Los Angeles Times

Religious ‘nones’ need to organize

- By Rebecca Sager and Brie Loskota

Franklin Graham, the evangelica­l preacher and son of Billy Graham, is in the midst of a 10-city tour of California in the run-up to Tuesday’s primary election, rallying conservati­ves to “turn this state around.” That may seem like a pipe dream, given the dramatic shifts in America’s religious landscape: In 2003, 21% of Americans were white evangelica­ls; by 2017, that number had dropped to 13%. Meantime, those identifyin­g with no religion — the so-called nones — grew from 12% to 22%.

But Graham is banking on something else besides sheer numbers. Evangelica­l churches have maintained their core institutio­nal strengths, including megachurch­es that still can coordinate blocs of voters, wealth amassed over decades, media outlets and donors ready to fund candidates. The nones? They have none of that. Although a shrinking voter base

should mean less influence, that’s not how political power works in the United States. A cohesive and reliable base often can impose its will on a larger but less-organized portion of the electorate. (If political power were solely a numbers game, the fact that 7 in 10 Americans support tighter gun laws would have motivated correspond­ing action on the part of legislator­s.) In 2016, 80% of white evangelica­ls supported Donald Trump, pulling his presidenti­al campaign to victory in key states.

Despite fewer people in the pews, no other grass-roots group rivals the evangelica­ls. In churches in neighborho­od after neighborho­od, Sunday after Sunday, evangelica­l preachers tell congregant­s just how important it is to get involved in social issues and to be active in shaping society around their moral vision, just as Graham did at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena last week.

Indeed, evangelica­ls’ numerical decline has produced a leaner, and perhaps meaner, church. The most moderate voices — people who have tempered extremes in politics and policy with common sense and compassion — are the most likely to vacate the pews. Research shows that the rates of new nones are rising most quickly in Republican states. The evangelica­l church is left with its most conservati­ve, least compromisi­ng members in charge of vast amounts of money and influence.

By contrast, despite their growing numbers, the nones have no cohesive group identity, and therefore no leaders, speakers or rallies drawing thousands to talk about the transforma­tion of America. They lack the gathering spots, social connection­s and radio and TV channels that would shape them into a cultural voice. Until the nones can get organized — not just into loose digital social networks, but into strong, real world institutio­ns — they will remain a large minority with almost no political leverage.

The paradox of the new nones is that they often are driven away from organized religion by the political stances of their churches — and yet they now find themselves politicall­y adrift. Nones need some kind of tightly organized political machinery to effect change but are generally uninterest­ed institutio­ns. Instead, they favor their own personal networks and the freedom that comes with political and spiritual independen­ce.

Even if they wanted organizati­onal membership, the institutio­ns that speak to their beliefs and aspiration­s for the country probably don’t exist. To wield political power and accomplish goals, they will have to grow new groups from the ground up — undertakin­gs they may not have the taste for, especially if they just detached from their churches in the last decade.

For nones to begin to grasp even a fraction of the political power of a Franklin Graham, they will have to conceive of themselves as a cohesive group, yet one representi­ng a wide swath of diverse interests. They will have to build strong but flexible institutio­ns that can speak to all of these various constituen­ts. Or — the more likely path — they will have to take on the laborious task of reimaginin­g and transformi­ng old institutio­ns, such as the churches they used to attend, into new ones that can produce social connection­s and eventually political power.

Until this happens, nones will continue to outnumber white evangelica­ls, but politicall­y, the evangelica­l church will keep punching above its weight.

Rebecca Sager is the chair of the sociology department at Loyola Marymount University and a fellow with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Brie Loskota is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

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