What sociologists told us two years ago about religion and a 'political backlash'

Washington University made the shocking announcement in 1989 that it would disband its sociology department. Those of us who greatly value this academic discipline are encouraged that this distinguished school revived the program with new courses last fall.

Journalists are trying to comprehend the most astonishing U.S. political campaign since 1948. Or 1912, or 1860, or 1800. Political scientists have been working overtime, but sociologists can provide the media significant longer-term understanding. One example was a 2014 article (.pdf here) by Michael Hout of New York University and Claude Fischer of the University of California, Berkeley, in the online journal Sociological Science.

The Religion Guy missed this piece when released (it’s hard for news folk to monitor all pertinent academic journals) and thanks New York Times economics columnist Eduardo Porter for highlighting it as evidence of “the waning place of religion in American politics.” Religion journalists note: The Hout-Fischer (hereafter H-F) analysis combines U.S. political currents and that much-mulled increase of “nones” without religious identity

The H-F piece is cluttered with algebraic formulas and arcane lingo (“multicollinearity,” “sheaf variable”), but fortunately the conclusions are in standard English. Much data comes from the University of Chicago’s standard General Social Survey.

H-F notes that Americans born after 1970 are less religious than previous generations. In past times those raised in church who dropped out often returned in adulthood, but that’s much less likely today. Also, those raised without religion  are becoming less likely to turn religious later. Religion writers know this, but -- how come?

From the early days of sociology the “secularization” theory proclaimed that religious decline is inevitable as societies modernize. That may work for western Europe, but H-F finds U.S. evidence “weak at best” since relatively few reject God or the Bible. “It is an error to equate the rising preference for no religion with an increase in unbelief.”

Rather, most “nones” are actually  “unchurched believers.” God, yes. Church, no.

Another hypothesis is “culture shock,” which H-F studied via liberalizing attitudes toward premarital sex, homosexual relationships and marijuana use. This coincides with another factor H-F emphasizes, increasing value given to individual autonomy and thought as opposed to obeying traditional authority.

On to politics. H-F asserts that “political backlash” also underlies the “nones” boom. The GSS shows 36 percent of political liberals are “nones” compared with 18 percent of moderates and only 8 percent of conservatives. Though other scholars say religion affects politics, H-F asserts the opposite.

When Americans began connecting organized religion to conservative politics, H-F argues, “many political liberals and moderates who seldom or never attended services quit expressing a religious preference.” Those barely involved in church dropped even nominal identification.  Few “nones” had been active  before they dropped all religious identity. Was liberal politicking similarly destructive for “mainline” Protestants? H-F doesn’t say. But our own tmatt explored that angle in the Pew Forum materials back when they were released.

“The more pervasive disaffiliation becomes, the harder it will be for the churches to reach the unchurched,” says H-F.  Is Porter correct that the expected Trump nomination reflects this scenario?

Religion writers should give the H-F article a careful read. Also note these items:

Mark Silk says the important “God gap” between the two major parties, regularly ignored by pundits, is now less important than the much-publicized “gender gap” in the Clinton vs. Trump era.

Sarah Posner revives for 2016 an oft-hoped-for scenario: “Is This the End of the Religious Right?” 

* For some reason, 2016 analysts have neglected Catholics, an all-important swing vote. Michael O’Loughlin examines this bloc.

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