POLITICS & Research indicates political posturing by Christians may be linked to rising rates of nonreligious people.


Hout and Fischer have made the repeated, controversial claim that the dramatic rise of “religious nones” in the United States is due to the prominence of the politics of the Christian Right. As the argument goes, the movement’s extreme stands on gay rights and abortion make religion inhospitable to those who take more moderate and liberal positions. We take another look at this proposition with novel data drawing on expert reports and interest group counts that capture the prominence of the movement in each American state from 2000 to 2010. We attach these data to decennial religious census data on the unchurched, as well as estimates of the nones from Cooperative Congressional Election Study data. At stake is whether religion is independent of political influence and whether American religion is sowing its own fate by failing to limit taking extreme stands. Rising none rates are more common in Republican states in this period. Moreover, when the Christian Right comes into more public conflict, such as over same-sex marriage bans, the rate of religious nones climbs.

The marquee religious trend in the United States over the last thirty years is the rapid rise of the “religious nones”—those who claim no religious affiliation in surveys—from just 6 percent in the early 1990s to about 25 percent today (PRRI 2016; Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme 2017).1 Perhaps not coincidentally, that meteoric rise started around 1994, just when the Christian Right rose to prominence within the Republican Party in government, as Republicans swept the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years.2 As the argument goes, the Christian Right is the most visible manifestation of religion in the United States, and the extreme positions taken by the movement on abortion and especially gay rights made all religion inhospitable for liberals and moderates (Hout and Fischer 2002, 2014; see also Evans 2016). We aim to revisit this claim by taking one of the mechanisms seriously—Is there a relationship between Christian Right presence in (state) politics and the supply of nones?

We define the Christian Right in much the same way as others have: “as a social movement that attempts to mobilize evangelical Protestants and other orthodox Christians into conservative political action” (Wilcox and Larson 2006, 6). Moreover, we acknowledge that the Christian Right encompasses a wide variety of different actors, including “everyone from movement leaders to activists to ordinary group members and those sympathetic to its political and religious agenda” (Klemp 2010, 25). As discussed later, our measures capture multiple facets of the movement, including a specific focus on the social movement organizations (see Miceli 2005; Rozell and Wilcox 1996; Wilcox 1992), as well as more holistic sense of anything elite observers would lump together as the movement. We use the term “Christian Right” throughout the paper to refer to both, and in this way our operational definition of the Christian Right captures both sides of what Rozell and Wilcox (1996, 7) cover: “organizations that attempt to mobilize orthodox Christian religious views behind a very conservative political agenda.”

Our works draws on a decade and a half of data gathering, surveying elite observers in the electoral moment regarding whether Christian Right organizations were active and influential in their state’s politics. Taking place in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2016 (Conger 2010a, 2014), we attach these elite perception data to survey estimates, religious census, and U.S. Census data, in addition to other data sources, to assess why the supply of nones changed in the states. We argue that the rate of change is uneven across the states, driven by the salient policy controversy linked to Christian Right activism. Our findings suggest that Christian Right influence in state politics seems to negatively affect religion, such that religious attachments fade in the face of visible Christian Right policy victories.

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