionists, and there are also strong religionists among working-class whites. The more secularist the Democratic activist base becomes, the less secure the party’s hold will be on other parts of its coalition. “Religious secularists,” including some Catholics, might also be alienated over the Democratic Party’s increasingly rigid position on abortion. If you think Catholics are politically homeless now, just wait.

Perhaps the Biden administration is sensitive to these risks. A viewer of President Biden’s inauguration ceremony could have been forgiven for wondering whether Catholicism is the established religion in the United States. And surely the administration is aware that Biden likely wouldn’t have won the Democratic nomination without the strong support of religious Black voters in the South. Whether that center will hold, however, is an open question.       

The risks to the U.S. Catholic Church, and to U.S. Catholic schools from kindergarten through college, are no less existential. The more the Church becomes associated with right-wing politics, the more Catholics repelled by that politics will vote with their feet. At the same time, less secularist, more “religionist” Catholics can be expected to become more right-wing in reaction.

Take the recent controversy at the Catholic University of America over a student group’s invitation to pro-life activist and all-purpose right-wing provocateur Abby Johnson, who was among the crowd outside the Capitol on January 6. After Cardinals for Life, the pro-life group that had invited Johnson, rescinded its invitation in the face of uproar and outrage on campus and beyond on account of Johnson’s history of racist statements, CUA’s College Republicans invited Johnson to speak, and of course she agreed. In his introduction to Johnson’s talk, the president of the CUA chapter of the College Republicans observed, “The campaign against us...ironically had the effect of strengthening our club, not weakening it.” That’s likely right, but the controversy surely didn’t help the U.S. Church, or the reputation and cause of Catholic higher education. Who except for a small club of people wants to be associated with that?

Ironically, post-pandemic, the U.S. Church’s fortunes may be bound up with Joe Biden’s. His Catholicism may be crucial in keeping the Democratic Party from breaking up. The example of his Catholicism also may be crucial in keeping the Church from losing everyone but the far Right.

Secular Surge
A New Fault Line in American Politics

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

Bernard G. Prusak, a regular contributor to Commonweal, is professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Catholic Moral Philosophy in Practice and Theory: An Introduction (Paulist Press, 2016).

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