God and America
WHEN US politicians end speeches with “God bless America”, or confess that in difficult situations they ask themselves “What would Jesus do?”, or speak wth a candour about their faith that Europeans – even the faithful Irish – find embarrassing, they are simply reflecting a long-standing accepted narrative. Politics and religion have always played into each other although congregations were in the past generally politically mixed.
Increasingly, however, religious affiliation has been becoming a reliable predictor of attitudes of voters and the faithful.
But the ground is shifting in quite subtle ways, as a new poll from the Pew Research Centre records, in ways that may prove decisive in the elections. Currently some 79 per cent of US voters identify with established faith groups (in Ireland the figure is 93 per cent), but in the last five years the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion grew by a third to one in five – and to a third of adults under 30.
Of this group some 68 per cent lean toward the Democratic Party, making the category of “nones” – “nothing in particular”, agnostic or atheist – now the largest “faith” group of Democratic voters, a quarter of the party’s support base (with black Protestants at 16 per cent, mainline Protestants, 14 per cent).
But the shift in attitudes, particularly among the young, is not by any means an abandonment of God in favour of secularism. Pew finds that two-thirds of these unaffiliated 46 million people say they believe in God, more than half “often feel” a deep connection with nature and the earth, while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious”. One in five prays every day. The loss is not one of faith, it appears, but a challenge to institutional religion and particularly the Protestant churches. For the first time the latter are no longer in a majority in the country, their numbers dipping to 48 per cent from 60 per cent in the 1980s.
Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who writes about the decline of religion and community, puts the shift down as generational and a “reaction to the religious right”. “The best predictor of which people have moved into this category over the last 20 years,” he argues, “is how they feel about religion and politics” aligning, particularly conservative politics and opposition to gay rights. They tend to be socially liberal and insist that religion and politics don’t mix and, unlike three-quarters of affiliated voters, don’t mind whether or not a president is a believer.