America’s Religious Faith and Tolerance are Entwined in its Political Future
By Melissa Deckman, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, and Timothy Head, Executive Director of Faith & Freedom Coalition
What Is the Future of Christianity in American Politics?
By Melissa Deckman – CEO, Public Religion Research Institute
It is hard to escape news stories about the expanded role that some Christians are playing in American politics today, particularly within the Republican Party. What is sparking this growing influence of conservative Christianity within the GOP? And does this development signal that Christianity is likely to play a bigger role in the future of American politics?
The involvement of conservative white Christians in modern politics is not a new phenomenon. As a reaction to social movements in the 1960s and 70s, which sought greater rights for women, racial minorities, and gays and lesbians, the Christian right began organizing more systematically as a Republican Party faction beginning with Ronald Reagan’s presidency. At the time, the GOP welcomed such voters as part of its larger Southern strategy to appeal to white voters. However, to Reagan and other Republican leaders in Washington, there was a limit to this collaboration. They offered only lip service to many of the social concerns that led conservative white Christians to become more politically active. Establishment Republicans prioritized tax cuts, foreign policy, and national security over social issues for decades.
Trump Taps Into Americans’ Concerns Over Religious Liberty
Enter Donald Trump, an unlikely champion of the Christian right. Trump’s appeals to make America great again—and his disdain for the Republican Party establishment—energized many conservative, white Christians (and white, working-class Americans more generally) who felt that they were living in a country that they no longer recognized. Trump gave a voice to conservative Christians’ concerns that their religious liberty was under siege. He delivered on important policies long sought by the Christian right, including the appointment of U.S. Supreme Court justices opposed to abortion, leading to the high court’s reversal of Roe last summer.
Finding policy success within the Trump administration, many socially conservative Christians have become emboldened, seeking a larger role within the Republican Party at all levels of government. They have proposed policies that stem from a distinctive theological worldview, which envisions a larger role for religion in the public square. These conservative Christians aspire to make all abortions illegal, ban books that discuss gender identity or systemic racism in public schools and libraries, curtail immigration dramatically, and allow business owners to forgo offering services to LGBTQ+ Americans in the name of religious liberty. In essence, these activists—who some critics refer to as Christian nationalists—wish to have their religious values privileged over others in public policy. They believe that America was founded as and should remain a Christian nation.
Maybe Not One Nation, Under Christianity
Does this mean that the future of Christianity in American politics will result in a strong, rightward shift? Not necessarily. Christian nationalism is an ideology that is shared by only a minority of Americans. When my organization, PRRI, asked Americans this past fall whether God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world, just 31% agreed.
Moreover, the fastest-growing religious category in the United States is not Christianity. One in four Americans identifies as religiously unaffiliated according to PRRI’s most recent American Values Atlas. By contrast, white Evangelical Protestants, the Christian right’s key target constituency, comprise only 15% of the population. When combined with mainstream white Protestants and white Catholics, white Christians make up less than half (45%) of the U.S. population. In 1990, 72% of Americans were white and Christian. Today, one in four Americans are Christians of color, who continue to support Democrats at much higher rates than white Christians. Looking into the political future, Americans ages 18–29 are even less likely to identify as white Christians—just 29%. Younger Americans are both less religious (34% identify as religiously unaffiliated) and more religiously diverse.
The future, then, for Christianity in American politics is not necessarily one that involves the implementation of a specific, conservative theological worldview into most of our public policies. However, in the short term, these policies may very likely materialize in states with legislatures controlled by strong Republican majorities. I think the more likely scenario is that conservative Christians will continue to be part of the larger religious landscape that accepts a variety of religious voices into the policy process. This tolerance is rooted in a tenet central to American democracy. Enshrined in rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, the founders ensured religious freedom for all individuals and faiths.
Christianity Helped Build America—And It Can Rebuild It, Too
By Timothy Head – Executive Director, Faith & Freedom Coalition
As executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, I get asked a lot of questions about the future of Christianity in American politics. Who will be part of it? Which party is its real home? Where is it going? Is its influence growing or not? If so, how? The short answer is its future looks bright. The longer and more complete answer requires that we revisit the past of Christianity in America to understand where it stands today and where it’s going.
America was, at its founding, an overwhelmingly Christian nation. The faith of the people supported and informed what would eventually become one of the most radical political undertakings in history: the great American experiment in liberty. Our nation also remains far more Christian than is popular to believe. Despite statistical declines overall, roughly two-thirds of the country is Christian. Christians represent more than 80% of the Republican voter base and almost two-thirds of the Democrat or likely-Democrat voter base. The Christian faith also provides indispensable moral and philosophical support for our notions of law, of justice, of liberty, and of the human person itself.
How this looks in discrete political terms has grown more complicated since the nation’s founding. This is due in part to secularization and ongoing shifts in the prevailing American political philosophies.
Who Are Christian Voters?
When people talk about “Christian voters” nowadays, they don’t just mean Americans who vote. They often mean specifically conservative Christians. And there’s an important reason they do. Conservative Christians have been working together for more than 50 years to defend the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the person, whether that manifests as the defense of liberty, justice, or safety.
Conservative Christians have created a powerful political alliance. They are committed to the founders’ original vision of man blessed with reason by his creator, endowed with “unalienable rights,” and entitled to rule by a just government for the sake of his flourishing.
These Christians are conservative because conservatism is the most effective means of preserving this reality of man made in God’s image. That’s true now and it was true decades ago when the religious right first became politically ascendant. They knew they needed to defend what they cherished most. So they did.
The Emergence of the Christian Voting Bloc
The conservative Christian voting bloc emerged as a direct response to real political threats. The 1954 Johnson Amendment, one of the first real motivators for Evangelical Christians’ political rise, barred churches from endorsing political candidates. Eight years later, prayer was removed from schools following the Supreme Court’s decision in Engel v. Vitale. The political watershed, however, was the now-infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. American Evangelicals rallied to protect unborn life and built an extensive political infrastructure to that end. Just seven years later, former President Ronald Reagan’s victory proved they were a political faction to be reckoned with.
The Christian vote is a critically influential voting bloc in contemporary American politics and it’s growing, not diminishing. Its strength is expanding. And increasingly, the Christian vote is conservative. This voter bloc is also becoming more racially diverse as it grows. Religious Latino voters have flocked to conservative candidates in recent years, despite historically voting for Democrats. Why? Because they cherish their families, their faith, and their hard-won liberties. They want to be safe. They want to practice their faith freely. They want their children to receive a good education and to make good lives for themselves.
A Powerful Force For Good In America’s Future
To vote as an American Christian is more often than not to cast your vote for a conservative. And this isn’t because of racial identity. It’s not because of petty politics or economic grievance. It’s because of our shared faith. It’s because of our common knowledge of the sanctity of life, the dignity of work, the blessings and responsibilities of liberty, and of the God-given rights of man.
The Christian vote is as closely entwined with the future of America as it has been with the past and is with the present. Thank God it is, too. Christianity offers a compelling, abiding vision of hope, redemption, and justice. It comforts those who mourn, lifts the weak and the vulnerable, and discourages private and public vice.
Christianity isn’t just a powerful force in politics. It’s a powerful force for good. And that is true whether or not you personally profess Christian faith. The founders knew this, and we would do well to remember it.
Religiously Unaffiliated Americans Are on the Rise
By Melissa Deckman – CEO, Public Religion Research Institute
Mr. Head maintains that at its founding, America was an overwhelmingly Christian nation. While America may have been a nation largely founded by Christians, the framers of our Constitution sagely realized that adopting a sectarian government was a non-starter. Instead, they choose to shore up religious liberty in the passage of the First Amendment, which both protects the free exercise of religion and prevents state-sponsored religious activity.
Moreover, the founders expressly forbid any religious test for holding public office as enshrined in Article VI of the Constitution, which is the only explicit reference to religion in its original seven articles. Americans remain committed to these ideals. PRRI found in 2021, for instance, that nearly nine in 10 Americans (88%) agree that the U.S. government cannot establish an official religion or favor one religion over another.
Of course, Mr. Head is correct in that Americans remain today more likely to identify as Christian than other faith traditions or none. Our Census of American Religion at PRRI shows that roughly seven in 10 Americans identify as Christian. Although the share of religiously unaffiliated Americans is growing within both parties, their religious composition remains majority Christian, although somewhat higher for Republicans (80%) compared with Democrats (70%).
That last point, in fact, rebuts Mr. Head’s claim that “to vote as an American Christian is more often than not to cast your vote for a conservative.” While we find that white Evangelicals consistently skew the most rightward politically, most American Christians hold more centrist, if not liberal, views on a range of cultural issues, from immigration, LGBTQ rights, abortion, and racial justice.
Christianity Is Essential for America
By Timothy Head – Executive Director, Faith & Freedom Coalition
Dr. Deckman points out that a majority of Christians across denominations outside Evangelicalism tended to skew centrist or liberal when her institute polled them. I don’t see the point in arguing with poll results. But it’s important to remember that these centrist or politically ambivalent Christians are not necessarily at home with the left.
The American right wing began as a political alliance, and it continues as one. There is no effective test of ideological purity or “true” allegiance to the movement. Every generation’s conservative coalition looks unique because it welcomes all who are invested in preserving the sanctity of life and freedom of the individual. That includes “centrists.” That includes Christians who are alienated by radical progressive moral or cultural policies. It might even include erstwhile liberals who refuse to follow the Democratic party’s sprint leftward.
I’d also like to note Dr. Deckman’s well-made point that the founders didn’t make America explicitly Christian. They certainly didn’t and for good reason! They well understood the avarice and malice of man, even when bounded by religion or endowed with spiritual authority. They understood that sin would be ineradicable. So, too, would political and spiritual plurality.
As a result, the founders knew that political and moral alliances—and the politically orderly conflict of factions—would be essential forces to harness in order to advance human liberty and flourishing. And so they built a government informally, rather than formally, supported by the Christian faith. I maintain that Christianity is and will remain an essential part of America’s political future for conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike.
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