Not surprisingly, Secularists favor the Democratic Party, but until Secular Surge, we didn’t know to what extent. In their study of party activists, the authors find that among those who attended the 2016 national Democratic convention, a near majority were Secularists; Secularists also dominated that year’s state conventions in Iowa, Texas, and five other sampled states. Conversely, 70 percent of those who attended the 2016 Republican National Convention were Religionists. Religionists were also majorities in every Republican state convention. In short, party politics does indeed rest precariously on a subterranean fault line between Religionists and Secularists.
That line extends inside the parties as well, though it is more pronounced among Democrats. There the authors find that most Secularists tend to be white, better educated, more liberal, and more ideologically driven than other members of the Democratic coalition, and therefore less open to political and policy compromises. This is a key demographic that the McGovern party reforms of 1972 were designed to woo, and the long-term success of that strategy is manifest by a cleavage between the party’s Secularists and Religionists. Most of the latter are African Americans and Hispanics, another demographic target of the McGovern reforms.
In light of the Secularists’ rapid growth, the authors predict that “it will soon be common for politicians to wear their lack of religion on their sleeves” the way that Religionist politicians do—as long as candidates avoid the word “atheist” and never declare that they do not believe in God, a no-no for Democratic as well as Republican voters. Indeed, just as the Religious Right provided common political identity for disparate kinds of white Evangelicals a half-century ago, the authors believe that a Secular Left could emerge by providing a common Secularist identity for the nation’s diverse groups of non-religious citizens.
The book’s generous footnotes explain how the authors went about generating their data, the sort of questions they asked, the quantitative and qualitative techniques they used, plus the assortment of other studies that add dimension to their own. There is even an online address where this technical material can be accessed. Some of this is clearly meant for specialists but much of it is clear enough for non-specialists like this reviewer.
One great limitation of Secular Surge is the lack of attention it gives to the Religionists (high on personal religion and on religious worldview) and Religious Secularist (high on personal religion and on secular worldview). Here these categories are used chiefly for contrast. But without further elaboration, it is hard to visualize who exactly these believers are—though I suspect that many readers of Commonweal, not to mention the three authors themselves, are Religious Secularists. Given the amount of data they’ve accumulated, they may be planning a sequel focused on the religious end of the spectrum. A nuanced study of levels of American religiosity would certainly be welcome; until then, we are left with polls that give us only respondents with gummed labels attached.
Even so, Secular Surge ventures a long way toward diminishing the modern religious version of American Exceptionalism: the assumption that the United States, alone among advanced industrial nations, has escaped the tide of secularism that has emptied European churches. I tend to agree with sociologists like Mark Chaves and David Voas that the United States, too, is drifting toward secularization, though at a slower pace. Which, with apologies to Mathew Arnold, suggests a title for that companion to this volume: Religious Retreat: The Long Withdrawing Roar.
A New Fault Line in American Politics
David E. Campbell, Geoffrey C. Layman, John C. Green
Cambridge University Press
$29.99 | 268 pp.