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In A Religiously And Politically Polarized Country, Is There Still Hope For Shared Ground?


When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “Democracy In America,” he described a populace spread across wide geographic swaths, characterized by various political and vocational affiliations, but united by shared religious traditions and mores.

Today, that reality is steadily on the decline: as a new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) points out this week, America’s unaffiliated (the religious “nones”) are growing in number on a state level, and steadily affecting both political parties on a national level. Not only is this group abstaining from religious participation, they’re more likely to abstain from various forms of political participation, like voting.

In addition, these religious changes are increasingly generational ones: “Young adults are more than three times as likely as seniors to identify as religiously unaffiliated (38% vs. 12%, respectively).” What does this mean for America’s future?

The Rise of the Unaffiliateds

“The religiously unaffiliated—those who identify as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular”—now account for nearly one-quarter (24%) of Americans,” notes the report. “Since the early 1990s, this group has roughly tripled in size.”


Unaffiliated Americans may be younger than the religiously affiliated on average, but interestingly, the report notes that the group is also older than it used to be: “Today, about one-third (34%) of unaffiliated Americans are under the age of 30, while nearly three in ten (29%) are at least 50 years old. In the 1970s, half (50%) of all unaffiliated Americans were under 30 years old, and only 17% were age 50 or older.”

Historically speaking, periods of faith-questioning among America’s youth haven’t been uncommon; the Amish even institutionalized these periods through their custom of rumschpringe. But traditionally, such periods have been followed by a re-joining of or converting to some form of religion. This tendency of return seems to be less and less common among today’s Americans; there isn’t the same pressure or expectation in our transitory society to be religiously active. People no longer have to be religiously active to feel like decent people.

In a sense, this is trend is a positive: as Naomi Schafer Riley pointed out a couple years ago in her book “Got Religion,” today’s churchgoers are less likely to be nominal believers attending church just because their friends are, and more likely to have genuine faith. On the other hand, decline in religious participation also means a decline in civic and local participation, and thus a tendency to be more isolated and alone.

Emma Green noted this earlier this week in an article for The Atlantic, which examines the considerable diversity (of race, class, income, and age) among the unaffiliated. “Almost by definition, religious disaffiliation is shaped by absence—the church services people don’t attend, the faith they don’t have,” she writes. “But in the North and the West, from Hawaii to Maine, people who don’t identify with a particular religion are finding new ways of gathering. For the rich, this might involve luxury activities like SoulCycle or CrossFit. For most people, it takes other forms: The journalist Terry Mattingly recently wrote about people who find spiritual community at Waffle House, for example. This kind of community is much harder to measure in a survey than traditional church-going. But in an age of disaffiliation, it may end up being just as important.”

What This Means For the Character of America

Early American observer Alexis de Tocqueville thought religious belief in America was important for a multitude of reasons. But perhaps one of the most important was this: Christianity provided a common moral language and code of ethics for the American people. Tocqueville believed that society needed “certain shared beliefs in order for there to be common action.” Christianity bound together all citizens, and made U.S. democracy work.

“All the minds of the citizens [should] be brought and held together by some principal ideas,” he wrote. “And that cannot happen unless each of them sometimes comes to draw his opinions from one and the same source and unless each consents to receive a certain number of ready-made beliefs.” Without this common tradition of learning and faith, without this shared code of ethics, how can there be common action? What serves as the moral glue that holds us all together?

The simple answer seems to be that nothing will. As another poll this week pointed out, political divisions in the United States are widening, and spreading across a swath of issues:

People who identify with either party increasingly disagree not just on policy; they inhabit separate worlds of differing social and cultural values and even see their economic outlook through a partisan lens.

The wide gulf is visible in an array of issues and attitudes: Democrats are twice as likely to say they never go to church as are Republicans, and they are eight times as likely to favor action on climate change. One-third of Republicans say they support the National Rifle Association, while just 4% of Democrats do. More than three-quarters of Democrats, but less than one-third of Republicans, said they felt comfortable with societal changes that have made the U.S. more diverse.

… ‘Our political compass is totally dominating our economic and world views about the country,’ said GOP pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Fred Yang. ‘Political polarization is not a new thing. The level under Trump is the logical outcome of a generation-long trend.’

Without a shared language of belief, every difference threatens to pull us further apart. Tribalism beckons ever stronger. We see this in the growth of the alt-right and intersectionality politics: as we lose a shared language of belief, community, or virtue, our differences—be they differences of race, sexuality, class, or income—grow ever more important. We are not “one nation,” perhaps largely in part because we don’t believe we’re “under God” anymore.

We Need to Discover a New Political Ecumenism

Tocqueville was able to identify and highlight the things that brought Americans together and united them, despite their differences. But that sort of political symbiosis seems increasingly rare these days. There have been many debates as of late over whether our “two Americas” are urban vs. rural, elitist vs. populist, religious vs. secular, old vs. young, et cetera. But no one seems to disagree with the idea that these various schisms exist and are causing a considerable degree of rancor throughout the nation.

Fixing this problem isn’t easy without a shared language or shared definition of the good, the end of our political and personal endeavors. In such an environment, we need examples of cultural and political ecumenism: historical movements that bridged divides and brought people together over shared beliefs. Ecumenism, of course, is a word used to describe “the principle or aim of promoting unity among the world’s Christian churches.” Just as C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” sought to describe the faith’s ecumenical, shared tenets, so too we as Americans increasingly need to seek out a cultural and political ecumenism. In Tocqueville’s day, it was Christianity. What might it look like today?

It may be impossible to determine or pinpoint any such unifying factors on the national level—especially if the trends that PRRI and the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll pointed out continue unchanged. The “two Americas” we live in today show us that we haven’t yet—and perhaps never can—transcend geography, even in our digital age. Most of our rancor and division in this country is still happening along geographic lines, separating urban and rural, coastal and heartland. Even the religious changes that PRRI points out are more or less prevalent depending on the section of the country you live in.

This means that ecumenism, if it is to be found, will only be truly achievable on the local level: where face-to-face meetings can happen, and complex problems can be fully confronted and thought out.

The best sort of change, most conservatives believe, happens via grassroots effort. It seems possible, then, that true civic healing is most likely to happen via such local effort: at the most geographically and personally intimate level of political interaction. One thing’s for sure: if political unity is to be found, it’s more likely to be uncovered in face-to-face, particular meetings than via Twitter wars.