The messaging is pervasive: “Christian Nationalist” T-shirts sold by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.); Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis evoking biblical imagery during recent speeches in Florida; and the swath of Christian symbology championed by insurrectionists on Jan. 6, a response to former president Donald Trump’s continued political catering to the views of white, evangelical Christians.
The politicization of religion in the United States can be found, increasingly, in the highest places of power and persuasion. And — at least along party lines — there is also significant public support to drop the separation of church and state and just go with, quite literally, church.
According to a Politico poll, most Republicans are in favor of declaring the United States a Christian nation.
Yet, this comes in stark contrast to the religious beliefs and practices of the greater American public, who are leaving organized religion in record numbers.
This is especially true for Christians, who comprise 64 percent of American citizens but are now more than ever leaving Christianity for atheism, agnosticism or “nothing in particular,” according to a recent Pew Research study.
The reason? Organized religion in the U.S. is becoming a place of partisanship and political leverage, said Art Blecher — a retired rabbi, current atheist and author of “The New American Judaism: The Way Forward on Challenging Issues from Intermarriage to Jewish Identity.”
That religion has been about control is nothing new, said Blecher. “Religion has always been about power, and how power is maintained,” Blecher said. But the conflation of religion and politics has reached new heights in the past decade. “Now, it’s part of the tribalism of blue versus red — blue religion and red religious groups. It’s more of a voting block than a congregation.”
And there is increasing evidence that for the first time peoples’ politics are dictating their religious choices — not the other way around, said David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, who specializes in American democracy and secularism.
Grid spoke with Campbell about the increasing overlap between religion and politics in America. The text has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: For individuals who practice religion, that relationship with politics is fundamentally changing. How?
David Campbell: Basically up until just a few years ago, we always thought of someone’s religion coming first, and their politics would follow from that. For example, opposing the death penalty or abortion because of one’s religious beliefs.
But increasingly, we see lots of evidence of things going the other way — that people have their political attitudes first, and then they adopt religious views on the basis of their politics. The religious views they express are really just an extension of their politics.
This has all sorts of implications. It can lead to people sorting themselves amongst congregations, based on the politics of the people there. It can even lead people, of course, to leave religion altogether. You think about the defection of people from religion, it’s really because they don’t like the politics of religion, right? So they’re putting their politics ahead of their religion.
In the case of evangelicals and their support for Donald Trump, this is a classic example of lots of people who are very happy to twist their religious views in order to line up with Trumpian politics.
G: Republican politicians are embracing Christian nationalism unlike ever before. How and why are they using it?
DC: If we define Christian nationalism as a belief that America has been set aside by God for a special purpose, that resonates deeply with many Americans, because that sort of messaging has been quite common on both sides of the aisle for many years. And so, when people today hear either political or religious leaders use that kind of language, it feels familiar.
What’s different about the way it’s used today is it has a very sharp partisan edge and leads to exclusionary public policies like very strict immigration, building a wall, that kind of stuff. In the past, that kind of language was really just more of an expression of a vague form of patriotism, as compared to a motivation or a rationale for specific public policies that have a very hard edge to them. And it also provides a religious or quasi-religious justification for policies that might otherwise be viewed as just outright racism. If you’re somebody who holds those views, you’d much rather express them through a religious means.
G: How does this boil down for everyday churchgoers?
DC: We don’t want to mischaracterize American religion, writ large, as being one party versus the other. There are still lots of religious Democrats in the country. President [Joe] Biden himself speaks quite often about his Catholicism.
However, it is the case that on average, churchgoers are more likely to be conservative and are more likely to support the Republican Party. That’s especially true among white Americans, and a lot of that is actually happening at the congregational level — people sorting into congregations that they find politically congruent.
That’s not because people actively go out and look for a Republican or Democratic congregation. Instead, people go out and look for a congregation that has people like them. They look for commonality when they’re church shopping. Increasingly, as they look for commonality, they end up with people who actually have the same political views that they do.
And there’s just a lot more of that happening on the right, because they’re just more conservatives in church. People are increasingly finding a community largely based on politics, with a little religion sprinkled in, because it’s the politics that draws them there.
G: Throughout these midterm elections and in the buildup to 2024, can we expect to see more overlay of religious and political messaging? What about longer-term?
DC: In the short term, I do anticipate that religion is going to continue to be divisive, and maybe become even more so, because of the trends of many people leaving organized religion for political reasons.
In the long term, we should always remember that prediction is hard and always be wary of trying to project too far out.
There have been points in time when America had appeared to be secularizing — this actually happened in the 1970s during the emergence of evangelicalism as a major cultural force when they’ve been largely isolated. And we’re in one of these periods right now. At the time, many people said, “OK, this is it, America is going to continue to be a highly secular country.” And then, lo and behold, there’s a religious revival. So religion ebbs and flows and it has over the course of American history.
An earlier version of this article misidentified the state that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene represents. This version has been corrected.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.