America is still reacting to the religious right, in more ways than one

WASHINGTON (RNS) – A religion scholar believes major trends in religion and politics can be traced back to the rise of the religious right in the 1990s, a moment of sea change that sparked a series of phenomena ranging from a slight increase in religious disaffiliation with the radicalization of some Christian conservatives.

The radical theory is described in a new paper written by Ruth Braunstein, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. His article, “A Theory of Political Backlash: Assessing the Religious Right’s Effects on the Religious Field,” published late last year in Sociology of Religion, offers an unusually broad examination of the interplay between the religious right, people with no religious affiliation and the power of political reaction.

Braunstein bases his study on a well-known trend among academics and everyday religious practitioners: the number of “noes,” so called because of the answer they give to the question “what is your religious affiliation,” has increased considerably in recent decades. In 1972, the General Social Survey reported that 5% of Americans claim no religious affiliation. But that number skyrocketed during the 1990s and again in the 2010s: According to the Public Religion Research Institute, people with no religious affiliation made up about 23% of the country in 2020 – a higher percentage than white evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants, or white Catholics.

Graphic courtesy of PRRI Census of American Religion

Religious leaders and scholars have pondered the ongoing change since it began, with some speculating the root cause is political. The rise of nuns, the theory goes, is largely a backlash to the rise of the religious right in the 1990s: as conservative Christian campaigns became increasingly associated with all religions in the public square, Religious Americans who rejected their messages — especially a subset of liberals with weaker ties to institutional religion — eventually cut ties to religion altogether, identifying as no instead.

But in his paper, Braunstein hypothesizes that this cause and effect relationship is actually more complicated and expansive. The rise of liberal-leaning nuns, she says, is just one example of a “general backlash” – a backlash against religion in general, even if some nuns don’t necessarily abandon religious practices or belief in a higher power. But, she argues, there are also at least three “narrow” backlashes to the religious right that have gone relatively unnoticed, all of which help shape the modern religious and political landscape.


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“Backlash against the religious right doesn’t have to mean leaving religion altogether — although that’s a choice many people make,” she said in an interview this week with Religion News Service.

“There are narrower forms of backlash that involve narrowly rejecting the religious right’s brand of politicized conservative religion by claiming or reframing a way of doing religion, being religious, and engaging in religion. public religious expression.”

Ruth Brunstein.  Photo courtesy of PRRI

Ruth Brunstein. Photo courtesy of PRRI

Braunstein pointed to data from Research bench showing an increase in the number of Americans who identified as “spiritual but not religious,” from 19% in 2012 to 27% in 2017. In her article, she acknowledged that while the category likely includes people who are d Consistent with religious-right campaigns, other researchers have studied people who claim the moniker in reaction to “the moral flaws in organized religion,” pointing out that at least some spiritual but non-religious Americans are “moderates, neither religious fanatics nor dogmatic atheists” seeking to distance themselves from conservative Christians.

“It is plausible that the growing embrace of a spiritual identity can be read in part as a narrow reaction against the religious right, although it also seems clear that it cannot be read exclusively in those terms,” writes Braunstein, who also directs the Meanings of Democracy Lab at the University of Connecticut.

Second, she notes the growth in positive attention given to liberal religious activists, sometimes described as members of the religious left, known to passionately denounce the political efforts of conservative Christians. Braunstein argues that “progressive religious mobilization represents a different form of reaction to that associated with religious disaffiliation”, a form which does not reject religion altogether but uses “the presence of the religious right to cast more moderate forms of expression public religious in a positive sense”. light.”

While religious liberals may have reduced their share of the overall population, Braunstein points to a recent report examining data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study which found that liberal-leaning religious activists are “the most active group in American politics.” When combined with an increase in movement-focused media reporting – ranging from The New York Times at Politics – Braunstein described this phenomenon as another “narrow backlash” in response to the religious right.

“There’s increased positive attention to groups like the religious left,” she said. “We’ve seen this during the presidency of (former President Donald) Trump and during campaign seasons – including a recent New York Times column where Nicholas Kristof … said how excited he was for the religious left to be more visible and prominent, to provide some sort of religious counterweight to the religious right. I think we see it in the form of Democratic presidential candidates speaking openly about their faith and the important role their religion plays in shaping their commitments to things like justice and equality.

Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

Braunstein then pointed to a final narrow backlash: a tendency among some major liberal traditions to decouple political activism from religion. She explained it as a shift not so much in religious affiliation or ideals as an overall shift in the words used to describe them.

“This scenario differs from a broad backlash in that people remain committed to the realm of religion, yet present their depoliticized version of religious expression as a positive alternative to politicized conservative religion,” she writes. She added that while this approach shares the religious left’s desire to reject the association of religion with conservative politics, “it does so not by publicly embracing the fusion of religion and liberal politics, but rather by dissociating religion from all politics”.

But while liberals — and especially religious liberals — responded to the religious right over the decades, Braunstein says, something else was happening to the religious right itself: It suffered the effects of a backlash, a “feedback effect” that leads to “doubling the line”. down” in the face of criticism.

The result was the development of what Braunstein called a “purification process” among politically active conservative Christians in general, and white evangelicals in particular. When more moderate voices in their group have challenged campaigns against abortion and same-sex marriage — or, more recently, support for Trump and his broader political movement — they have often been excised. She pointed to Russell Moore and Beth Moore (no relation), two prominent Trump critics who received significant backlash from other evangelicals. They both left the Southern Baptist Convention last year: Beth Moore, author and Bible teacher, publicly left the SBC, while Russell Moore resigned from his high position as chairman of the ethics committee of the denomination and began quietly attending a church unaffiliated with the SBC. .


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“Because of efforts to purify their group and be less tolerant of political dissent within their communities, we see high profile, everyday examples…being kicked out of evangelical communities because they question the political type of choice of this community,” she said. noted.

What remains is a religious right with “less checks on radical ideas”, she said. It can have disastrous results: She cited those who embraced Christian nationalism on display during the uprising at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.

In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, a man holds a Bible as Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol in Washington.  The Christian imagery and rhetoric on display during the Capitol Rising is sparking a new debate about the societal effects of merging Christian faith with an exclusive breed of nationalism.  (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, a man holds a Bible as Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol in Washington. The Christian imagery and rhetoric on display during the Capitol Rising is sparking a new debate about the societal effects of merging Christian faith with an exclusive breed of nationalism. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Braunstein said she wasn’t sure what the future held for her, but was particularly interested in the plight of conservative Christians who are fleeing strongholds of the religious right. She expressed particular interest in recent PRRI polls indicating a sudden increase in the number of white Christians after years of decline. She said the change requires further study, but could indicate religious-right exiles are finding spiritual homes elsewhere — or at least identifying differently.

“We see it potentially on the ground in people who have disaffiliated from religion or left conservative Christian spaces, and trying to create new spaces that are both religious and not necessarily in the vision of this politicized conservative religion that has become so important,” she said. “It takes a lot of forms and requires a lot of trial and error.”

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