What really happens when Americans stop going to church

What really happens when Americans stop going to church

Daniel K. Williams writes:

Millions of Americans are leaving church, never to return, and it would be easy to think that this will make the country more secular and possibly more liberal. After all, that is what happened in Northern and Western Europe in the 1960s: A younger generation quit going to Anglican, Lutheran, or Catholic churches and embraced a liberal, secular pluralism that shaped European politics for the rest of the 20th century and beyond. Something similar happened in the traditionally Catholic Northeast, where, at the end of the 20th century, millions of white Catholics in New England, New York, and other parts of the Northeast quit going to church. Today most of those states are pretty solidly blue and firmly supportive of abortion rights.

So, as church attendance declines even in the southern Bible Belt and the rural Midwest, history might seem to suggest that those regions will become more secular, more supportive of abortion and LGBTQ rights, and more liberal in their voting patterns. But that is not what is happening. Declines in church attendance have made the rural Republican regions of the country even more Republican and—perhaps most surprising—more stridently Christian nationalist. The wave of states banning gender-affirming care this year and the adoption of “proud Christian nationalist” as an identity by politicians such as Marjorie Taylor Greene (who even marketed T-shirts with the slogan) is not what many people might have expected at a time when church attendance is declining.

Still, what’s going on in the South and Midwest is consistent with what happened in the Northeast: People hold onto their politics when they stop attending church. Just as liberal Christians in Massachusetts and Connecticut stayed liberal when they dropped off their church’s membership roll, so conservative Christians in Alabama and Indiana stay conservative even when they’re no longer part of a congregation.

In fact, people become even more entrenched in their political views when they stop attending services. Though churches have a reputation in some circles as promoting hyper-politicization, they can be depolarizing institutions. Being part of a religious community often forces people to get along with others—including others with different political views—and it may channel people’s efforts into charitable work or forms of community outreach that have little to do with politics. Leaving the community removes those moderating forces, opening the door to extremism. [Continue reading…]

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