Living in Post-Christian America

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After the 2012 elections here in the United States I posited that this was a post-Christian election, and that the results could be a glimpse into the future of America’s electorate. Now, as information from the election is further dissected and analyzed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that something significant has indeed shifted in the religious outlook of our voting public. The Public Religion Research Institute calls it the “end of a white Christian strategy.”

Romney and Obama Coalitions vs Age Groups

Romney and Obama Coalitions vs Age Groups

“The foundation of Romney’s base consists primarily of white evangelical Protestants, who constitute 40% of his coalition. Obama’s coalition rests on two very different groups: minority Christians—a group that includes black, Asian, Hispanic, and mixed-race Christians—(31%) and the religiously unaffiliated (25%). […] Notably, Obama’s religious coalition resembles the religious composition of younger voters, while Romney’s religious coalition resembles the religious composition of senior voters. For example, 26% of Millennial voters are white Christians, compared to 72% of senior voters.”

In short, it doesn’t really matter that Romney decisively won white evangelicals, as minority Christians and non-religious voters more than made up for that deficit. At Religion Dispatches, Katherine Stewart says that the religiously unaffiliated (ie “nones”) are the demographic that should really worry Republican strategists who’ve placed almost all of their eggs in the evangelical Christian basket.

“Like any group of this size, the religiously unaffiliated aren’t monolithic. About a third self-identify as atheists, while the rest say they are agnostic, “spiritual but not religious,” or simply uninterested in religion. They are spread fairly evenly across education and income levels. And they’re politically diverse when it comes to economic ideas. But they do seem to largely agree on one thing: that mixing religion with politics is a bad idea.”

“Mixing religion with politics is a bad idea.” It has always sounded good as a principle, but often ignored as evangelical Christians (and Catholics) were seen as vital to winning national elections, and so politicians from both sides of the aisle catered to them, willfully mixing religious rhetoric into their political stances. However, if you read the tea leaves in the run-up to this election, you could see some shifts starting to appear. Like the fact that both Obama and Romney spurned Rick Warren’s religion test/presidential forum, or that the Democratic party was willing to play offence on gay marriage and abortion, areas where they usually play defense.

“Never before have the culture wars been fought so forcefully on both sides. While the spectacle of Republicans declaring holy war has become old hat, this was the first election in which one of the parties explicitly endorsed same-sex marriage; this was the first election in which one party defended a woman’s right to reproductive freedom without apology or hesitation; and this season also saw the passage of a number of same-sex marriage ballot initiatives, as well as the election of the nation’s first openly lesbian senator.”

For years I’ve been yammering on about post-Christianity, slow demographic shifts, and the “nones,” thinking this tipping point was years away. Now, everyone seems to be talking about how “post-Christian” and “European” we suddenly are.

“There isn’t any question that American culture is in a transition from a dominantly Christian culture to a dominantly secular culture. We can no longer expect America society to uniformly embrace Christian values or morality. How the Christian community chooses to respond to this will be critical. Angry rhetoric, and bitterly contested lawsuits and elections create adversaries, but no one ever made an enemy by offering the hand of friendship, helping the down and out, mentoring kids, giving generously to others or helping people after a hurricane get their lives back together.”

That quote, from Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, isn’t unique. While the reliable fire-breathers are getting apocalyptic, some of the more thoughtful conservative Christians are starting to realize that non-Christians, and the non-religious, aren’t going away any time soon, and that younger voters are far more liberal on social issues than previous generations.  As R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said: “It’s not that our message — we think abortion is wrong, we think same-sex marriage is wrong — didn’t get out. It did get out. It’s that the entire moral landscape has changed, an increasingly secularized America understands our positions, and has rejected them.”

So, the question now is what will future election battles look like? Obviously in heavily conservative Christian districts the old Christian culture-war stand-bys will hold true for a while longer, but what about the swing states? What about the national elections in 2016? Will religion cease to be an issue at all? Will campaigns actively court the non-religious, will they even court non-Christians? Will there be a true cease-fire on the old culture war lines of birth control, abortion, and gay rights? All of this remains to be seen, but for now, it seems we’re living in the post-Christian future faster than I had ever envisioned.