Europeans who keep a moderately close eye on American politics and culture may assume they are observing a strongly religious nation. Certainly, polls proclaiming the unsuitability of an atheist to be president, and the current glut of heartbeat bills to dramatically tighten laws on abortion seem to point to a much more religious culture than Europe’s. Secular, socially liberal Europeans might also cite the 1980s and 90s fundamentalism of the New Christian Right (NCR)—exemplified by Jerry Falwell’s moral majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian coalition of America—as evidence of a strongly religious state across the water.
However, Western Europe and America have more in common in both religious and cultural terms than may be first apparent. Both are secular, economically developed and—most importantly—diverse and tolerant. While the US is more devout than Western Europe in terms of regular Church attendance, it is becoming less religious, and will continue to do so. The NCR failed in nearly all of its objectives, and moves to outlaw abortion are almost certainly doomed to failure again. Conservative Christians are a geographically isolated minority in a pluralist nation, and can have little influence on larger American life. Fundamentalism, while strong in pockets of the US, has little chance of translating into major electoral success. Far from growing, both Christian fundamentalism and religious observance are declining in America.
To understand why, it is important to acknowledge several factors. First, American Christianity is both increasingly tolerant and in decline. Second, the conditions that allow religious fundamentalism to thrive elsewhere do not exist in the US. Finally, the US is a federal, secular nation, which allows fundamentalism to thrive in isolation, but conversely dooms it to failure on a national level. However, while these factors will inevitably prevent conservative Christianity from having any real influence on larger American life, we should note the US’s history—and qualified continuation—of strong religious attachments.
Commentators since de Tocqueville in the 1830s have remarked on the exceptional religiosity of America by comparison with Western Europe. A 2009 poll showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans regarded religion as important in their day-to-day lives—a figure some 50% higher than in some (mainly Scandinavian) Western European states. While there are competing theories to explain this—de Tocqueville’s own highly questionable free market argument, which hypothesizes that the range of different churches essentially forced the clergy to up their game and compete for market share is perhaps the best known—in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, both church attendance and religiosity were unquestionably higher in the US than in Europe.
However, America is undergoing a process of secularization, albeit one hundred years or so later than Western Europe. Cohort replacement decline—i.e. each generation is less religious than its predecessor—has been underway for several decades. Social scientists have also questioned the true extent of America’s attachment to religion. While a high proportion of US respondents will answer in the affirmative to the question Do you regularly attend church?, American churches themselves report dwindling numbers. Hadaway comments, “If Americans are going to church at the rate they report, the churches would be full on Sunday mornings … yet they are not.”
In addition, while moves to tighten laws on abortion are undoubtedly evidence of residual strong religious feeling in certain areas, they must be viewed against the context of the increasingly tolerant nature of American Christianity. Robert and Helen Lynd’s 1920s Middletown survey recorded that 94% of respondents agreed that non-Christians should be converted to the one true religion. A 1977 follow-up survey found only 41% in agreement with that statement. Similarly, James Hunter’s longitudinal survey of evangelical Christians showed that conservative Protestants in the late 1980s had far more socially liberal opinions on sexuality than their counterparts in the 1950s. American Christianity is becoming increasingly liberal, and fundamentalism increasingly unpopular. In addition, the conditions necessary for fundamentalism to thrive are not in place.
Fundamentalism is a useful tool of protest. Certainly, NCR supporters were motivated and, for the most part, solvent and therefore willing to contribute to the cause both financially and with their time. By 1997, religious right-wing organizations had nearly two million members, and commanded annual revenues in excess of $27m. However, the admittedly impressive size of this membership and revenue stream only makes the NCR’s almost total failure all the more notable. Defensive measures, such as parity for creationist teachings in schools, failed, as did offensive objectives, such as regulating sexual behaviour. Laws against sodomy were actually repealed in some states during the NCR’s 1990s heyday. Even as it was growing, the NCR was actively losing the battle.
Despite its relatively impressive membership numbers, the NCR made very little impact on American life. The declining rate of religious observance and the increasing tolerance of American Christianity are part of the reason why, but there are other factors to consider—not least the country’s economic and social make-up. The conditions which have allowed fundamentalists to foment revolutions and form governments elsewhere in the world did not, and do not, exist in the US. America is an economic success. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ability to raise religious donations in failed states that are unable to collect tax revenue may be part of their appeal: a theocratic regime may seem an attractive alternative to kleptocracy. However, these circumstances do not apply to America. Furthermore, fundamentalism is highly unlikely to thrive in an ethnically and religiously diverse nation. While fundamentalist Iran is unusually homogenous on both counts, the US remains a melting pot. The NCR was unable to attract support from black conservative Christians, who were understandably wary of the movement’s recent associations with segregationism. America is overwhelmingly Christian, but contains a variety of flavours of the religion. Mutual tolerance of religious differences is a common defining characteristic of secular democracies. Even those who support fundamentalism in their own private lives may baulk at imposing it on others.
While some Americans may privately back the NCR, they also support the separation of church and state and freedom of religion. A 2011 State of the First Amendment survey recorded that 67% were in favour of these principles. While, in 1990, 75% of Americans regarded homosexuality as morally wrong, a clear majority were also against making it illegal. The American public are not in favour of private morality influencing public policy. Separation of both church and state and public and private morality is accepted and popular. The NCR’s attempt to promote their message in essentially secular terms—divorce is bad for society, instead of divorce is morally wrong—was a tacit acknowledgment of this. Indeed, the general liberalisation of American social attitudes may also spell bad news for liberal, as well as conservative, Christianity. In a similar manner to Sunder Katwala’s Farage paradox—the increasing visibility of and support for Nigel Farage actually strengthens British support for the European Union—Hout and Fischer speculate that the rise to prominence of the NCR may have actually sped up the decline of American Christianity. Just as soft or liberal Eurosceptics may be put off by Farage’s strident anti-EU message, so moderate believers may be turned off Christianity altogether by the NCR. An increasingly irreligious and tolerant nation does not seem primed for more conservative Christianity. However, if the US is increasingly tolerant and avowedly secular, how have the recent spate of attacks on abortion come to pass? To answer this, we need to offer a more convincing explanation for the US’s relatively high levels of religiosity.
Despite being diverse as a whole, the US was—and in many places still is—a patchwork of religious monocultures. Swathes of the Midwest are almost exclusively Lutheran. Utah is strongly Mormon, the South largely Baptist or Methodist. When immigrants did have a theoretical choice of local churches, language, ethnicity and race often excluded them from some denominations. A small town with one German-language and one Swedish-language Lutheran Church offered no choice at all to the recent immigrant from either country in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Rather more uncomfortably, neither did a town with a white church and a black church. The religious historian Edwin Gaustad notes that, in 1906, twenty-two of the forty-eight contiguous US states passed the threshold for religious homogeneity (which he defines as a condition in which more than 50% of the population belongs to the same religion). Far from offering a free market for religion, many Americans had—and still have—very little actual choice. This patchwork of monocultures therefore allowed—and still allows—conservative Christianity to thrive in certain pockets of America. This, plus the fact that the US primary system allows entryism, permitted the NCR to win a series of battles. Televangelist Pat Robertson finished ahead of George H. Bush in the 1988 Iowa caucus, while, as recently as 2010, the virulently anti-abortion Christine O’Donnell won the Delaware nomination.
Sociologist of religion Steve Bruce states that, “in small units where conservatives are numerous, the NCR can achieve electoral and legislative success.” However, despite the fact that individual states are often monocultural, the United States as a whole is highly diverse. While nine of the original thirteen colonies had established state churches, the US does not, for the simple reason that these original churches differed from each other. “The final judgement,” Bruce adds, “will often lie with the cosmopolitan centre and not with the locale.” Judiciaries in Alabama may be sympathetic to creationism in schools and abortion restriction, but the Supreme Court will not. As with courts, so with elections. While Robertson and O’Donnell may have won initial battles, they were resoundingly defeated in the war. Some Americans may be anti-abortion, but they may not view this as a high, vote-winning priority. Many mainstream Republicans regard the party’s anti-abortion stance as a major factor in why they lost the 1992 presidential election. While Christian zealots are certainly more visible in the US than in Europe, they are barely more popular nationwide.
Europeans may be correct to view America as historically and currently more religious. However, the US is secular, becoming increasingly less devout and what religion still exists is—with a few high profile exceptions—becoming more tolerant. A recent study shows a decline in commitment to religion among American respondents—only 53% consider it important to them. The NCR became a relatively strong force in certain geographical areas, but failed in all of its objectives. Divorce was not ended; homosexuality was not made illegal. The teaching of evolution is not balanced by creationism in public schools; and conservative religion has not been restored among the masses. The American state is already secular, and American life is becoming more so. Zealotry has its advantages, but has a low ceiling in terms of mass appeal. Most Americans are neither zealots nor conservative Christians. The very federalism and regionalism that allowed the NCR to thrive in certain areas of the South ensures that it enjoys little wider appeal. The zealotry that allowed small battles to be won resulted in an electoral and constitutional backlash, which ensured that the major wars would be lost. Furthermore, America is an economically developed and successful nation. Fundamentalism may be a useful protest tool, but people who are winning do not form protest groups, and fundamentalists do not succeed in economic powerhouses.
Europeans should not regard America as fundamentally different: American social liberals will not be dragged into a new theocracy. Moves to overturn Roe v. Wade have failed in the past and will almost certainly continue to do so. Only 26% of Americans would be happy if abortion were outlawed. In fact, the controversial recent appointment of Brett Kavanaugh has likely elevated a supporter of the 1973 ruling to the Supreme Court. America will remain a secular democracy, and increasingly begin to resemble Europe in its degree of non-belief. America is not becoming more religious. It is becoming more like Western Europe.