THE UNITED STATES had long been a lone holdout among Western democracies, religious in an unusual way, if not questionable. Between 1937 and 1998, church membership remained very stable, averaging about 70%. Then something unexpected happened. That percentage has decreased to fewer than 50% in the last two decades, the steepest reduction in American history. Meanwhile, the “nones”—atheists, agnostics, and people who profess no religion—have exploded in popularity, accounting for a quarter of the population today.
Secularists, on the other hand, may be disappointed if they believed that waning religiosity would lead to more rational politics free of faith’s inflaming impulses. As Christianity’s influence on the world has diminished, so has ideological intensity and fragmentation. It turns out that American religion is as strong as ever; the difference is that what was once a religious belief has now been transformed into political belief. Political disagreements about what America is supposed to signify have taken on spiritual overtones. This is what it looks like when there is no religion.
I used to be able to reassure American audiences with a contrast: Politics in America was less existentially difficult than politics in the Middle East, where politics is war by other means—and occasionally physical war. During the Arab Spring, conversations in countries like Egypt and Tunisia were not about health care or taxation; instead, they were about fundamental concerns like: What does it mean to be a nation? What is the state’s raison d’être? What role does religion have in public life? The Tea Party and tan suits provided some excitement to American politics throughout the Obama years, but it was otherwise dull.
We had no idea how fortunate we were. Since the conclusion of Obama’s presidency, arguments over what it means to be an American have become infused with fury unparalleled in debates about Belgian-ness or the “meaning” of Sweden. It is unusual to hear someone called un-Swedish or un-British, but un-American is a popular epithet levelled at both the left and right. Being labelled “un-American” is analogous to being labelled “un-Christian” or “un-Islamic,” which are also heretical accusations.
This is because, as Catholic philosopher Michael Novak memorably put it, America is “nearly a religion,”, especially for immigrants who embrace their new identity with convert enthusiasm. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Federalist Papers are all part of the American civic religion, which has its own foundation story, prophets, and processions. Martin Luther King Jr. wished in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that “one day this nation would rise and carry out the real meaning of its credo.” The fact that a country may have a creed—a phrase usually connected with religion—underpins both the distinctiveness of American identity and its problem.
THE CONCEPT OF ALL DEEPLY FELT CONVICTIONS BEING SUBJECTED TO RELIGION IS NOT NEW. Abraham Kuyper, a theologian who served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands during the early decades of the twentieth century, maintained that all strongly held ideologies were fundamentally faith-based and that no human being could survive long without some ultimate commitment. If that allegiance did not stem from conventional religion, it would manifest itself in secular convictions like nationalism, socialism, or liberalism. This is known as “the law of the conservation of religion” by political theorist Samuel Goldman: there is a relatively constant and finite supply of religious belief in every given community. What differs is how it is expressed and where it is expressed.
Understandings of the American faith have gotten deeper and more diverse—but also more fractious—as they are no longer openly founded in white, Protestant domination. Each side strives to assert exclusivist claims over the other when the creed splits. Conservatives feel they are loyal to the American concept and that liberals are betraying it; liberals, on the other hand, believe they are loyal to the American idea and that conservatives are betraying it with equal certainty. Mutual animosity rises, and one side becomes less understandable to the other, without the common ground created by a shared external adversary, as America had during the Cold War and temporarily after the September 11 attacks. The most vehement divisions are typically seen inside families.
It is no surprise that the newly triumphant American ideologies, forced to fill the void left by religion, are so divided. They are designed to cause division. The “woke” on the left reuse religious concepts like original sin, atonement, ritual, and ex-communication for secular purposes. Those who practise wokeism saw themselves as defying a long-held narrative that stressed the nation’s foundational exceptionalism. Whereas religion views the promised land as above, in God’s reign, the utopian left sees it as ahead, in the establishment of an equitable society on Earth. Thousands of mourners gathered outside the Supreme Court after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September, some kneeling, some holding candles, as though they were at the Western Wall.
On the right, supporters of a Trump-centric ethnonationalism wear some of the trappings of organised religion, but the outcome is a movement that resembles a tent revival devoid of Christian testimony. The focus of Donald Trump’s raucous rallies was on blood and soil rather than the son of God. Trump himself acted as both rescuer and martyr, and it is easy to be impressed by the power that a guy so flawed wields over his troops. Many conservatives take comfort in conspiracy cults like QAnon, which convey a theological myth of earthly corruption being redeemed by a godlike force.
Even though the United States was not created as a Christian nation, Christianity has always been linked with the country’s identity. Without it, conservatives and liberals alike would no longer have a shared cultural ground to stand on.