"The idea that religion and politics don't mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country." -- Jerry Falwell
If Roe v. Wade were decided today, it's safe to assume that religious conservatives would be apoplectic. There would undoubtedly be protests at the Supreme Court, at abortion clinics, at the homes of liberal Justices. But when Roe was handed down in early 1973, the response from religious organizations was largely indifferent.
So indifferent, in fact, that American Baptist Churches ("Abortion should be a matter of personal decision"), the American Lutheran Church ("The ALC recognizes the freedom and responsibility of individuals to make their own choices in light of [...] their understanding of God's will for their lives"), the Disciples of Christ ("The mother has an overwhelming stake in her own pregnancy, and to be forced to give birth to a child against her will is a peculiarly personal violation of her freedom"), and the United Presbyterian Church ("The church urges the establishment of medically sound, easily available, and low-cost abortion services") even explicitly supported the decision.
So, what changed?
The rise of the so-called "Religious Right," at least intuitively, makes sense. America is growing more secular by the decade, with the percentage of adults who identify with no religion in particular ("nones") rising from 6.7% in 1991 to 28.4% in 2021, while more than four in ten Americans are still convinced that it's impossible to be a moral person without believing in God.
And research confirms that most Americans distrust this growing secular community. In a 2011 study from the University of British Columbia, for example, researchers presented participants with a hypothetical story of a driver hitting a parked car and failing to leave insurance information, then asked the participants to assess the likelihood of the driver belonging to various religious and social groups. Respondents thought it unlikely the driver was was a Christian or Muslim, but equally likely that he or she was either an atheist or rapist.
Unsurprisingly, this mistrust extends to the realm of politics. During his 2015 Presidential primary campaign, Senator Ted Cruz famously remarked that "any President who doesn't begin every day on his knees isn't fit to be commander-in-chief of this nation," and many Americans seem to agree with him: according to a pair of Gallup surveys, a generally well-qualified atheist running for President today would have about as much support as a woman running in 1958.
This dismal outlook for atheist candidates may preclude a secular presence in the White House for now, but theists who mistrust the secular community have reason to worry in the coming decades: just this month, Pew Research Center released updated projections for the future of the American religious landscape, and all realistic models have Christians bound for minority status within fifty years. In some ways, then, the rise of the “Religious Right” mirrors the recent growth in popularity of “white replacement theory.” Most self-identified conservatives are not only Christian but also white, and white Americans are projected to lose their majority status nearly 25 years before Christians. And just as conservative Americans mistrust atheists, Republican and Republican-leaning voters are more than three times as likely as Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters to believe that a majority nonwhite population is a “very or somewhat bad” development.
White Christians are being relegated to minority status at an accelerating pace in more ways than one, and the "Religious Right" may offer a way to consolidate political power in response.
But while it is true to some extent that religious individuals perceive atheists as posing a threat to morals and values, psychological studies have identified other forces at work. Researchers in a 2015 study asked participants a pair of questions concerning either the experience of death or the experience of extreme pain, then asked them to provide their attitudes toward either Quakers, whom the authors identified as a relatively inoffensive religious group, or atheists. Those who had contemplated death did not report more negative attitudes toward Quakers than those who had considered pain, but contemplating death resulted in significantly more negative attitudes toward atheists. This lead researchers to suggest that atheists are to some extent distrusted because they pose a threat to Christians' worldview regarding their own mortality. In a second experiment, the authors confirmed that just thinking about atheists was enough to increase unconscious thoughts of death in participants.
Another potential reason for backlash against the rise in secularism is that Christians, unlike secularists, demonstrate significant in-group bias. A 2021 study analyzing the results of the General Social Survey found that while atheists exhibited no statistically significant difference in attitude toward Christians and other atheists, Christians exhibited significantly more negative attitudes toward all other religious groups considered than they did toward other Christians.
It seems then that religious opposition to the rise of secularism, though in part fueled by the belief that secularists are morally lacking, is also largely the result of a fear of death and a dislike of non-Christians more broadly.
But to whatever extent that the “Religious Right” has grown out of sincerely held fears of secular immorality, it is worth examining the movement's supposedly superior moral principles. After all, with nearly 94% of Americans who identify with a particular religion identifying as Christian, religious Americans overwhelmingly rely on the same book for divine moral guidance, and have therefore received the same moral instructions from God. One would imagine that, as a result, Christian Americans would largely be in agreement on major issues of morality.
Yet polls indicate that the "nones" actually constitute a significantly more politically cohesive group than Christians. On abortion: 84% of "nones" say it should be legal in most or all circumstances; amongst Christians, that number drops to a split 50%. On same-sex marriage: 78% of "nones" say they favor or strongly favor it; amongst Christians, it's 44%. And on government aid to the poor: only 36% of "nones" say it does more harm than good; amongst Christians, it's 48%.
For believers in the same god, America's Christians are awfully split down the middle on most contemporary moral issues. And for a group supposedly incapable of acting morally, secular Americans seem to agree with one another with remarkable consistency.
The “Religious Right,” it seems, is not made up of people who are conservative because they are Christian, but rather of people who happen by chance to be both; a random Republican-leaning voter is only about 26% more likely to identify as Christian than a random Democratic-leaning voter. A random religiously unaffiliated voter, meanwhile, is fully 135% more likely to be Democratic-leaning than Republican-leaning.
And so we have two groups. The first group is shrinking, at moral odds with itself, and spread widely across the political spectrum, with a namesake movement motivated in part by bias against members of other religious groups and a fear of mortality. The second is growing, largely morally consistent, demonstrates no bias against non-members, and is clustered on one end of the political spectrum— yet wields virtually no political power.
So where is this “Secular Left”?
Perhaps secular Americans simply aren’t passionate enough to coalesce into a voting bloc. A recent University of Maryland poll found that 61% of Republicans are in favor of declaring the United States a “Christian Nation”; I doubt that a similar proportion of secularists would have any interest in declaring it a “Nation of Atheists.” Perhaps the Left takes the secular vote for granted. But more likely, this is simply the result of trends which have not yet had time to upend decades of conventional political wisdom.
In the meantime, as we wait for the day when politicians find it expedient to pander to the secular crowd, there are some members of Congress who have taken it upon themselves to advocate for nonreligious Americans. The Congressional Freethought Caucus, more than half of whose 17 members are Christian, exists to maintain the separation of church and state and promote policy solutions grounded in reason and science. The CFC is the single most effective form of representation for secular Americans in Washington. With more than 94% of Congress identifying as Christian or Jewish, religious Americans need not worry about representation— but while electoral prospects for secular candidates remain unfavorable, each member of the CFC guarantees secular voters an advocate in Congress.
That is why I have written a letter to my House member, Rep. Joe Morelle (D-NY), asking him to join the Freethought Caucus, and I urge you to do the same. Or, if your member has already joined, send their office a thank-you to remind them that secular voters do exist and are grateful for their advocacy. We may not be as loud or as easily provoked as our Christian Nationalist counterparts, but the numbers suggest the Secular Left will only become increasingly difficult to ignore.
Note: This is part of the irregular series “From the Intern Desk,” in which college interns for the Secular Coalition for America produce topical editorials on the issues that impact our daily lives. This piece was contributed by Jake Simon.