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Is the Christian Right Driving Americans Away From Religion?

New research finds that, when evangelical organizations raise their profile by sponsoring a high-profile political campaign, a backlash ensues.
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A religious cross is seen as the moon is illuminated by sunlight reflected off the Earth during a total lunar eclipse on October 8th, 2014, in Los Angeles, California.

Religion in America has been rocked in recent decades by two societal shifts: the rise of Christian evangelicals as a right-wing political force, and the increasing number of people who decline to affiliate with any faith tradition.

New research presents evidence that these trends, usually discussed separately, are in fact related. It reports the rate at which people disassociate themselves from religion is higher in states where the Christian right exerts its political muscle.

"Religious attachments fade in the face of visible Christian right policy victories," writes a research team led by Denison University political scientist Paul Djupe. "There is clear evidence that people—probably those without strong relationships with houses of worship—use the Christian right as a proxy for religion as a whole, and discontinue their religious identities as a result."

In the journal Political Research Quarterly, Djupe and his colleagues analyze the intersection of personal faith and religion-driven politics on a state-by-state basis.

Using polling data aggregated by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, they note the percentage of people in a given state who identified as atheist, agnostic, or "nothing in particular" (known collectively as "nones"), and how it has changed since 2006.

"A preponderance of the states appear to have experienced some degree of growth in religious 'nones' in recent years," they report. "This particular pattern holds whether the individual state in question is generally thought of as being a 'red' or 'blue' state."

But the rate of growth varied considerably from state to state—and not in the way one might predict. "Rising 'none' rates are more common in Republican states in this period," they report.

To determine why, the researchers measured the political clout of Christian right organizations in each state (utilizing the expertise of journalists and scholars). They also noted when and where these groups sponsored high-profile initiatives—usually ballot measures to prohibit gay marriage.

The researchers found that, while such efforts were often successful, they created a backlash "that did not redound to the benefit of organized religion in general." They estimate that, in states where such campaigns—and their backers—were widely publicized and debated, "religion lost somewhere between 2 and 8 percent of the population."

"By 2010, a ban (on gay marriage) was in place in 29 states," they write. "These states were more likely to be evangelical, and had smaller populations of 'nones' in them in 2006. But by 2010, that gap between the 'nones' in marriage-ban states and those in states with no marriage ban had been cut in half."

This suggests that, in those traditionally religious states, the anti-gay-rights campaign soiled the name of religion for a significant number of residents, and they responded by stepping away from their former faith.

"The decision to de-identify and disaffilate with religion are not solely individual, psychological processes," Djupe and his colleagues conclude. Rather, that deeply personal shift can be driven by reactions to "specific policy skirmishes that gather public attention and shape decision-making."

The results suggest evangelicals would be wise to consider the consequences of their political advocacy. In a clear case of unintended consequences, it appears to be driving people from the pews.