Has America gotten more religious, or is religiousness just a vocal strain in American politics? The country has grown less religious since the 1970s, according to recent studies, but researchers say that frequent churchgoers are now much more likely to vote Republican or support the Tea Party.
As a result, faith-filled rhetoric and campaign stops make Americans seem more Christian than they really are, according to Mark Chaves, a Duke University professor of sociology and religion. The rise of mega-churches also fuels the misperception that most Americans attend services weekly, whereas only one in four Americans actually do, he added.
"The Michele Bachmanns and Rick Perrys of the world are playing to a base that's much smaller than it was in the 1970s and 1980s," said Chaves, whose new book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, analyzes data from the General Social Survey and the National Congregations Study.
Chaves said America is not only losing its religion but also has lost confidence in religious leaders and wants them to be less involved in politics. Researchers say the trends reflect myriad factors: disillusionment with clergy and political scandals, the country's increasing diversity and younger generations that tend to be more highly educated and socially liberal.
Chaves also interprets these trends as a "backlash" against the politicization of religion that began with Jerry Falwell and the rise of the religious right. The findings--along with new research by Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam and Notre Dame professor David E. Campbell, coauthors of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us--paint a shifting portrait of American politics.
The Tea Party's sinking approval rating--currently at 20 percent, below that of Republicans, Democrats, atheists and Muslims--signals a growing discomfort with mingling faith and politics, including the kind of "overt religious language and imagery" recently used by Bachmann and Perry on the campaign trail, Putnam and Campbell recently wrote in the New York Times.
What's more, Putnam and Campbell say the Tea Party is much more religious than originally thought. "The Tea Party's generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government," they concluded, "but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government."
Some core American beliefs have remained stable over the past two generations, however, including belief in a higher power, in the afterlife and in a God who is personally concerned with human beings. …