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?
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?