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Polarization around religion

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

This is an excerpt from Defusing American Anger about our polarization around religion. To see all excerpts and learn more about them, go here.


Religion

Narratives about religion and spirituality are a source of some of our divides. To quote from a 2005 lecture by political scientist James Q. Wilson, “Religion may be one of the most important sources of polarization in American politics.” 


In the book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert Putnum and David Campbell, the authors write: 


Perhaps the most noticeable shift is how Americans have become polarized along religious lines. Ameri­cans are increasingly concentrated at opposite ends of the religious spectrum -- the highly religious at one pole, and the avowedly secular at the other. The moderate religious middle is shrinking.  [...]


Religious polarization has consequences beyond the religious realm, because being at one pole or the other correlates strongly with one's worldview, especially attitudes relating to such intimate matters as sex and the family. Given that American politics often centers on sex and family issues, this religious polarization has been especially visible in partisan politics. A "coalition of the religious" tends to vote one way, while Americans who are not religious vote another.


Religion can seem to play an important role in our divides and yet, even in this area, liberals and conservatives often have more in common than many think. 


For one thing, there are a large number of quite religious people on both sides. A 2014 Pew Research study found that 82% of Republicans were Christian, while 63% of Democrats were Christian. 


And there are a significant number of Christians on both sides who hold very committed religious views. A 2021 Pew Research study found that 41% of Republican-leaning Christians believed their religion was the “one true religion leading to eternal life in Heaven,” and for liberals that number was also quite substantial: 21%.


Black Americans are also a very religious group: in recent surveys, roughly 80% of black Americans are Christian


Some liberals speak as if Christianity is the problem: as if Christianity is equivalent to conservative philosophy, or as if it’s equivalent to oppressive fascist beliefs. But clearly there are many Christians who are Democrat voters, and that includes some very committed Christians. 

Some examples of polarized, polarizing language aimed at Christians. 


Even amongst Republican Christians, many are quite moderate in their beliefs. As an example of this: a 2021 Pew Research poll found that 35% of Republican Christians said that “some non-Christian religions can lead to eternal life in heaven.” In other words, 35% of Republican Christians didn’t believe Christianity was the only legitimate religion. 


Why is all this important? Because it points to how important it is to speak in accurate ways about religion and its role in our divides. For example, when liberals speak as if Christianity is a bad thing, or as if it’s equivalent to conservatism, that will alienate politically liberal Christians and drive them to the Republican party. And similarly, on the other side, when conservatives speak as if Democrats are the party of atheism and godlessness, it will alienate secular conservatives. 


“Extremism” language

The widespread use of of the word “extreme” to describe religious beliefs can play a role in amplifying our divides. Many Americans are committed to a religion, and the more we alienate them and insult them, the more they’ll feel that they are being persecuted and the more they’ll embrace us-versus-them beliefs. 


In a 2016 Atlantic piece by Jonathan Merritt titled Are Conservative Christians ‘Religious Extremists'?, he examines how the term extremist, and similar language, adds to our problems: 


Conservative Christians share striking similarities with Taliban terrorists. Or at least, that’s the argument laid out by Kimberly Blaker in her 2003 book, The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America. Conflating leaders like James Dobson of Focus on the Family with Islamic fundamentalists, Blaker argued that America’s traditionalist Christians also seek to indoctrinate youth with oppressive views of women, minorities, and LGBT persons through mind-control tactics and intimidation. [...] 


According to a new study by Barna Research, Americans believe that many Christians’ beliefs and practices are so far outside of the norm that they deserve one of modern society’s ugliest epithets: “extremist.” [...]


Because Americans think many Christians’ beliefs are “extreme,” it makes sense they would apply the same label to anyone looking to spread those beliefs to others. According to the study, if you “attempt to convert others” to your faith, 60 percent of Americans now believe you are also extreme. This view specifically places evangelicals in the crosshairs of public opinion, since proselytizing is one of the key characteristics of that subset of Christianity.

  

If most Americans would apply the same descriptor to ISIS militiamen and soup kitchen volunteers who believe it is their duty to convert non-believers, something is amiss.


A sizable portion, though not a majority, of Americans also believe even more mundane but common beliefs and practices are “extreme.” Forty-two percent would apply that label to anyone who might “quit a good-paying job to pursue mission work in another country.” Roughly a third would bestow the moniker on anyone who wears special clothes or adheres to dietary restrictions for religious reasons. And if your teenage daughter commits to abstain from sex until marriage, a quarter of Americans say she’s an extremist too.


According to Barna, three-quarters of Americans believe “being religiously extreme is a threat to society.” Which means that many Americans now believe that Christians who advocate for sexual abstinence or value missions work over money constitute, in some way, a social threat. [...]


In an age of religious terrorism, “extremist” is too damaging a word to be tossed around with such little discretion. When society slaps the E-word on something, it marks it for marginalization. And if the data is right, tens of millions of religious Americans may be at risk of being ostracized, sidelined, or banished from social acceptability because of their beliefs. These are the very communities best positioned to attack genuine religious extremism. But labeling them ‘extremist’ simply encourages alienation and radicalization.


One of the great ironies of this politically correct age is how those who most champion tolerance are often in such great need of the virtue themselves. Society calls “extremist” those believers they consider to be rigid, narrow-minded, and unaccepting of others.


Carelessly painting such wide swaths with a caustic descriptor is its own form of intolerance. [...] It contributes to the very problem it’s trying to solve.


Merritt ends with a point I emphasized in the first section of this book: how us-vs-them animosity can help create the very things we’re angry about. Insults aimed at Christians, or any group, will tend to make that group feel more unified, more righteous, and more dedicated to their cause. 


In a piece by David French on his blog titled The God Gap Helps Explain a 'Seismic Shift' in American Politics, he talks about how the gains Trump and the GOP have seen amongst racial minorities can be explained by the fact that minorities and immigrants tend to be more religious, and therefore anti-religious sentiment from the Left may be driving them away. He writes: 


As my colleague Jonah Goldberg often (and rightly) says, we should reject monocausal explanations for complex social phenomena, but here’s a factor that simply isn’t discussed enough. The Democratic Party has a huge “God gap,” and that God gap is driving a wedge between its white and nonwhite voters.


[...] Ever since I first set foot on Harvard Law Schools’ campus more than 30 years ago, I’ve seen with my own eyes how utterly scornful many powerful white progressives are towards traditional Christianity. 


Yet in scorning traditional or orthodox religious beliefs, secular progressives are often scorning indispensable members of their own coalition. 


As discussed in the first section on polarization, ur us-vs-them animosity results in more divisiveness even amongst politically similar people, and makes people worse at accomplishing political goals. 


In his piece, David French quotes Yale law professor Stephen Carter, who’d written a few years before: 


Overall, people of color are more likely than whites to be Christians—and pretty devout Christians at that. Some 83 percent of all black Americans are absolutely certain that God exists. No other group comes close to this figure. Black Christians are far more likely than white Christians (84 percent to 64 percent) to describe religion as very important in their lives. Of all ethnic groups, black Christians are the most likely to attend services, pray frequently and read the Bible regularly. 


They are also—here’s the kicker—most likely to believe that their faith is the place to look for answers to questions about right and wrong. And they are, by large margins, the most likely to believe that the Bible is the literally inerrant word of God. In short, if you find Christian traditionalism creepy, it’s black people you’re talking about. 


The more we speak in un-nuanced ways, the more we’ll insult the people around us and add to our divides. Some liberals focus on the intolerance they perceive amongst religious people without seeing how their own language about religion can be perceived as intolerant and divisive. 


Recognizing that some religious beliefs can be scary

On the other side of things, conservatives should keep in mind that there are a significant number of secular people and moderately religious people who vote Republican. When Republicans denigrate secularism, or associate conservatism with religion, they’ll alienate the more secular and religiously moderate voters in their ranks. 


And America has been growing more secular and less religious. A 2020 Gallup article said that “In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.”


It’s possible to view the polarization of religion and the association of Christianity with conservatism as contributing to America’s growing secularism. To quote from American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us:


As theological and political conservatism began to converge, religiously inflected issues emerged on the national political agenda, and "religion" became increasingly associated with the Republican Party. [...] A growing number of Americans, espe­cially young people, have come to disavow religion. For many, their aversion to religion is rooted in unease with the association between religion and conservative politics. If religion equals Republican, then they have decided that religion is not for them.


If you’re conservative, is it possible to see what it is that may be driving people away from Christianity and religion in general? Is it possible to see how there are many on the right who speak in intolerant and, to be blunt, just plain creepy ways about their religious beliefs? 


To take one example: in 2022, a Tennessee Evangelical Christian preacher Greg Locke said the following to his congregation: 


I'm at a place right now, if you vote Democrat, I don't even want you around this church. You can get out. You can get out, you demon. You can get out, you baby-butchering election thief. You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation. I don't care how mad that makes you. You get pissed off as you want to. You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation. They are God-denying demons who butcher babies and hate this nation [...]


Bunch of devils. I'm sick of it. They want to talk about the insurrection. Let me tell you something—you ain't seen an insurrection yet. You keep on pushing our buttons, you low-down sorry compromisers. You God-hating communists. You'll find out what an insurrection is. Because we ain't playing your garbage. We ain't playing your mess. My bible says that the Church of the Living God is an institution, that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 


And the Bible says that we'll take it by force. That's what the Bible says. 


To take another example, this one reported on KTVB.com:

 

Pastor Joe Jones of the Shield of Faith Baptist Church [in Idaho] said in the sermon, posted to YouTube about four weeks ago, that “sodomites are reptilians.” 


He also said, “It’s not God’s fault, he told nations how to deal with that. He told the nation that he ruled: Put them to death. Put all queers to death.”


The Republican representative from Georgia Marjorie Greene encouraged Republicans to embrace the label of “Christian nationalist.” She said, “I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists.” Christian nationalism is the belief that America is defined by Christianity and that it deserves to have a privileged position in American society and government. A 2022 University of Maryland poll found that 61% of Republicans supported declaring the United States a Christian nation. Many people would say such an idea clearly goes against our constitution, with its separation of church and state. 


Hopefully you can see how these kinds of things make some people worried about American Christians. Hopefully you can see how some people can perceive many conservative political actions in the U.S. as all being connected, as all being part of a big plot to set up an authoritarian Christian form of government. If you’re someone who thinks liberals are the main threat, are you able to see how there are some scary and divisive people on the religious right who add to our tensions? Is it possible to see how it’s these kinds of people who aid liberals in forming their negative views of conservatives?


And aside from these rather extreme things, there’s a lot of us-versus-them paranoia that seems amplified by church leaders and congregations. To take one example: a Christian friend of mine described how, when covid started, many of his fellow churchgoers were unreasonably paranoid about what was happening. He said, “many of the people believed it was a government conspiracy to keep us out of church by forcing us to wear masks. Some people even speculated that getting vaccinated was somehow similar to receiving the mark of the beast. It was shocking.” Soon after that, he and his family stopped going to their church. 


If you’re someone who’s Christian and conservative, is it possible to see how these kinds of religiously-informed paranoid views can seem threatening to many people, including your fellow Christians?


The Christian pastor Andy Stanley wrote a book titled Not In It To Win It: Why Choosing Sides Sidelines the Church. In that book, he made the case that Christianity didn’t require choosing political sides and that Christians should focus on being humble and unconditionally loving, and trying to persuade and not judge. Here’s an excerpt from that book: 


What does the evangelical church in America value most? 


Winning.


What do we fear? 


Losing.


Not winning or losing souls. We systemically alienated more than half the souls in America through our un-Christ-like rhetoric and fear-based posturing. For all our talk of evangelism, revival, and reaching the lost, clearly those are not our primary concerns. That’s not what we value most. If it were, we would not have allowed ourselves to be dragged into and embroiled in far less noble conflicts with far less noble goals. If evangelism and discipleship were truly more important, we would not have so easily surrendered influence with those who need to be evangelized and discipled. We would not have allowed ourselves to be reduced to a voting bloc. A constituency. Part of the electorate. Pawns. 


Tragically, because of our misplaced, un-Christlike value system… our love affair with winning… we were not prepared or positioned to take advantage of what, in hindsight, may have been the greatest opportunity for the church in our lifetime—an opportunity when, to borrow the apostle Paul’s words, we had a chance to shine like stars in the heavens, to live like “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Instead, to use Paul’s words again, we grumbled and argued. With one another. With our neighbors. With state and local governments. To use Jesus’s words, we had an opportunity to let our “light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”


Instead, we hid our light under a bushel. We lined up behind our political party of choice and leveraged our sacred text to validate our political talking points. We argued with our brothers and sisters and treated our neighbors with suspicion. We went to war with state and local officials over our right to gather… shoulder to shoulder… indoors… in the middle of a pandemic. We left the impression that our personal faith would suffer irreversible harm if we couldn’t meet indoors every seven days. On social media we demonized and criticized, by name, people we’d never met. We gave up the moral high ground and confirmed what my kids’ generation has suspected for some time—namely, we don’t actually believe what we claim to believe. Our rhetoric and our responses say otherwise. 


We allowed ourselves to be divided over masks and vaccines. Perhaps the apex of the insanity being that not an insignificant number of evangelical Christian leaders considered—and still consider—COVID vaccines the mark of the beast. 


I’m still looking for the beast. 


Indiscriminate demonization of entire [groups of people] was considered an exercise in virtue. After all, we were standing up for the truth! [...] Toward the end of 2020, as the prospects of winning politically and culturally began to slip away, many high-profile evangelical church leaders behaved as rudely and as un-Christlike as their secular counterparts. 


If you’re conservative and Christian, hopefully you can see how highly judgmental Christians can seem arrogant and un-Christ-like to both secular people and some of your fellow Christians. 


If one is confident one is doing God’s will and will be rewarded with eternal life, what is the need for righteous anger? 


And is it possible to really know God’s plans? Isn’t it possible God has plans that might be hidden and not at all obvious? Might it be arrogance to believe that you truly understand God’s plans? Is it possible that one’s righteous anger might be due to us-versus-them emotions that might not be that noble and godly? 


Even if you’re confident you should be working on changing society to reflect your religious beliefs, is it possible that being accepting and loving is the best way you might do that? Is it possible that being kind to non-believers and making persuasive arguments is how you’re most likely to achieve your religious goals? 


Spirituality

Some religious people believe that secularism and atheism have eroded important ethical values. But what this stance might miss is that there can be a tremendous amount of spiritual wonder amongst the non-religious. Those spiritual feelings can result in helping create some of the same morals and values that some religious people think of as being values only religion can impart. 


A 2017 Pew Research survey found that, “about a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, up 8 percentage points in five years.” It also found that “only 54% of U.S. adults think of themselves as religious – down 11 points since 2012 – while far more (75%) say they are spiritual, a figure that has remained relatively steady in recent years.”


To take my own views as an example, because I think they’re fairly common: I think that existence is mysterious and mind-blowing. The fact that our physical universe exists at all is mystifying, even without taking into account the fact that I experience it. I find existence so amazing that I have no confident beliefs about it: any explanation I can imagine for our existence strikes me as equally amazing and implausible, whether this world we know arose out of randomness and chaos, or if there’s some sort of higher power. 


The idea that all this amazing complexity could arise from a cold, dead universe is amazing in ways that I think many secular people don’t fully grasp. There is sometimes a tendency for secular people to downplay this, to hand-wave the mystery away with something like, “Well, that’s just how the universe is” or “Science will explain it all one day.” 


But it’s possible to make a long list of rational reasons for seeing our universe and our existence as strange and awe-inspiring. To name a few things: 


The physical world operates in ways that are non-intuitive and strange. For example, something strange must happen at the edges of the universe. Does it go on forever? Does spacetime bend? Whatever the explanation, it will necessarily be strange and mind-bending. 


Similarly for the nature of time: there is something strange and non-intuitive with how it works. How can there be a beginning of the universe or of time? How can there be an end of the universe or of time? Can time be infinite? Has the universe always existed? Will it always exist? 


Quantum physics research has shown us how reality behaves in ways that are shockingly counter-intuitive (for example, the double slit experiment, which shows that light can have aspects of waves and of particles, and behave in very strange ways). 


In a universe made up of inorganic components, how is it possible for life to arise? How unlikely is that exactly?


In order for there to be life like ours, our universe, at least our region of it, must be finely tuned in many ways. To take one example: if there were no gravity, everything would drift apart and freeze, but if gravity were too strong, everything would be smashed together and be extremely hot. For another example: if there were very few types of matter, there wouldn’t be enough materials to create complex life forms. These examples, and many more, strongly suggest a universe that must have, in some way, changeable and varying physical laws, with us just happening to exist in one of those regions that has the necessary rules that allow complex life to arise. (The “multiverse” idea is one example of an explanation for how such variety might arise.) But it’s possible to imagine a much less interesting and less dynamic universe that would never lead to enough variations on physical laws, or enough types of matter, to allow life like ours to exist. Put another way: our universe inherently must contain, in its fundamental laws, the potential to create complex life, however that occurred, and that alone can seem shockingly unlikely and awe-inspiring in itself. 


Our conscious experience can seem strange and unlikely. Consider someone who, a thousand years in the future, has an exact replica made of their body, and then is destroyed. The new cloned person is exactly the same as the original person: they have the same memories, the same personality, everything. Would you consider that to be the same person? Most of us would say no. Now consider someone who dies and, several minutes later, is brought back to life. Would you consider that to be the same person? Most of us would say yes. But we can see these as equivalent situations. The person who dies and comes back to life is similar to that person who suddenly wakes up in a new body. There was no consciousness and then there was consciousness. We can take this analogy even further, and see that our existence, moment to moment, is similar to dying and returning to life, or similar to our consciousness suddenly appearing in a duplicated body. When viewed in this way, it can seem amazing that our consciousness feels so ever-present and continuous. It’s possible to wonder: What is stopping my conscious experience from disappearing in every moment and a new one being brought into existence? How am I different from someone who dies every moment and is brought back to life? How am I different from someone destroyed every moment and reformed every moment? Is it possible I’m only a series of disconnected conscious feelings? If so, what does it mean that I always feel here, now? 


You may find some of these things interesting and amazing, and some not. Regardless of what you think of any of these ideas, the point for our purposes is to see why people can find this world, and our lives, amazing and awe-inspiring. 


For me personally, my own sense of wonder about existence is why I call myself agnostic and not an atheist. In many ways, I can relate more to moderate, humble religious people than I can to people who are confident, certain atheists. At least religious people seem to me to have a sense of wonder about the world, and some atheists’ lack of wonder strikes me as arrogant and as strangely myopic. (But I also find it hard to relate to people who are certain their religion is the one true way.)


Because I see existence as magical and awe-inspiring, I see human life as magical and awe-inspiring, and therefore I believe in treating humans with respect. I see other people as me in another form: as struggling with the stresses of existence that we all face in this mysterious world. At the very least, it’s logical to treat other humans with respect because one never really knows what this world is about and what’s possible. So although I’m not religious, the awe I have about the universe and existence leads rationally to a strong respect for life and a desire to reduce suffering. 


And I think that when some religious people judge non-religious people, they’re missing that many secular people can have an immense amount of awe and respect for the mystery of existence, and just as much dedication to ethical principles as many religious people do. It’s just that the non-religious people who see things in that way don’t think that a belief in a specific religion is necessary to express that wonder and awe. 


From the other side, non-religious people who look down on religious people may be missing the fact that many religious people aren’t actually as dedicated to one specific religion as they may seem to be. Some religious people see their religion as a way to express their sense of awe and wonder about the world and aren’t firm believers that their specific religion is the one true religion. 


As one piece of supporting evidence for this, the 2017 Pew Research survey I previously referenced found that some people who identify with a religious group also say that they’re “spiritual but not religious.” To quote from the survey:  


Who makes up this rapidly rising, “spiritual but not religious” segment of American adults? While many of them (37%) are religiously unaffiliated (describing their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”), most actually do identify with a religious group, including 35% who say they are Protestant, 14% who are Catholic and 11% who are members of others faiths, such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism. 


In other words, a lot of religious people aren’t actually that religious. 


As with many of our divides, we have more in common than we tend to think. It’s possible for both religious and non-religious people to live in awe of the mystery of existence and to have immense respect for life. And it’s possible for people to express that awe and humility in very different ways. 


And we should remember that how we apply those beliefs and feelings will differ even when we’re largely on the same page. Just as with the trolley problem examples mentioned in the introduction, we can disagree on what respect for life really means. To take one example: some politically liberal atheists believe that assisted suicide should be legal, because it’s a way to honor and respect the sanctity of human life and personal autonomy, while some other politically liberal atheists believe that making assisted suicide legal shows a lack of respect for human life, in putting the power over someone’s life in the hands of medical professionals who can have bad, irresponsible incentives. 


Similarly, for abortion, as was examined earlier, some atheists are pro-choice and some are pro-life. Some Christians are pro-choice, and some are pro-life. 


Even amongst people we can have a lot in common with politically or philosophically, we’ll often disagree, because this world is a complex place.


When it comes to divides between the religious and non-religious, we should strive for humility because we seldom know the true values and motivations behind others’ beliefs. The more we speak in simplistic and insulting ways about people who are different from us, the more we’ll add to our divides.


This has been an excerpt from Defusing American Anger.

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