From opinion writer Jessica Grose’s newsletter sent to subscribers of The New York Times:
“Christianity’s got a branding problem,” Phil Zuckerman, a professor at Pitzer College who researches atheism and secularity, told me. It is seen by many as the religion of conservative Republican politics, he said, and there are otherwise believing people out there who “don’t want to be associated with that.”
Zuckerman shared that thought with me before I asked readers about declining religious observance in America and got nearly 7,500 responses within about 24 hours. Until I started reporting this series, I’d never really thought of religions as brands. I’ve always thought of them in the context of personal, somewhat private beliefs — or in the way that I, as a Jew, think of Judaism as a value system passed down from previous generations.
Among my questions, I asked readers why they became less religious over time, and the responses were as varied as they were profound. Many said that while they no longer attend church or ally themselves with a particular faith tradition, they still believe in God, miss the sound of the choir and find transcendence in nature. And one trend that stood out bolstered Zuckerman’s assertion: Hundreds of respondents mentioned what they perceived to be the political drift of their churches (or, in a few cases, temples or mosques) as the reason for their disaffiliation or move away. Some who were part of more progressive congregations specifically mentioned the association of the word “Christian” with conservative political views as the root of their alienation.
“I no longer attend services, nor want to. I am simply too angry at what so-called Christians are doing to our children and society,” said Katherine Claflin, 67, who lives in Kansas. Although she belongs to a progressive church, she said that “right-wing ‘Christians’” have nudged her away from church attendance entirely, a fact she finds painful.
Some might not see this as a problem. If you think religious affiliation is socially negligible or even negative, it may not matter so much. But if you see religion as a come one, come all locus of fellowship, you may see it as another upsetting division in a country already rife with ruptures.
While New York Times readers probably aren’t a demographically representative sample of Americans, there’s a convincing body of research showing that the connection between right-wing politics and some Christians that drew closer in the 1980s and early ’90s pushed other liberal and moderate Christians away from religion.
There’s more, with analysis and survey information about the rise of the “nones” and some reasons why pews have fewer people to fill them.