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Religion and Secularism in America

Now that the results of the 2022 midterms are clear, it’s time to think about what the past few years have taught us about U.S. society. One important place to start is the connection between religion and secularism within America’s politics.  Is the United States now more secular than religious? A recent book discusses the topic.

Religion Is More Conservative While Society Is More Secular

Recently, one of the great contemporary U.S. historians, David Hollinger, published a book called “Christianity’s American Fate: How Religion Became More Conservative and Society More Secular.” The book discusses the changing character of Christianity in America and the cause-and-effect relationship between the Christian faith and conservative white evangelism.  

Hollinger is a Professor Emeritus from the University of California at Berkeley and one of the few academics in the U.S. who can be described as a public intellectual. His books try to go beyond academic jargon and the narrow confines of the academic circle to create a dialogue with the American public. Hollinger’s book is written to appeal to a wide readership; it stays clear of academic verbiage and is concise – while still offering valuable insight on religion and secularism in America.

Why Evangelism Came to Dominate US Society  

The book discusses the evangelical movement and the decline of mainline Protestantism’s influence on American life in broad strokes. Hollinger also describes a complex historical process where mainline or ecumenical Protestant churches in the U.S. began adopting progressive ideas about race, gender, and multiculturalism to go through a fast-paced process of liberalization.  

This liberalization posed problems for some people, whether they were on the secular left or the religious right. The result, according to Hollinger, was that evangelism became the dominant Christian cultural force in the U.S. 

Religion Has Long Been Important to US Society 

It is hard to exaggerate how important religion is to U.S. society. In a recent article, I discussed the future of religion in the United States and mentioned the results of a Pew Research Center study concerning religion. According to Pew Research Center experts, it is likely that by 2050 Christians will be a minority in the U.S. and the percentage of Christians in U.S. society will sink below 40% by 2070. This decline will change the foundational makeup of our country, and it requires an explanation that Hollinger supplied in his book.  

Hollinger reminds his readers that U.S. society has its roots in America’s religious culture of dissent. Early colonists choose to settle in the U.S. for reasons of religion and later engaged in political critique.  

[Related article: The Potential Future of Religion in the United States]

Non-Christians Entering American Culture

This heritage of religious dissent became the central core of American culture and politics; however, the situation changed later when non-Christians entered American culture. In one of his earlier books, “Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World But Changed America,” Hollinger observes that American missionaries who encountered people of non-Christian faiths returned to the U.S. with a different ecumenical and multicultural message.  

This shift changed the public perception of mainline Protestants and disturbed the primary role that Protestantism had in U.S. society. 

In another book, Hollinger also mentions the Jewish immigration to the U.S. and the prominent cultural achievements of American Jews in the U.S. that contributed to the realignment of U.S. culture. In the 1960s, dramatic political changes took their toll and destabilized ecumenical churches, creating space for the rise of the evangelical movement and people like Billy Graham.  

Religion and Secularism: Is Christianity Shrinking in America?

Hollinger makes it clear that Christianity in the U.S. is shrinking and making way for a more secularized society. As a result, remaining religious enclaves are becoming ultraconservative, but there is some discussion on this point.  

According to another Pew Research Center survey on Christian values and politics, there is broad recognition of the role of Christianity in American history. Writers Gregory A. Smith, Michael Rotolo and Patricia Tevington note that many U.S. adults “believe the founders ‘originally intended’ for the U.S. to be a Christian nation. And 45% of U.S. adults – including about six-in-ten Christians – say they think the country ‘should be’ a Christian nation. A third say the U.S. ‘is now’ a Christian nation.”  

However, the Pew Research Center writers also noted that the survey respondents differed on what constitutes a “Christian nation.” According to the survey respondents, “nearly half (48%) of those who say the U.S. should be a Christian nation define that phrase as the general guidance of Christian beliefs and values in society, such as that a Christian nation is one where the population has faith in God.”  

An Increasingly Secular and Less Religious Society

Most of the answers to the survey were extremely broad and simply pointed to a general recognition of the Christian legacy present in American history. However, an increasingly secular society is not necessarily in America’s future; a possible revival of ecumenical churches might be a possibility.  

It is also worthwhile to note that Hollinger’s book doesn’t compare the U.S. with other societies. For some, there is minimal interest in foreign issues that are not connected to the U.S, so the reshaping of American religion might take some interesting twists and turns.   

Hollinger uses the term “post-Protestant,” and his use of this term suggests that religion in America is at the cusp of a realignment that will become clearer in the next few decades. Hollinger makes it clear that he foresees a more secular future like the scenario suggested by the Pew Research Center. However, critical readers would be right to note that there are many paths forward when it comes to religion and spirituality in America. Will the divide between religion and secularism grow deeper in the coming decades? The 2024 U.S. general election will be a huge indicator.

Ilan Fuchs

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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