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One theory for why "non-churchgoers now rule the GOP"
A recently Washington Post column suggests non-churchgoers have sway over the Republican Party. That misses a bigger point.
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“Non-churchgoers now rule the GOP,” says the headline on a recent Washington Post opinion piece by data columnist David Byler. The idea is that the Republican Party is no longer dominated by the most devout Baptists, Catholics, and white evangelicals. Rather, it’s the people who rarely or never attend church who make up the largest slice of the GOP.
A plurality of the Party, 42%, now attends church “seldom or never,” compared to the 35% who say they attend every week. It’s a fairly shocking change given what the Republican Party looked like in 2008 when the numbers were flipped and even further apart.
But let’s not make the mistake of thinking non-religious people are flocking to the Republican Party or that the Republican Party has any intention of catering to non-Christians.
The Republican Party and the Christian Right are still intertwined. Republicans are not attracting people who actively disbelieve in God. They’re not making inroads on a platform of church/state separation.
What seems to be happening—and this is just me speculating—is that the Republicans who used to enjoy church for how it gave them cover to unleash their bigotry and force their extremism on others realized that the Republican Party, not their local congregations, was the best vessel for getting that done. Why go to church and sit through all the Jesus bullshit when right-wing media outlets serve up the same anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion, anti-social justice, anti-sex, anti-public school, anti-science, anti-”woke” red meat without the boring parts?
People used to ask in 2016 why so many white evangelicals, who had always claimed to be the “family values” crowd, were supporting Donald Trump, a man who didn’t care about family or values. A thrice-married man who had five kids with three wives. A sexual abuser. A guy who bragged about non-consensually grabbing women because he was a celebrity.
The answer was simple for those of us outside the bubble: Those Christians never really gave a damn about family values. After all, they didn’t support families headed by same-sex couples, or protecting children from gun violence, or making it cheaper and easier to get health care. They weren’t calling for universal basic income or an increased social safety net. They didn’t treat women with respect, much less equality. It was always a ruse.
The only place they could embrace those beliefs with a veneer of respectability was by attending church. Trump, however, offered them a way to cling to all the things they loved about religion—the hateful bits—while merely paying lip service to Jesus. A whole bunch of conservatives took the bait.
They didn’t care when Trump botched a Bible verse during his first campaign, or when he held up a Bible in front of a church after his team used tear gas to drive away peaceful protesters, or that Trump said women who get abortions should be punished (which was, at the time, a very unpopular stance even among the anti-abortion crowd). They wanted him to eliminate the Johnson Amendment so they could endorse Republicans without consequences from the IRS and turn their churches into dark money vessels for their preferred candidates.
Case in point: Just look at Mike Pence. Trump brought him onto the ticket in 2016 as a way to convince white evangelicals he could be trusted since Pence had a “vast reservoir of good will with the Christian right.” But once Trump showed the base that he’d nominate federal judges that had a stamp of approval from the anti-abortion Federalist Society and made overtures to the Christian Right on his own, Pence became dispensable. Even today, Pence only has about 5% support heading into the 2024 GOP presidential primary (though the official launch is scheduled for mid-June). He’s everything the Christian Right ever dreamed of… and yet they’re enamored by Trump because Christianity itself is no longer that important to them. You still have to say you’re Christian, but the label has lost all meaning.
It’s not like these people ever wanted to emulate Jesus anyway.
I said this was all my own speculation, but there are numbers to back up this theory. As Byler points out in his piece, “Nine in 10 Republicans believe in God, and 87 percent say the Bible is either the literal or ‘inspired’ word of God.” But neither of those things has ever been synonymous with pursuing Jesus-like public policies. This is a religious party that thinks Christianity binds them together when, really, it’s only certain elements of conservative Christianity that they care about.
Byler also writes that “Non-churchgoers played a central role in pulling the GOP toward Donald Trump and his brand of populism over the past six years.” He notes that 65% of non-churchgoers supported a border wall while only about 49% of weekly churchgoers felt the same way. In other areas, though, the non-churchgoers are not taking the lead.
Consider abortion: 42% of weekly churchgoers want to make the practice illegal while only 13% of non-churchgoers agree, and Trump supports what the religious extremists want. Similarly, only 43% of weekly churchgoers say the economy favors the wealthy compared to 54% of non-churchgoers. (The regular churchgoers are, of course, closer to Trump’s view.)
So which is it? Who has more sway over GOP policies? Is it the non-churchgoers or the regular attendees?
The numbers aren’t necessarily contradictory. Both the border wall and restricting abortion rights bring together conservatives who delight in making other people suffer. The religious label is irrelevant.
Byler sees this as the future of the GOP:
A new Republican Party might emerge — thick with Christian symbolism, light on religious practice and ecumenical in its culture wars. This Republican Party would be less pious and polite. But it might be able to win more elections.
I think that’s mostly accurate, but I also don’t think that’s a “new” Republican Party. That’s what they’ve been for years now. They speak in Christianese but don’t give a damn about salvation. Jesus is nothing more than the GOP’s mascot. They see religion as a tool to consolidate political power. That’s not about to change unless Christian leaders who don’t want to see their faith coopted by a single political party finally accept the fact that they’re being used and manipulated and speak out against the GOP’s excesses.
But that would require courage, and many pastors have already shown that they possess none of it. Condemning Republican cruelty and speaking out against their idiotic policies—by supporting vaccines, embracing refugees, or acknowledging our nation’s inherent racism—would alienate too many members of their congregations, which would ultimate affect their bottom line and possibly their job security.
Instead of pushing their churches away from politics and back to Jesus, white evangelicals and Southern Baptists and right-wing Catholics have seen members shift from the giant conspiracy theory known as religion to whatever alternatives are being peddled by conservative propaganda outlets. Those pastors never taught their congregations how to separate fact from fiction, so they shouldn’t be surprised when those same people fall for a different kind of lie.
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