Western civilization has entered the long-predicted Secular Age, when the power of religion over society gradually recedes.
Europe started the shift after World War II. Churchgoing diminished until only a fringe of Europeans attend worship today. The young especially ignore faith. The secularizing trend spread to Canada and other democracies.
Now it’s occurring in America. People who tell pollsters their religion is “none” have increased to one-fourth of the U.S. population. They’re expected to continue rising because one-third of Americans under 30 have ceased worshiping.
This trend has political significance, because those who don’t attend church are strongly liberal. The “none” segment may decide the presidency.
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“The Decline of Religion is the GOP’s Real Demographic Crisis” is the title of a research report by journalist Matthew Sheffield, who is writing a book on the trend.
He points out Republican Mitt Romney won the 2012 presidential election, as far as U.S. churchgoers are concerned – but churchless voters killed Romney.
Polls show “none” voters backed Democrat Barack Obama in 2012 by huge margins: Virginia, 78 percent to 22 – Florida, 72 to 26 – etc.
“It is safe to say that the Godless Gap cost Mitt Romney the election,” Sheffield concluded.
Young “nones” generally are tolerant and humane. They support the right of gays to marry and women’s right to end pregnancies. They would halt the death penalty and legalize marijuana. They support universal health care. They reject most of the GOP and its fundemantalist wing’s harsh Puritanism.
White evangelicals vote Republican as forcefully as “nones” vote Democratic. Both groups are now even – each comprising one-fifth to one-fourth of voters.
But white evangelicals are shrinking, while the churchless grow relentlessly. The trend bodes a brighter future for liberal politics (although many “nones” don’t vote).
It’s fascinating to watch the culture evolve. When I became a young reporter in Charleston, W.Va., the 1950s, Appalachian Bible Belt taboos were locked into law. It was a felony to be gay or for a desperate girl to end a pregnancy. Mixed-race marriage was against the law. It was a crime to sell a cocktail, lottery ticket or anything akin to a Playboy magazine. Schools had mandatory teacher-led prayer. It was a crime for an unwed couple to live together or even share a bedroom.
All those religion-based laws slowly vanished as society turned more secular. Few people noticed, because we all were too busy with daily life.
The secularizing trend seems unstoppable. It gradually bolsters progressive values of the Democratic Party. White evangelicals remain the heart of the GOP – but they’re losing ground as “nones” slowly outnumber them.
James A. Haught is editor emeritus of The Charleston Gazette-Mail. Phone: 304-348-5199. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.