What if I were to tell you that the following trends in American religion were all connected: rising numbers of people who are religiously unaffiliated (“nones”) or identify as “spiritual but not religious”; a spike in positive attention to the “religious left”; the depoliticization of liberal religion; and the purification and radicalization of the religious right? As a sociologist who has studied American religion and politics for many years, I have often struggled to make sense of these dramatic but seemingly disconnected changes. I now believe they all can all be explained, at least in part, as products of a backlash to the religious right.
Since the religious right rose to national prominence in the 1980s, the movement’s insertion of religion in public debate and uncompromising style of public discourse has alienated many non-adherents and members of the larger public. As its critics often note, the movement promotes policies – such as bans on same-sex marriage and abortion – that are viewed by growing numbers of Americans as intolerant and radical.
In a 2002 article, sociologists Michael Hout and Claude S Fischer argued that a significant trend in American religion – the skyrocketing number of people disaffiliating from religion – could be partly explained as a political backlash against the religious right. In the two decades since this article was published, a wealth of additional evidence has emerged to support its general argument. Sociologists Joseph O Baker and Buster G Smith summarize the sentiment driving this backlash: “If that’s what it means to be religious, then I’m not religious.”
While pathbreaking, this research has been relatively narrow in its focus. This is because it has typically started with the puzzle of the rising “nones” and worked backward in search of a cause, landing on backlash against the religious right. I wondered what would happen if we flipped this question around, and started with the rise of the religious right and public concerns about its radicalism. We could then consider the varied ways that backlash against it has manifested, including but not limited to the rise of the “nones”.
Backlash, after all, can take many forms. The kind of backlash that has led people to disavow religious affiliation in general is what I call a “broad” form of backlash. In this form, backlash against a radical form of religious expression leads people to distance themselves from all religion, including more moderate religious groups that are viewed as guilty by association with radicals. This is a common pattern within social movements, where moderates often worry that radicals will discredit their movement as a whole.
But this is not the only plausible form that backlash can take. One can also imagine a narrower, more targeted, backlash against the religious right itself, in which people do not abandon religion altogether but rather migrate to more moderate or otherwise appealing religious groups. Evidence of this form of backlash abounds. It can be found in rising numbers of people who identity as “spiritual but not religious”. These individuals are not rejecting religion altogether; they are embracing a new category of religiosity, one viewed as unpolluted by its association with radical conservative politics.
Similarly, those who associate with the religious left do not discredit religion in general, but promote what they view as a more pluralistic form of public religious expression. Since Donald Trump was elected president with the support of religious conservatives, typically low-profile groups on the religious left received a surge of positive attention as observers saw in them a means of checking the power of the religious right. As a column by Nicholas Kristof put it in the New York Times: “Progressive Christians Arise! Hallelujah!”
Finally, new research finds that people who are both religious and politically liberal are intentionally distancing themselves from the religious right by depoliticizing their public religious expression – a development worthy of much more attention.
Finally, backlash is not a one-way street – the experience of being the object of political backlash has led to a counter-backlash among the conservative Christians who comprise the religious right. White evangelical Christians believe that they are being illegitimately persecuted and are increasingly invested in the boundary between the perceived morally righteous and their enemies. Religious conservatives not committed to Trump and the Republican party are being pushed out. Those who remain are not only deeply loyal to a shared political project, but less likely to encounter internal checks on radical ideas.
Even as this group is shrinking by some measures, recent data suggests that growing numbers of nonreligious and non-Protestant Americans are adopting the label of “evangelical” – not as a statement of their religious identity, but as a statement of their political identity as rightwing Republicans or supporters of Donald Trump. Together, these counter-backlashes seem to be driving this movement toward deeper political radicalism.
Backlash against the religious right has had ripple effects far more widespread than previously recognized. These dynamics are effectively reshaping American religion and politics, and show no signs of stopping.