Empty pews are seen at St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Washington (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn).

How to describe the growing phenomenon of waning American religiosity? Centuries ago it was called “apostasy,” from the Greek word for revolt. More recently, when I was growing up, Catholics who stopped believing were said to have “fallen away.” Today we speak neutrally of “the unaffiliated,” describing the dramatic increase in their numbers as “the rise of the nones” (as in, those who choose “no religion” on research surveys). But there’s an obvious problem with that last phrase, as the boyfriend of one of my theology graduate students pointed out: “It’s not like I believe in nothing!”

The objection was apt, for this is exactly what some commentators (mostly on the Right, though not always) allege regarding the unaffiliated. The story is as familiar as it is uncomplicated: these “nones” have reportedly been swayed by a rising secularist tide, one that threatens to replace traditional religiosity with moral relativism, and communal decision-making with radical individual autonomy. The result is that everything is reduced to personal whim. Even if critics do not necessarily blame unaffiliated persons for the shift, which is thought to be the result of broad social trends, they are essentially arguing that young people have been seduced by a kind of nihilism. Never mind that the data reveal that the majority of “nones” do believe in some kind of higher power.

This narrative is seductive, as it fits well with an apocalyptic view of modernity that pleases many on the Right (and not a few on the Left). It’s true that a certain level of secularization is a necessary precondition for religious disaffiliation. Choosing “no religion” would be impossible without the preceding loss of a general religious consensus—a point often made by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. It’s an option that previous eras simply didn’t have. Living in a world awash in religious feeling, belief, practice, and authority, medieval Europeans could not simply “opt out” of religion; it was literally unthinkable. But Europeans and Americans in the wake of the Enlightenment could do so freely, as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln famously did. So did a lot of ordinary people in the earliest years of the Republic, though it’s worth remembering how popular enthusiasm swung decisively toward spiritual fervor during the Second Great Awakening.

In a broader way, though, the evidence does not support the assertion that disaffiliation was caused by any secularist tide. Instead, that explanation looks more like confirmation bias. After all, the basic sociological evidence is not in dispute. Numerous surveys of Americans (like Gallup, Pew Research Center, General Social Survey, and many others) point to a remarkably similar pattern. From the late 1960s through 1990, very few Americans (no more than 7 percent) described themselves as having no religion. Now, nearly a third do, including close to half of Americans under twenty-five years old.

In a broader way, though, the evidence does not support the assertion that disaffiliation was caused by any secularist tide.

The opting-out increased dramatically from 1990 on. We might wonder, as one of my students asked rather frankly, “What in the hell happened in 1990?” What did not happen was that the United States suddenly became more secular. But the strong association between Christianity and conservative politics became more visible in the media during those years, when Evangelical leaders became hyper-focused on opposing the growing public acceptance of LGBT people and same-sex relationships. Observers like sociologists Michael Hout, Claude Fischer, and David Campbell as well as political scientist Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) pointed out that many Americans simply decided that if being religious meant being conservative (and condemning LGBT relationships) then they could not consider themselves religious.

Since the 1990s, disaffiliation has developed a momentum of its own across all generations and groups, but especially among the young. Among my undergraduate students, a lack of intentional religiosity has become more or less a kind of default setting. At the same time, America itself has grown far more polarized ideologically and politically than it was three decades ago, when the current swell of disaffiliation began.

The marriage of Evangelicalism with Republican conservatism (which extended to many churchgoing white Catholics) eventually became so seamless that religious identity seems increasingly articulated in terms of partisan policies. During the 2020 election, a very devout priest I have known for many years defended his support of Donald Trump with Republican talking points, eschewing any significant reference to Catholic teaching. For many Catholics today, Catholic identity is measured less by doctrinal orthodoxy or a commitment to Christian discipleship fostered by a sacramental sensibility, and more by a political purity free of even the slightest association with the political Left. My own Catholic university’s efforts to educate and resource Catholic pastoral leaders, to practice Jesuit pedagogy, to foster the moral formation of undergraduates, and to publicly critique the structures of injustice in our society are deemed by many Catholics to be largely irrelevant to its Catholic identity.

For many Catholics today, Catholic identity is measured less by doctrinal orthodoxy and more by a political purity free of even the slightest association with the political Left.

This should surprise no one. The binary logic of extreme ideological polarization forces us to root our arguments in the approved language of one side or the other. An unfortunate result is that much of the Catholic tradition falls by the wayside. Even pressing social questions that were formerly the subjects of reasoned theological analysis, like abortion on the Right or economic justice on the Left, have been reduced to political rhetoric blindly (and often vehemently) asserted without reference to Church teaching. Gone from debates about abortion is any reflection on Catholic notions of personhood; racial justice is no longer grounded in appeals to unity, or to the status of human beings as made in the image of God; conversations around gender identity contain no talk—supportive or critical—of natural law.

In such a contested context, religious identity is in danger of being divorced from actual religion. Politics stages a full takeover of personal and social ethics. Many supposed defenders of religion against the secular sound pretty secular themselves. Indeed, the same people who accuse the “nones” of believing in “nothing” act like they believe in nothing but partisan politics. We end up communicating to young unaffiliated persons that “religion” amounts to nothing more than political tribalism. Why would they show any interest?

Brett C. Hoover teaches theology at Loyola Marymount University.

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