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By David Lauter, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. has become significantly less Christian in the last eight years as the share of American adults who espouse no systematic religious belief increased sharply, a major new study found.

For what is likely the first time in U.S. history — certainly the first since the early days of the country — the actual number of American Christians has declined. Christianity, however, remains by far the nation’s dominant religious tradition, according to the new report by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

The rapid increase in the number of adults without ties to traditional religious institutions has strong implications for other social institutions and for politics.

Whether a person attends religious services regularly is among the strongest predictors of how he or she will vote, with traditional religion strongly tied to the Republican Party, at least among white Americans.

The decline in traditional religious belief adds to the demographic challenges facing the GOP, which already faces difficulties because of its reliance on white voters in a country that has grown more racially diverse.

The interaction between religion and politics may work both ways. Some scholars believe that close ties between traditional religion and conservatism, particularly on issues such as same-sex marriage, have led many younger Americans to cut their ties with organized religion.

Almost one in five American adults were raised in a religious tradition but are now unaffiliated, the study found. By contrast, only four percent have moved in the other direction.

Because the U.S. census does not ask questions about religion, the massive religion surveys by the Pew Research Center have become a chief source of information on the U.S. religious landscape.

The current survey questioned 35,071 U.S. adults last summer. Its huge size allows detailed analysis of even fairly small religious groups. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus six-tenths of a percentage point.

The U.S. still remains far more religious than most other economically advanced countries, but the significant increase in the share of Americans who do not follow a traditional religious belief mirrors trends in Europe and elsewhere.

Just short of one in four Americans now describe themselves as being agnostic, atheist, or simply “nothing in particular,” up from roughly one in six in 2007, according to the new study. The ranks of the “nones,” as the study labels them, have grown in large part from people abandoning the religion in which they were raised.

By contrast, Christian ranks have eroded. Roughly 173 million adult Americans identify as Christian, just under 71 percent of the U.S. population. That’s down from 178 million, or 78 percent of the U.S., in 2007. The total U.S. adult population grew by about eight percent during that eight-year period.

Protestants, who once dominated the U.S. population, no longer form a majority, the study found. About 47 percent of the U.S. population identifies with some Protestant denomination, down from just over half in 2007.

The decline has been uneven, with mainline denominations, such as Methodists and Presbyterians, shrinking more quickly than evangelical churches.

Slightly fewer than one in six adult Americans identify with the mainline Protestant churches, according to the survey. Evangelicals, by contrast, make up about one-quarter of the adult U.S. population. They now form a majority among those who identify as Protestant.

Another seven percent of American adults identify with historically black Protestant churches, a share that has remained relatively stable.

Catholics, about one in five Americans, have also seen some decline in numbers since 2007, the study found, although some other studies have found a more recent uptick. Almost 13 percent of American adults are former Catholics — the largest single group of people who have left a faith in which they were raised.

Among non-Christian faiths, Judaism remains the largest in the U.S., although only about two percent of the U.S. population identifies as Jewish. The number is up very slightly from what the survey found in 2007.

Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism each have less than one percent of the U.S. population, although the Muslim and Hindu population have both grown rapidly, reflecting immigration from Asia.

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Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.