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Secularism and the Changing Face of Politics in America

Secularism and the Changing Face of Politics in America

Gabrielle DeCristofaro • November 12, 2017• Progression • 

On Wed. Oct. 11 in the Old Main Chapel on The University of Colorado’s Boulder campus, David Campbell, the Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy at Notre Dame, spoke about “Godless Politics: The Politics of Secularism in the United States”. His lecture discussed trends in American religions, growing secularism, the different “flavors” of secularism, what this means for politics, and what it tells us about the future.

While Campbell points out that America is more religious than other industrialized democratic countries, that has not always been the case. He explains that rather than starting out as a highly religious country, with a downhill trend, there have been “ebbs and flows.”

In a Gallup poll conducted over the last 60 years, Americans were asked “Is the influence of religion on American life increasing or decreasing?” Campbell points out, in regards to this polling questions, Americans had a pretty good sense of the state of America. In the 1950s, many people said the role of religion was increasing, and they were correct. This could even be seen as a the “highest point of religion ever in the entire arch of US history,” according to Campbell. This is probably due to the fact that this poll was taken during the Cold War, and to be religious was to be patriotic. However, in the late 1960s and ‘70s, the poll shows a dramatic drop-off. Campbell and his colleagues call it the “shock of the 1960s”, the time of sex, drugs and rock and roll, and the poll reflects people’s awareness of this.

Following the 1960s, a resurgence of religious influence was driven by white Evangelical Protestantism. They started growing, while other religious groups started fading. They took cultural and political prominence as the Religious Right in American politics. However, in the last 25 years, another backlash perpetuated by this mix of religion and conservative politics has taken form.

Campbell next discloses evidence of growing secularism in the United States. In a General Social Survey, from the 1970s forward, participants were asked three questions. The polls shows that the number of people who have never attended religious services had increased, the number of people that had no religious affiliation, or the “nones”, increased, and the number of non-believers (the atheists and agnostics) also increased.

In quoting Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer from 2002, they have found that in the 1990s, “religion linked itself to a socially conservative agenda… and led moderates and liberals that previously identified with a religion, to declare that they had no religion.” So this means religion and the Republican Party are linked in the minds of Americans, and they don’t want to have that connection for themselves. According to Campbell, people are having a cognitive dissonance between their politics and their religion, and politics is winning out. He jokes, “People are willing to wager their eternal salvation on how they feel about George W. Bush!”

Citing two more surveys, Campbell points out that Evangelical Christians are overwhelmingly Republican. And if people did have a religion, many left because they stopped sharing beliefs held by the religion, or lost confidence in the leaders. But mostly they found religion was becoming too mixed up with politics, which was mostly expressed by people who were overwhelmingly liberal-leaning.

Next, Campbell talked about the two “flavors” of secularism: the “passively secular” and the “actively secular”. He states that the passively secular are defined by “what they are not.” They do not have a religion, they don’t attend a religious service, and they may not believe in God. The actively secular, however, have a secular worldview, and embrace those ideas. They may be defined as humanist or atheist, for example, and get guidance from non-religious ideas. Campbell does say, that they are “not two sides of the same coin” and emphasizes that someone can be both secular and religious.

Campbell claims that people who are passively secular are easier to find and survey. They are basically the opposite of being religious. However, the actively secular are harder to find. In surveying them, and giving them terms to define themselves, they found that the terms “secular, atheist, agnostic and humanist” grouped together, and that secular ideas, such as science and philosophy, gave them guidance, as well.

This study led Campbell and his colleagues to break the population into four groups: First, the people with low active secularism and high passive secularism, or the religious people. They make up about half of the population. Second, were the classically passive secular people, and this is about 18 percent of the population. Next are the highly actively secular who are somewhat religious. These tend to be people that identify as Jewish, mainline Protestants and Catholics. And finally, the true active secularists. They found this to be about 21 percent of the population. With this in mind, a stronger analysis of political attitudes and behaviors can be conducted.

Those who that are actively secular are more likely to identify themselves as Democrats, liberals or progressives. According to Campbell,  the actively secular do not want the 10 Commandments displayed in public buildings, are pro-choice, want stricter environmental laws, and believe undocumented immigrants should have a path to citizenship. While these people are not as civically engaged as religious people, they are still pretty engaged. They take part in political campaigns, belong to civic groups, and give to charities.

Next, Campbell and his colleagues conducted a survey experiment in which they gave participants actual fake news. The participants were given one of four stories about a fake congressional race. They were presented with two generic-looking, non-descript white men with vey common names. One was running as a Democrat, and the other as a Republican. In one of the four stories either they both spoke about religion, or neither spoke about it. The fascinating part is that one week prior the experiment the participants were asked about their religious affiliation. Then, they were asked after the experiment was completed. Campbell and his colleagues found that among the people who self-identified as Republicans, little change occurred. However, those who that self-identified as Democrat, after reading the story about the religious Republican, 13 percent changed their disposition and stated that they don’t have a religion. So Campbell makes the claim that, for a short time, they were able to induce people into not having a religion!

So, what does this mean for the real world? Is secularism causing politics, or are politics causing secularism? Campbell says the answer is, “Yes!” It is important to note that those who perceive a greater amount of religion in politics are having the biggest effects while also experiencing the most backlash. Active secularism is now a more powerful predictor of party identification than how religious a person is. This is an incredible find for political scientists, because generally, party identification is hard to move.

In conclusion, Campbell states he is now seeing a similar movement with the secularists as we saw with the white Evangelical Protestants in the 1970s, and that we should expect to see more candidates describing themselves as “not particularly religious.”



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