‘The Multiplicity Of Sects’: New Report Shows U.S. Religious Pluralism Expanding – Just As The Founders Wanted

Is the dogmatism responsible for the very concept of the 'culture war' falling out of favor with the American public?

A new report by Baylor University researchers shows that Americans are more religiously diverse than ever. Although the United States is still a deeply religious country, 20 percent do not have an affiliation with any specific faith tradition. (That number was 3 percent in the 1960s.)

The Baylor report is merely the latest installment in the research world’s fascination with the “Nones,” a swiftly growing segment of the American population that refuses the easy religious categories adopted by previous generations. And that trend is unlikely to change.

The report, done under the auspices of the Council on Contemporary Families, shows that young adults raised as Nones, albeit those with some spiritual beliefs, tend to remain unaffiliated instead of joining a religious tradition later in life.

So what does this mean for the “culture wars”? First, it may present demographic challenges for the Religious Right. Baylor’s report, which examines the last 50 years of available data on religion in the United State, reveals a telling trend for the country’s evangelicals. (For research purposes, the report defines evangelicalism as conservative Protestantism, distinct from mainline and predominately African-American Protestant denominations.)

Always a minority, evangelicals comprised roughly a quarter of American Christians in the 1960s – only to experience a spike in the early 1990s, when a third of all Christians identified as evangelical.

That spike could arguably be attributed to the strength of the Religious Right as an organized political force. As a movement, the Religious Right relied – and still relies – on conservative evangelical voters as a base. But the numbers tell the tale: The evangelical surge didn’t last. Despite their best efforts, evangelical churches are losing their grasp on an emerging generation of adults, and along with it, may possibly be losing social influence.

Second, this trend may signal that the dogmatism responsible for the very concept of culture war is falling out of favor with the American public. The Americans who are defecting from evangelicalism aren’t exchanging it for another tradition, even if they retain certain religious beliefs.

The implications are self-evident. Americans aren’t weary of faith, but they seem to be increasingly skeptical of the strictures imposed on it by hardliners. 

This does not necessarily mean that the culture wars are at an end. The Religious Right is still thoroughly dedicated to its extreme social agenda. And even if the movement loses some influence, there will always be dogmatic activists bent on dismantling the wall of separation.

But Baylor’s report demonstrates just how flawed the Religious Right’s favorite arguments really are. America is not, for example, a Christian nation. It’s a religiously diverse nation, and that diversity is only going to increase in the coming years.

The report also cites evidence that the social teachings the Religious Right tries to force into law just don’t work. As a group, evangelicals experience higher divorce rates than their peers from other traditions. The Religious Right would like us to believe that their attacks on marriage equality and contraceptive access are about preserving the traditional family, but there’s clearly a disconnect between rhetoric and reality.

All the more reason to make sure their dogma never becomes law. A religiously diverse nation requires a neutral government. James Madison recognized that long before culture war became a facet of public discourse. In Federalist No. 51, he argued that under a free government, “[T]he security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.”

In other words, a government that doesn’t take sides on theology and that allows religious diversity to flourish is the best guarantor of religious liberty for all. At Americans United, we agree – and as Baylor’s report makes clear, so do most Americans.