The separation of church and state is fundamental to our democracy, but as America’s involvement in organized religion dwindles, politics are filling the void. 


I started thinking about this after learning from a new Cooperative Election Study that the number of Wyoming residents who don’t belong to a church has  significantly increased. They are called “nones,” because they express no religious or spiritual affiliation.

Wyoming, which had a 31% rate of nones in 2008, grew to 37% last year. We’re not unique — nearly every state showed such hikes. Some neighboring states are even higher, including Montana, which jumped from 24% to 51% over the same period.

Why, if Wyoming’s nones are increasing, do we see mounting support for right-wing politicians who cite their religious beliefs to justify taking extreme positions on hot-button issues like abortion bans, transgender athletes and teaching racial history? Why don’t more conservative and moderate Republicans vote for society’s best interests, and not for candidates who use the Bible to thump minorities?       

National polls last year indicated the percentage of Republicans who attend church weekly dropped from 44% to 35%. Meanwhile, 44% of Republicans reported not going to church even once during the second half of 2022. Fewer Democrats are also attending church, but losing numbers at half the rate Republicans are. If the trend continues, could Democrats and progressives earn more wins as religion plays a smaller role in politics? 

That was my wishful thinking, but the assumption doesn’t hold up.  A large swath of Republicans discuss religion, patriotism, morality and family values, but they do not regularly go to church. 

Assistant Professor Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University suggested to Politico the religious right’s grip on the Republican Party could be weakening, because former President Donald Trump may have alienated some far-right Christian voters by saying abortion should be regulated at the state level, not the feds.

That might sound like fewer votes for Trump in 2024, but Burge threw in a monkey wrench that surprised me. He noted Trump is actually getting more support from party members who rarely attend church, so any losses among the traditional religious right can be overcome by this overlooked voting bloc. 

Consider the 2016 GOP presidential primary: Trump was embraced by die-hard evangelicals and two-thirds of Republicans who said they never attend church services. That made his path to the nomination a sure thing.

According to a True Christian blog post, droves of far-right Christian nationalists securely in Trump’s camp aren’t like most other nones — they don’t become atheists or agnostics. 

“Millions of Americans who leave church continue to identify as Christians, and many retain theologically orthodox beliefs,” the unidentified blogger wrote. “They continue to view Jesus as their savior and retain a high respect for the Bible.

“But without a church community, in many cases, the nation’s political system becomes their church — and the results are polarizing,” the writer added. “They bring whatever moral and social values they acquired from their church experience and then apply those values in the political sphere with an evangelical zeal.”

The year 2020 was the first when a majority of voters didn’t belong to a church. I think there are myriad reasons why, beginning with so many losing their lives and loved ones in wars waged over religious differences. 

Some lose faith because church leaders have turned a blind eye to horrendous abuses committed by clergy against parishioners, especially innocent children. Others are upset that their church seems more concerned about accumulating wealth than helping the poor, or they don’t want divisive politics preached from the pulpit.

I left my church many years ago. I don’t think my reasons are much different than many Americans. 

My father was a Presbyterian, and my mother was raised a Catholic. When they married, she decided to join my father’s church, but I can only recall a few times our family went to services.

When my Air Force father got his orders for Vietnam, my mother and I went to stay with relatives on their Pennsylvania farm. My parents considered it a perfect time for me to “get some religion.” Since the closest public school was more than 10 miles away, they enrolled me in the nearby Lutheran school.

I knew little about church, or why I had to go, and much of my education shifted to memorizing Bible passages and church history. My teacher and pastor explained Genesis, interpreted the Book of Parables and scared us with Revelation.

I enjoyed my classmates and the church, and it was hard to leave. But when my father returned home, his next station was Wyoming’s F.E. Warren Air Force Base.

I finished eighth grade at a Cheyenne Lutheran school. My dad asked me what I learned during the year.

I started filling him in on what I knew about the Scriptures, and casually mentioned my church synod believed if someone isn’t baptized they were going to hell — even those who died as babies.

My father was appalled. “You’re telling me that if millions of babies born in Africa don’t get baptized, they all go to hell and can’t go to heaven?” he asked. “That’s crazy. How can you believe that?”

I tried to argue the point, but finally admitted he was right. I also realized with so many religions in the world, how can people believe they belong to the only one that’s always right?

(Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

I couldn’t reconcile what I learned. My religious experiment, so exhilarating when I completed catechism only a few months earlier, was a failure. It didn’t help my faith in a divine, loving creator when my pastor warned us those who abandon the church are doomed to unimaginable misery for eternity.

I developed my own belief system, and organized religion plays no role. I’m open to the possibility a higher power exists, and believe all life is inter-connected. My parents knew they didn’t have to go to church every Sunday to believe in God. Before his death, dad talked about his faith, which was still strong at age 86. It was a great source of comfort for him to know he’d be reunited with my mom and his parents. That’s a gift.

Some in my family are sadly convinced I’m headed to hell because I turned away from the Christian church. Meaning no disrespect, I tell them I might be on a different path if more of Christ’s flock actually treated others as he taught. If my family is right, every time I say no to their conversion pitches, they’re sending me deeper into the flames.

When our lives are over, I don’t know what happens. No one truly does. My friends’ views run the gamut from celestial palaces to assuring me we all return to dust. 

If there is an afterlife, I hope it won’t match today’s political climate, which is terrifying in its ability to destroy lives and victimize people of different races, gender identities, ages, ethnicities and religious beliefs.

One of my pastors stressed only faith, and not good works, allows people to enter heaven. But there’s at least one thing I learned in church that I strive for as a universal truth: the Golden Rule, that we should treat others as we want to be treated. Why can’t that be our goal in politics, too?

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

Join the Conversation


Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Excellent insight. Perhaps we should start referring to GOP theology or dogma instead of policy. They seem to cherry pick the constitution and our laws the way they do their Bibles – follow just what they like.

  2. Extremist religion and politics all harkens back to our nation’s mean spirited Puritan beginning. H. L. Mencken’s definition of Puritianism reveals much about
    “Christian” and/or conservative values, or lack thereof: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Thank you, Mr. Drake, for your insightful words.

  3. The takeaway then from this article and many of the comments is that as people move away from religion, they become better, smarter people and our nation will be a better place? Was the level of lawlessness in government and among the general population greater when more people attended church? Was there more suicide, crime, corruption, confusion, financial instability, and partisanship before when most people professed religious faith? Did government have to provide for all of society’s needs before more than now? If natural charity and good citizenship (your Golden Rule) don’t come from religion, where do they come from? The absence of general morality among people demands a powerful, centralized government to govern. If the new religion of ex-church goers is conservative politics then the religion of leftists is Marxism and its denominations are abortion, transgenderism, and climate alarmism. The first thing marxists do is discredit religion and then they replace it with fear so that they can control the people.

    1. In spite of your premise that the world has gotten worse since the decline in church participation, the data indicates that is not true. Just believing that lie tells me where you get your information. I repeat America is a better, more moral place since Ronald Reagan left office while you claim something completely different. It can be argued that the policies enacted by those who think otherwise have slowed the progress we could make rectifying the ills of society.

      Here is a question that helps prove the point, please ask it at all of your functions and then discuss that answer. PS you will not find the answer through prayer.

      Q. Were more police officers killed during the 8 years of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency or the 8 years of Barack Obama?

      A. Approximately 173 more police officers were killed under Ronald Reagan’s watch.

      Religion obviously makes the world worse, just look around.

      1. I guess it depends on what we all think is “better” when we try to figure out whether religion or your idea of progress makes the world better or worse doesn’t it? Christ taught us to love everyone, even our enemies, and if some who profess that faith fail in that, it hardly reflects on those who do successively or on Christ Himself or his Church. There is a great number of Americans who do very much good for their neighbors, and a few who don’t. We don’t declare America evil because of the few, do we? If you condemn all religions for society’s ills, then you follow the same logic. Using police fatalities as a sole measure of morality in a society at a given time is flawed because it does not take into consideration what happened in that society during the years or even decades before that set the stage for the lawlessness at that time. If it was a good indicator, I would point out that the first three years of the Biden administration has seen 1,264 police fatalities vs. 717 during the entire Trump administration- increase of 547! The thing that has changed during that time are blue municipalities who have avowed to crush people of religious faith and allowed crime and drug use and DA’s that release criminals into their people. P. S. I hardly think that anyone can be told that they will not find an answer in prayer by anyone else, especially when they don’t understand the other’s beliefs.

  4. Amazing how Drake thinks that the same things the FF’s believed is now ‘extremist politics’. Just goes to show how far the left have moved.

  5. Thanks for writing this piece, Kerry. Very timely and psychologically spot on. As church membership – along with membership in dead animal clubs – decline, the craving for community grows.

  6. Being able to question the bastions of “canned thinking”, such as religion and political parties, is the true sign of an independent thinker. We need more independent thinkers.