News, On Campus

Schlozman and Hopkins Analyze the Connection Between Religious and Political Affiliation in United States

For the first time in American history, white Christians no longer represent a majority of the general public, according to political science professors Kay Schlozman and David Hopkins.

“The relative optimism of the Reagan and even George W. Bush eras that the real America was firmly on the side of traditionalist Christianity has given way to perceptions of a nation in severe moral decay, that is being fundamentally transformed into something unrecognizable by the forces of secular liberalism,” Hopkins said.

At an event hosted by the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life on Wednesday night, Schlozman and Hopkins discussed the relationship between political affinity and religious identity in the United States.

 “A growing amount of academic evidence suggests that, for some Americans, political identities are influencing religious identities,” Hopkins said. “And this is important because there’s reason to believe that the effect of political identity on religious identity is itself working to deepen social divisions and party polarization in the American public today.”

Schlozman examined the changing landscape of religious affiliations, asserting these shifts reflect the intersection of three key processes.

 “People switch: you grow up in a household that has one set of religious commitments, and maybe when you’re in your twenties, you decide that that’s not for you,” Schlozman said. “We also see the effects of migration: people coming to and leaving the United States. … Finally, we have to think about generational replacement: even if nobody changes their mind, people move through the life cycle, they enter adulthood, and eventually, alas, they leave.”  

According to Schlozman, roughly two-thirds of America’s population is Christian, but this is rapidly decreasing.

“It means that the share of the population that is unaffiliated is likely to grow over time as they move through the lifecycle and are replacing [older folks],” Schlozman said. “At some point in our current century, the nation will no longer be majority Christian.”

The assumption that religious identity forms in childhood is not always accurate, Hopkins said.

“We assume that religious identity is formed first, often in young life, where we’re socialized by our parents into a particular religious tradition,” Hopkins said. “We really reach full membership in that religious community as an adult, prior to the period at which we reach full adult membership in the political community.”

Hopkins said it’s common for people raised in religious households to veer away from religion in early adulthood and discover their true political identity.

“It’s very common for people to move away from religion during adolescence and young adulthood,” Hopkins said. “But during that time away from religion, they’re forming political identities, so it’s then natural that those political identities will then affect their later decision about whether to return to the faith of their youth.”

Hopkins added that political affiliations have become such a core value for Americans that people now adopt religious beliefs to accommodate political beliefs. 

“This helps explain the rise of effective polarization, the growing gap between the positive feelings that Americans have for their own partisan or ideological allies, and the antipathy they maintain for the other side,” Hopkins said. “This means that political identity is increasingly reinforced by social relationships and networks just as religious identity can be.”

Ultimately, the future of American politics is unclear as secularism grows in America, according to Hopkins.

“We should all be aware of the potential for religion to reinforce existing political and social divisions, rather than forming a distinct set of communities that cross boundaries,” Hopkins said. “As time goes on, it may become harder to promote the view that what separates us as political beings is less important than what unites us as human beings.”

February 5, 2023