As Religion Recedes, America’s Culture Wars Are Apt to Become More Intense

September 5, 2023 | Daniel K. Williams
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Many Western liberals hold fast to a version of what sociologists call the “secularization thesis,” which goes something like this: as science and knowledge progress, people will shed religion (or, at least, certain forms of religion) along with other prejudices, grow more enlightened, and become increasingly tolerant of racial differences, homosexuality, abortion, and other things. There is plenty of evidence the U.S. is becoming less religious, but the result appears to be that people are deviating further from the ideals of the liberal secularists. Thus, for instance, extreme-right anti-Semites—including self-styled “Christian nationalists”—tend to come from the ranks of the unchurched. Daniel K. Williams comments on the broader phenomenon. (Free registration required.)

Even as early as 2014, the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study found that 30 percent of self-identified Southern Baptists “seldom” or “never” attended church—and that was before the “great de-churching” accelerated after the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic. The exodus of millions of Americans from churches will have a profound influence on the nation’s politics, and not in the way that many advocates of secularism might expect. Rather than ending the culture wars, the battle between a rural Christian nationalism without denominational moorings and a northern urban Social Gospel without an explicitly Christian framework will become more intense.

Only half a century ago Christian denominations acted as politically centrist forces. Southern Baptists such as Jimmy Carter and Al Gore ran politically moderate campaigns that appealed to their fellow church members on both the right and the left, and devout Catholics such as then-Senator Joe Biden could still combine relatively moderate positions on abortion with a liberal-leaning Catholic social ethic to win Catholic votes. But those days are disappearing.

Denominations and church commitments once preserved a set of broadly shared Christian moral values that transcended the right-left divide, but now that some of the loudest supporters of Christian nationalism have left these denominations behind, there is little to stop them from refashioning the Christian faith in their own image, with potentially heretical results.

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