The decline in religion could spell disaster for Republicans

A new study has found that the number of Americans identifying themselves as Christian has fallen almost 8 per cent to just over 70 per cent

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The Independent Online

Hallelujah! America, we learned from a Pew Research Center study last week, is becoming more heathen, less Christian. Yes, of course, churches play vital charitable roles plugging holes in the social safety net and education. I’m thinking of how faith mixes with politics.

Two things above all others make American politics especially baffling if the traditions of Europe are your vantage point. One is money. The other is religion. It’s one facet of American culture that largely hasn’t made its way back across the Atlantic.

America would be more compassionate without religion in politics. It is the Christian right that wants to eviscerate laws permitting women to seek abortions, within limits, if that’s their choice, and that yells the loudest against same-sex partners wanting the same marriage rights as they have. They are behind attempts by some states to pass laws permitting businesses to deny service to gay customers if it offends them.

Republicans, especially, daren’t ignore them. They pander to them. Last weekend, most of the Republican presidential hopefuls trekked to the South Carolina Freedom Summit to promise that if the Supreme Court delivers a ruling soon in favour of same-sex marriage, they will seek a constitutional amendment to overturn it.

In the seven years since its last survey into religion, Pew found that the number of Americans identifying themselves as Christian has fallen almost 8 per cent to just over 70 per cent, with the biggest losers being Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, which includes Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Those saying they don’t adhere to any brand of Christianity has shot up by almost 7 per cent to 22.8 per cent.

More than a quarter of American men now call themselves religiously unaffiliated, also a sharp increase from 20 per cent eight years ago. The Catholic Church’s numbers have dropped from 23.9 per cent in 2007 to the current 20.8 per cent.

The report says that while those in young adulthood are driving most of the shift – a full quarter of those born after 1980 said they had no religious affiliation – there is evidence of older Americans giving up on their churches too.

While the report also notes that evangelical Protestants have so far seen little erosion of their flock, there is surely peril here for the Republicans. The party is already trying to adjust to the growth of the Latino population, which thus far has voted far more for the Democrats than them. Now they face the erosion of their most important constituency, the devout. As The New York Times pointed out, in 2012 Mitt Romney won 79 per cent support among white evangelicals, 59 per cent among white Catholics and 54 per cent among white mainline Protestants. But he took only 33 per cent of non-religious white voters.

But the sooner the party moves on from toxic issues such as abortion, the more it may be able to deliver policies that actually matter to people – and offer some compassion.

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