Religion's Political Influence Fades

By Porter, Eduardo | International New York Times, April 6, 2016 | Go to article overview

Religion's Political Influence Fades


Porter, Eduardo, International New York Times


Donald Trump is perceived as the least religious Republican in the field, and his economics-based appeal to working-class voters is resonating.

Donald J. Trump is, no doubt, the most confounding candidate produced by the American political system in decades. He offers up enormous tax cuts, as any bona fide Republican candidate must. But he also wants to leave Social Security "as it is."

He says he hates Obamacare, but offers "concepts of Medicare" to care for "people that can't take care of themselves." He has gutted the standard Republican position in favor of freer trade.

The most surprising aspect about Mr. Trump's solid appeal among Republican primary voters, though, may be what it says about the waning place of religion in American politics and the revival of a populism centered more around economic nationalism and white working- class discontent.

"It is intriguing that we have some notable challenges to the political establishment that are not coming from a traditional American religious place but from a surprisingly secular tradition," said David Voas, a sociologist of religion at the University of Essex in Britain.

Is this a sign that Americans are finally losing their religious spirit, following the trend that has long played out in other advanced nations? At the very least, it does suggest that Republicans' longstanding strategy of building majorities for their anti-tax platform by appealing to working-class voters' Christian morals has lost a lot of its power.

Mr. Trump isn't just the least religious Republican in the field; he is perceived as less religious than Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, who clearly resembles a secular European social democrat.

Given Mr. Trump's serial marriages, the coarse sexual references and his multiple positions on abortion, it's no surprise that fewer than half of Republicans view him as religious, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center earlier this year.

And still, his economic populism, reminiscent of the nationalist stance of European right-wingers like Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, has so far overpowered the openly devout message of Ted Cruz, the most deep-dyed conservative still in the race. Indeed, Mr. Trump has outflanked the standard-bearers thrown up by the traditional religious right even among the most devout voters.

Americans remain exceptionally religious, compared to people in other rich nations. Scholars argue this is largely because the sharp line between church and state in the United States fostered vibrant competition among religious flavors, which kept the flame alive.

But religion's appeal has indeed been eroding in the United States since the end of the 1980s, according to research by Michael Hout of New York University and Claude Fischer of the University of California, Berkeley. In 1987, one in 14 American adults expressed no religious preference. By 2012, the share had increased to one in five.

"Organized religion gained influence by espousing a conservative social agenda that led liberals and young people who already had weak attachment to organized religion to drop that identification," they wrote. …

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