Reli­gious ‘nones’ need to or­ga­nize

Los Angeles Times - - OP - ED - 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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