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How Does A Decline In Churchgoing Affect American Politics?


For the first time on record, a majority of Americans are not members of a church. That's according to a Gallup survey from this spring. The numbers of American churchgoers have been declining for decades. So what does that mean for a political party that is especially dependent on white evangelical voters? NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: When Ronald Reagan accepted the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, he ended the speech with a request.


RONALD REAGAN: I've been a little afraid to suggest what I'm going to suggest. I'm more afraid not to. Can we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer?

KURTZLEBEN: It was the preface to a presidency that would help make white evangelicals the staunchly Republican voting bloc they are today. Fast-forward to a 2016 campaign event when soon-to-be-president Donald Trump dismissed a key tenet of the Christian faith.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: But have you ever asked God for forgiveness?


DONALD TRUMP: I'm not sure I have. I just go and try and do a better job from there. I don't think so.

KURTZLEBEN: Over the last decade, the share of Republicans who are church members fell from 75% to 65%, according to Gallup. That's a rapid fall, though it's still a solid majority. The key bloc of white evangelicals is also shrinking as a share of the population, while the share of religiously unaffiliated Americans grows. This makes religion one key part of a looming demographic challenge for Republicans. Whit Ayres is a Republican pollster.

WHIT AYRES: Republicans clearly have a stronger hold among the religiously affiliated, especially evangelical Protestants. And consequently, any decline in evangelical Protestant affiliation is not good news for the GOP.

KURTZLEBEN: To Ayres, the upshot is that in the long term, Republicans will have to expand their reach by winning over younger voters and more of the growing Hispanic electorate. For now, though, the GOP has intensified its support among parts of its base. To Ayres, it's fair to say that religious rhetoric is being replaced by broader culture war issues.

AYRES: While religiosity may be declining, people attracted to culturally conservative causes may not be - cancel culture, TV shows and movies that exalt more left-wing values that cast aspersions on right-wing values.

KURTZLEBEN: Christian Gaffney, pastor at Expectation Church in Fairfax, Va., feels the pull of those cultural causes. Congregation members have pushed back when he has preached about things like masks as well as race. Conflict arises for him when congregants see their identities as partisan rather than as Christian.

CHRISTIAN GAFFNEY: I think it goes back to the idea of culture wars, the idea that everything is so polarized. And because there's this trajectory of polarization, Trump kind of gives a lightning rod for one of those polls, one of those sides to really rally around and adhere to. My job as a pastor is to show people it's not about rallying around either side. It's about rallying around the person Jesus Christ.

KURTZLEBEN: Gaffney's church has been growing. But on the whole, the shrinking church may counterintuitively tighten the bond between the Republican Party and conservative Christianity. Sarah Posner is author of two books critical of the politics of white evangelicals.

SARAH POSNER: These kinds of data about the shrinking share of the population of white evangelicals or declines in church membership actually intensify the relationship. As those numbers shrink, the demography is not in their favor, and so intensifying their relationship becomes ever more important in terms of winning elections and so forth.

KURTZLEBEN: Which brings us back to Trump, who initially appealed more to Republicans who weren't regular churchgoers. Later, he won over more staunch Christian conservatives. In the process, he wrapped together more traditionally conservative Christian issues like abortion in with other cultural fixations like race and grievance politics. I reached out to a young Republican to see what he thinks about the religious future of the Republican Party. Jackson Avery is president of the College Republicans at George Mason University and a Christian himself. He doesn't hear his fellow young Republicans talking a lot about their faith, but he nevertheless thinks maintaining a Christian identity is good for the party.

JACKSON AVERY: I don't think, like, the Republican Party saying, we are not the party of not only the Christians but atheists, I think that drives away more people. You know, you only need enough percentage to win. Like, there is this idea where they go back to Ronald Reagan, where he gets like 60% of the popular vote. Republicans will never get that, at least in, you know, our lifetimes. I don't think so.

KURTZLEBEN: In other words, holding tightly to a shrinking group may still be the smart move, at least for now.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.


Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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