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Christianity in America is more politically polarized than ever

Meanwhile, more and more Democrats think you don’t need to believe in God to be moral.

Religious identity is more polarized than ever, a Pew study finds Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Americans are becoming more polarized than ever — especially when it comes to religion.

A series of Pew Research Center polls released last week shows how ideas about religious belief and morality are increasingly falling along racial and political lines. Fifty-six percent of Americans now say that belief in God isn’t a necessary component of morality, up from 49 percent in 2011. The uptick reflects the wider prevalence of the spiritually unaffiliated, or “nones,” as nearly a quarter of Americans identified as atheist or agnostic in 2011.

The change may be only a 7-point difference. But those differences manifest themselves almost exclusively along political lines.

While Republicans have roughly held steady in their attitudes — 50 percent say a belief in God is necessary for morality, while 47 percent say it is not — Democrats have shown the most change in their perspectives. Almost two-thirds of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters now say belief in God is not part of being a good person, compared with 51 percent in 2011.

Although other polls carried out by Pew as part of the study — including questions on race and gender — seemed to reflect stronger political polarization, this particular survey seems to speak to the rise of a more committed and vocal secular contingent on the left. Already, religious “nones” are the largest single religious bloc among Democrats. The survey suggests that Democrats who might otherwise have identified with a traditionally Democratic religious tradition (such as Judaism or mainline Protestantism) regardless of personal belief may now feel more comfortable with the “none” label, something echoed by the fact that mainline Protestantism is likewise in decline.

Beliefs in the relationship between God and morality also differ by race, with black (63 percent) and Hispanic (55 percent) respondents saying that belief in God is integral to personal morality. By contrast, only 35 percent of white respondents do. Race seemed to outweigh stated religious affiliated as a marker of this belief: Among Catholics, for example, 61 percent of Hispanic Catholics said believing in God was central to morality, compared with only 40 percent of white Catholics. While almost two-thirds of white evangelicals cited belief in God as a necessary component, only 34 percent of white mainline Protestants did.

Such numbers speak to the relative theological liberalism of white mainline churches — many of which have traditionally been associated with progressive politics — as well as the tricky needle many mainline Protestant churches must thread. While they are often more socially as well as doctrinally more liberal than their evangelical counterparts, placing less of a public emphasis on dogma, such a “middle ground” has often left them short of members: Another 2015 Pew study found that, nationwide, mainline churches hemorrhage 1 million members annually. Other religious groups were not polled for this particular part of the survey.

While questions about God’s role in morality tended to break along racial lines, with Hispanic and black respondents answering in ways that reflected the wider Republican responses, another question proved more complicated. While most Americans (65 percent) think religion should be kept out of politics (54 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats), the only major religious group to disagree was white evangelicals, 54 percent of whom think government policies should actively support religion. Black Protestants, white mainline Protests, white Catholics, and Hispanic Catholics all disagreed, with between 53 and 70 percent of respondents agreeing that government and politics should be kept separate.

What all these varied responses suggest is that Christianity in America is a far more fluid and complicated phenomenon than reductionist views might suggest. Race and political affiliation play an enormous role in both the degree to which a religiously identifying person will subscribe to a religious belief (i.e., the centrality of God to morality) and whether they will claim Christianity as a political identity: wanting, the poll suggests, to see more faith-based initiatives in government.

The poll suggests, too, that the increasingly political polarization of American society over the past decade and a half has resulted in a much more secular contingent of the American left, something that is often left undiscussed when we talk about the radicalization of the religious right under the recent political climate.

In other words, both sides of the political aisle are clinging to a religiopolitical identity. But religious identity is about so much more than just belief.