September 14, 2023 - 10:00am

The US is unusually religious by Western standards, but that is changing fast. To understand what’s really going on — and what it might mean for the country’s politics — we need to look under the hood of America’s apparent secularisation.

The key fact which is ignored is that there are millions of Americans who used to be regular churchgoers, but who have now stopped. In a new book, The Great Dechurching, Jim Davis and Michael Graham put the number at 40 million. This is, they write, “the largest and fastest religious shift in US history”.

It’s easy to craft a liberal narrative here: under the growing influence of university education, younger, smarter Americans are turning their backs on the Right-wing evangelicalism of earlier decades and embracing secular modernity instead.

But in explaining the flight from the churches, Davis and Graham worked with social scientists Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe. Their key findings, based on 7,000 interviews, confound the conventional wisdom.

For instance, though young adults (18 to 30-year-olds) are most likely to break their churchgoing habits, this is not because they’ve been educated out of their faith. Rather, it is those with the most education in this cohort that are the least likely to quit (and who are also the most likely to go to church). 

In any case, loss of faith is by no means the only reason why people stop going to church. Davis and Graham point out that among people quitting evangelical churches, levels of conservative religious belief remain high.

So if religion isn’t the problem, what about politics? With important exceptions like black-majority churches, American Protestant Christianity does indeed lean to the Right, so it would be reasonable to conclude that this is repelling moderates and liberals. Yet this is hardly the whole story because, according to Davis and Graham, “evangelicals are dechurching at almost twice the pace on the right political flank than they are on the left.”

“Dechurching” is a complex phenomenon, which has more to do with shifts in everyday lifestyle than the fallout from the culture war. Think Bowling Alone, not the Handmaid’s Tale. As Davis and Graham observe of America’s absent evangelicals, “more than half […] are willing to come back right now”. They just need better churches.

Until then, there are millions of non-college-educated Americans whose religious and political views put them at odds with the secular liberal establishment, but who lack strong institutions of their own.

If the Democrats are hoping to harvest their votes, they’re likely to be disappointed. Indeed, the dechurched find themselves in diametrical opposition to Joe Biden. According to Ryan Burge, no recent US president is more regular in his church attendance than the current occupant of the White House — and yet his administration is slavishly aligned to the extreme social liberalism that dominates the Democratic Party.

As for who might benefit from the rise of rootless conservatism, look no further than Donald Trump. The televangelist era of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robinson may be dead and buried, but that doesn’t mean that America’s lost sheep are looking for a liberal saviour. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.