One old assumption that has died a death this decade is that America is exceptional among western countries in resisting secularisation. While Britain and France are way ahead on the path of godlessness, the recent drop in Christian religious identification in the US is pretty staggering.
The rather inappropriately named Bonnie Kristian laments this coming end of Christian America in The Week, and strikes a warning that Ross Douthat and Lyman Stone have signalled before: namely, that if you don’t like the Religious Right, you’re really not going to like the Irreligious Right.
Culture wars are always about religion in a sense, and since the 18th century in France and later in England the Left has been more secular, or even anti-religious. It’s obviously true in the US, where conservatives are more religious and many flashpoint issues are over faith; today just 16 per cent of American liberals think religious faith gives them a “great deal” of meaning in life, compared to 62 per cent of “very conservative” Americans.
Yet leftist politics are also by nature more like a religion; the same survey found that 30 per cent of very liberal Americans find a “great deal” of meaning in political causes, compared to just 9 per cent of conservatives. When liberals lose their religion, then politics becomes their religion.
Liberal politics is by nature optimistic and it’s also more universalistic (because it it is so heavily influenced by Christianity). Conservatives losing their religion is a darker prospect, since conservatism is more pessimistic and more “basic”, in the sense that it is the mindset for the default human existence, a world of threat and danger.
Conservatives may be more religious but religion also acts as a restraint on their tribal impulses, especially a religion that demands superhuman acts of altruism and forgiveness.
Douthat previously cited statistics showing that American churchgoers, even controlling for social class and other characteristics, “are considerably less racially prejudiced or hostile than other Republican voters” and have more positive feelings to all racial and religious minorities and immigrants.
Even Trump voters who regularly attend church are more likely to have “warm feelings toward racial and religious minorities, be more supportive of immigration and trade, and be more concerned about poverty”.
These religious voters have higher social capital, are more trusting, more likely to volunteer and more satisfied with their neighbourhood and with family relationships, all things that correlate with lower prejudice. Since 1992 the share of Americans with no religion has quadrupled, but it has trebled even among conservatives.
And so the decline of churches leaves a vacuum for political preachers who can offer hope and the feeling of togetherness faith provides; indeed, there is also strong evidence from Germany of a link between falling religious attendance and rising populism.
As Mark Lilla wrote in The Shipwrecked Mind, “When you abandon the Lord, it is only a matter of time before you start worshipping a Fuhrer”.