Could the Influence of Religion in America Finally Be Receding?


Posted by Bob Lord and Donna Gratehouse

We decided to team up on this post because it’s a topic near and dear to both our hearts. Americans have lagged behind the rest of the Western World in freeing ourselves from religion. A former Prime Minister once remarked, in reference to George W. Bush, “if a politician in Canada said he thought the jury was still out on evolution, he’d be run out of town on a rail.” But Americans have engaged in or at least tolerated this craziness for decades. As views all over the world became more enlightened, America slid backwards, into the land of intelligent design, climate change denial, and raging homophobia.

Frank Schaefer, a self-reformed former leader of the religious right,
describes Christianity in America

For now the “face” of Christianity in America is Franklin Graham who sold his father’s reputation down the river for political gain. It’s the homophobic anti-marriage equality editors of Christianity Today magazine. It’s Ralph Reed who narrowly escaped jail after the Abramoff/casino/lobbying scandal and who reemerged from whatever rock he lives under to “organize” the evangelical vote in return for whatever fees he managed to skim from the budget the Republicans running the Romney campaign gave him. It’s the pedophile-codling Roman Catholic bishops trying to equate religious
freedom with withholding insurance coverage for contraceptives from American women.

Christians who care about our country and our faith have a choice: Circle the wagons tighter, deny reality further, hate more, or admit that once again – as with the race issues of the 1940s through
the 1960s – that most conservative religious Americans have missed the boat of progress, hope and inclusion.

The Republican Party thought it could disrespect women, gays, Latinos, black people, union workers, single moms, minorities of all backgrounds and young people and yet somehow win an election. Do sane evangelicals and Roman Catholics of a reasonable disposition – and there are many – want to make the same mistake? Do we Christians really want the future of American Christianity permanently hijacked by the most putrid collection of reactionary delusional bigots since Jim Crow?

How badly does religion infect American politics? To start, it’s one of the first steps down the slippery slope of political dishonesty. Every candidate knows that early on he or she will be asked about “faith,” as if it bears any relevance to qualification for office. The approach of one unnamed candidate [:)] was to wear his membership in the Jewish race on his sleeve, so nobody would inquire about his religion. The strategy worked, but although technically not dishonest, it was misleading, which is to say it was intellectually dishonest.

Most of the many, many non-believing candidates adopt a similar approach, typically joining a church of some sort, perhaps even showing up once in a while. And who can blame them? In America, lacking “faith” of some sort is a disqualifier in politics. Should good candidates really have to face disqualification for not believing there’s an invisible man in the sky directing traffic? In this situation, political dishonesty seems justified.

But therein lies the problem. If early on as a candidate you must engage in an act of political dishonesty, doesn’t it make the next such act that much easier? You live in a rural district. You’re asked your position on the second amendment. You think the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the second amendment is a load of garbage, but you believe Americans should have the right to possess guns within reasonable limits. So, do you explain your nuanced position, or just say you believe in Second Amendment rights? Well, you’re already a little dirty on the whole religion thing, so why not just fudge your position on guns as well? After all, you’re not misstating your ultimate position, you’re just kind of, er, simplifying the way you get there.

The pernicious effect our religion-crazed society has had on candidates is only one symptom of this disease. The more acute symptom is the twisted use of religion to manipulate the views of the electorate. On every issue, the right has figured out how to line its position up with God’s position, or so it seems. Abortion? Yep, the Bible says life begins at conception. Same sex marriage? Yep, the Bible has a few obscure passages. Supporting the Israeli occupation? Yep, we need the Jews in control there because that’s most conducive to the second coming. Climate Change? Yep, because God made the Earth for mankind to use and because Jesus will make everything new again when he returns. Low taxes for the wealthy and cuts in the social safety net? Yep, God rewards those who work hard and punishes those who don’t, so right wing politicians are just carrying out the word of God when they screw the many to benefit the few. 

But, recently, there’s room for optimism, for two reasons. First, non-believing politicians are starting to come out of the closet. Second, using religion to justify the right’s position on guns may just be a bridge too far, and seemingly is exposing the depravity of the religious right’s views. Look no further than Mike Huckabee, who just four short years ago had serious Presidential aspirations. He explained that the reason twenty young kids were senselessly murdered in Newtown was that we locked God out of the schools. Only the truly crazy bought it.

Where you can really see religion and its cultural hegemony receding is in entertainment. Popular TV shows and movies feature gay and lesbian characters and plotlines that deviate substantially from what religious conservatives find acceptable. NBC’s Community and CBS’s The Good Wife, among other shows, feature leading characters who are atheist.  

Conservatives are keenly aware of the influence Hollywood has over public attitudes and have railed about its decadence since the silent movie era. For their part, liberals often seem to take this incredible power to change hearts and minds through performance art for granted. We shouldn’t. Atheists should support and encourage entertainment where non-believers are represented as the complex people and legitimate members of society that we are.  

But belief maintains its hold over the American imagination, even as Americans are steadily losing their religion in their actual lives. Atheists remain the most maligned group in the country and atheism is associated with the absence of morality and ethics for a disturbingly large percentage of the public. 

Can atheists improve our image and create a climate of acceptance of non-belief in the United States? To a certain extent, the transformation is already underway: Fewer than half of Americans attend religious services regularly and young Americans are the least religious generation in history. But atheists can, and must, take a more proactive role in changing the culture in our favor. It is dishonest to feign a religious belief you don’t really feel, even if your motives for doing so are understandable and perhaps laudable. Such dishonesty does breed further dishonesty and contributes
to a political environment of willful ignorance and harmful, fantasy-based public policies.  

That said, how free an atheist is to be open about it depends greatly on his or her professional and social environment. There are many places in this county where publicly professing one’s non-belief in God can lead to job loss and major family strife. Atheists in less precarious positions, however, are increasingly “coming out” to family, friends, and co-workers, which will undoubtedly lead to more acceptance, since it’s harder to project negative stereotypes onto people you know well. Atheist and agnostics are forming groups all over the country to promote secular humanist values and separation of church and state.

None of this is to suggest that atheists (and other non-religiously affiliated people) are being welcomed with open arms by everyone as we unveil ourselves and demand respect. One of the main challenges openly atheist people face in seeking acceptance and respect is the perception that non-belief, in itself, is an attack on belief. Some atheists find that even the most open-minded progressive theists get antagonistic when atheists want to talk about why they don’t believe. To further complicate matters, there is disagreement within the atheist activist community over whether we should aggressively criticize organized religion or adopt a more conciliatory approach.   

Despite the inevitable growing pains in the atheist movement, and the desperate attempts by religious leaders to stave off the precipitous decline in Americans’ religiosity in recent years, non-belief is here to stay and is growing into a major force in American culture and politics.

Or maybe we’re just in the midst of a sane interlude. Time will tell.


  1. I mean this in far more than a simple ‘branding’ solution, but I think back to the age of Ingersoll and others who called themselves freethinkers. I wonder if simply talking about non-belief is enough. Just as Ingersoll and others stood for racial equality, women’s rights, secular government *because* these ideas flowed from their non-belief. I think it would be helpful today to point out that things like equality for LGBT individuals might be important to people in spite of their belief but for non-believers it is an obvious outcome of questioning religiously based bigotry.

  2. Another place where the influence of religion is receding: Among young people. My children are both college students. Neither they nor any of their friends (some of whom have conservative, religious parents) are believers, climate change deniers, or the least bit concerned about someone’s sexuality.

    Nice piece, Bob and Donna.