The GOP’s Secularism Problem

Losing Their Religion
Illustration by Gluekit (Source: Joshua Ets-Hokin / Getty Images, Russell Tate / Getty Images)

There’s been much angst on the right over the Republican Party’s growing demographic problems, most memorably by GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said the party was running out of “angry white guys.” But conservatives may be facing another demographic threat as well: declining religiosity, especially among the young. The latest sign came in a Pew study released last week that found that one in five American adults now claims no religion, and that 34 percent of those younger than 30 consider themselves irreligious.

The GOP’s own base may be partly to blame. The data echoes a landmark 2010 study, American Grace, by political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, which linked the new chilliness toward organized religion to the rise of the religious right. Other recent studies bear out their hypothesis: in March, Pew found that a majority of the electorate, including nearly half of Republicans, is uncomfortable with the amount of religious talk in political campaigns. (As recently as 2006, the majority tipped the other direction.) Mitt Romney has avoided talking about his Mormonism, and voters like it that way: in July, eight in 10 Americans who knew about Romney’s Mormonism said they didn’t care, and only 16 percent of the entire electorate was interested in hearing more about Romney’s faith.

The shift away from religion is especially pronounced among those younger than 30, who began abandoning churches in greater numbers at exactly the moment conservative Christians made gay marriage their signature issue. As the religious right reached its zenith during the Bush administration, even young evangelicals rebelled against the politics of their parents. That reaction came to a head in the 2008 election, when 32 percent of white evangelicals under 30 voted Democratic for the first time to support Barack Obama, twice as much support from them as John Kerry had in 2004.

Some evangelicals are openly worried about the trend. “We made a big mistake in the ’80s by politicizing the gospel,” the late Chuck Colson, a religious-right leader, said before his death. “Now people are realizing it was kind of a mistake.” A few evangelical organizations, like Focus on the Family, have undergone hasty non-partisan rebrandings. Books, magazines, and sermons on how to slow the defection of young believers have become an industry of their own, and attacking the old culture-war paradigm launched the careers of young post-partisan pundits like Gabe Lyons and Jonathan Merritt.

But a hard core of white evangelical adults continues to insist that religion drive political rhetoric. If the current trend continues, they will find themselves even more at odds with the American public—and, it’s not difficult to imagine, with the party they’ve called home.