(RNS) — According to sociologist Ryan Burge, we’re living in a golden age of data about religion in the United States. There’s little excuse for some of the false narratives that keep floating around. I recently interviewed Burge over Zoom about his new book, “20 Myths About Religion and Politics in America,” in which he tackles some of the most common misconceptions.
This Zoom interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your first chapter says that rumors of evangelicalism’s death are premature. Could you talk about that?
It’s a Rorschach test: If you’re an atheist or agnostic, you want to start the graph at 1994. From that it looks like a decline — that evangelicals are free falling. But if you’re an evangelical, you look at the graph from when the data started in 1972, and you see it actually might be up a little bit from 1972 to today. There were more evangelicals, both by percentage and by raw numbers, in 2020 than there were in 1972.
And if you look at the share of people who say that they’ve had a born-again experience, it’s higher today than it was 30 years ago.
If you put those pieces together, you get a clear picture. There’s just no statistical evidence that there are fewer evangelicals in America today than there were 30 or 40 years ago.
What we’re seeing, which is something I want to explore in future projects, is a religious polarization. On one side, you have a strong group of very conservative, very devout people, whether they be evangelicals or Catholics or Latter-day Saints or Muslims. And on the other side, you’ve got the growing number of nones: atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particular.” The people in the middle are being forced to sort themselves.
It’s true that mainline Protestantism and liberal Catholicism are in an absolute free fall right now, but devout, conservative religions are doing well by comparison and actually might be growing over time. So conservative religion is up and secularism is up, and there’s not a whole lot left in the middle.
Let’s talk about abortion. Americans’ views about abortion are pretty middle-of-the-road and have not budged much in 40 years. But politicians who don’t adopt one extreme or the other tend to get attacked.
Right. The heartbeat bill in Texas actually makes no sense from a public polling perspective; 80% of Americans don’t want that. Even a majority of Republicans don’t want that. If you look at the data, only a third of white evangelicals want to make abortion completely illegal in this country.
A lot of people take a very pragmatic view of abortion, which is “I don’t love it, but I don’t think it should be totally illegal either.” And that has not really changed. The problem is the people on the edges are the loudest, and they’re the ones shaping the debate. They make the phone calls, go to the rallies, attend the town halls and stir things up. To quote one of my friends, “Moderates don’t march.” They don’t make phone calls to Congress. They don’t send postcards. So their voices disappear in the discourse when the reality is that most people are in that middle group.
You note that the most devout, religious evangelicals ignored the traditional evangelical candidates in the 2016 primary season and chose Donald Trump instead. So how did we get the narrative that only evangelicals who didn’t attend church voted for Trump?
I think it was wishful thinking by evangelical leaders because they did not want to realize what really was going on. There was a nice field for Republican evangelicals to vote for in 2016. I mean, Ted Cruz had some bona fides in the evangelical world. Marco Rubio did, too.
But if you look at the data, Cruz only won among evangelicals who go to church more than once a week, which is a very small sliver of evangelicals. Trump won among weekly attenders. He won among monthly attenders and yearly attenders and those who never attended. And by big margins, too, not like Cruz only winning by a couple of points among the more-than-weekly attenders.
Then you have to ask why. And if you start going down that road, you get into a really scary territory, which is that they liked Trump because of his views on immigration. That’s where Trump stood out early in the primary and actually hit Cruz on this, because Cruz fought for a pathway to citizenship. Trump was hard-line anti-immigrant from the very beginning.
The narrative that many evangelicals used was that “evangelicals are not anti-immigrant, they’re anti-illegal immigrant.” But if you look at the data, that’s not true. A majority of white evangelicals were anti-immigrant, period. You even see it in data today: For example, 60% of Southern Baptists want to reduce legal immigration to America by 50%. That’s legal immigration, not illegal immigration. The reality is that many evangelicals don’t want immigration at all.
Finally, what are some big changes or trends that we can expect in the next five to 10 years in American religion?
More polarization. I think there’s going to be a stronger alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelicals because in many ways, they have a lot in common, especially white Catholics. White Catholics are very quickly moving to the right.
On the other side, I think we’re going to see more secularization. Honest-to-goodness atheists and agnostics are still a very small portion of the population. By belief, it’s only about 10% of Americans. Here’s an interesting statistic: Among people who never attend church, if you ask what they believe about God, a bigger share says they believe in God without a doubt than don’t believe in God at all.
So I think we’re going to see an interesting conflict on the left. Most nonreligious people are left of center but not liberal, while fully secular people are incredibly liberal. So for the secular left to have any success, they need to draw in people from the middle of the spectrum, and I don’t know if they can do that.
So secular life is going to get bigger and stronger, and the very religious right is going to grow stronger. And in the middle, I think we are going to see the closure of several mainline denominations over the next 10 or 20 years. The ELCA, PC(USA), the Episcopal Church — they are all doing very poorly in terms of membership, especially as the average mainline Protestant is now 60 years old.
In 20 years, 30% or 40% of mainline Protestant churches may die off. And how are they going to be replaced? The answer is they’re not going to be replaced, in almost any every instance. Which has major implications for the future of the country, since it’s those churches that do things like helping the homeless and running after-school programs. When the churches go away, what will fill that gap?