A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 15, 2023

Why Declining Church Attendance Has Reinforced Southern Conservative Values

Church attendance in the US is declining but conservative values are holding steady in southern and many rural parts of the US. 

The reasons, according to the data, may be that a significant number of people are being forced by economic circumstances to work Sundays. In addition, it appears that even when many no longer find church compelling, they turn political beliefs into a new kind of polarizing, intolerant religion as traditional religion no longer allows them to vent their anger at social and economic trends. JL

Daniel Williams reports in The Atlantic:

Declines in church attendance have made rural Republican regions of the US even more Republican and stridently Christian nationalist. Only 54% of Christian nationalists attend church regularly. Sunday work schedules make it difficult for people to attend church if they want to keep their jobs. On an average weekend, 29% of the workforce is at work  Conservative Christians stay conservative when they’re no longer part of a congregation. People become even more entrenched in their political views when they stop attending services. Being part of a church forces people to get along with others with different views. Leaving the community removes those moderating forces, opening the door to extremism. The nation’s political system becomes their church—and the results are polarizing. Millions of Americans are leaving church, never to return, and it would be easy to think that this will make the country more secular and possibly more liberal. After all, that is what happened in Northern and Western Europe in the 1960s: A younger generation quit going to Anglican, Lutheran, or Catholic churches and embraced a liberal, secular pluralism that shaped European politics for the rest of the 20th century and beyond. Something similar happened in the traditionally Catholic Northeast, where, at the end of the 20th century, millions of white Catholics in New England, New York, and other parts of the Northeast quit going to church. Today most of those states are pretty solidly blue and firmly supportive of abortion rights.

So, as church attendance declines even in the southern Bible Belt and the rural Midwest, history might seem to suggest that those regions will become more secular, more supportive of abortion and LGBTQ rights, and more liberal in their voting patterns. But that is not what is happening. Declines in church attendance have made the rural Republican regions of the country even more Republican and—perhaps most surprising—more stridently Christian nationalist. The wave of states banning gender-affirming care this year and the adoption of “proud Christian nationalist” as an identity by politicians such as Marjorie Taylor Greene (who even marketed T-shirts with the slogan) is not what many people might have expected at a time when church attendance is declining.

Still, what’s going on in the South and Midwest is consistent with what happened in the Northeast: People hold onto their politics when they stop attending church. Just as liberal Christians in Massachusetts and Connecticut stayed liberal when they dropped off their church’s membership roll, so conservative Christians in Alabama and Indiana stay conservative even when they’re no longer part of a congregation.


In fact, people become even more entrenched in their political views when they stop attending services. Though churches have a reputation in some circles as promoting hyper-politicization, they can be depolarizing institutions. Being part of a religious community often forces people to get along with others—including others with different political views—and it may channel people’s efforts into charitable work or forms of community outreach that have little to do with politics. Leaving the community removes those moderating forces, opening the door to extremism.

It seems clear that Christian nationalism attracts a lot of adherents who rarely go to church themselves. A PRRI survey published earlier this year showed that only 54 percent of Christian nationalists—and just 42 percent of those who are “sympathizers” with the ideology—attend church regularly. While that’s still significantly higher than the rate of regular church attendance among the general population (which is 28 percent), it still means that roughly half of all Christian nationalists rarely, if ever, go to church. So even as church attendance declines, Christian nationalism is likely to remain alive and well.

Indeed, in their new book, The Great Dechurching, Jim Davis and Michael Graham draw on new survey data to show that dechurched evangelicals—especially those who retain evangelical Christian beliefs—remain Republican, with conservative views on most issues. Other researchers have found that Christian nationalism may produce even more extreme right-wing political manifestations in those who don’t go to church than it does among people who do go to church. “At a time when fewer Americans attend religious services, religious narratives about Christian nationhood may have their strongest political effects when, and perhaps because, they are detached from religious institutions,” one 2021 sociological study concluded.

This may seem counterintuitive if you assume that people take their religious and political cues from church, and that when they leave church, they abandon convictions of the Christian faith and perhaps also the politics that go with them. But according to Davis and Graham’s research, something else seems to be happening. When people leave church, they don’t typically become atheists or agnostics. They don’t even necessarily join the growing ranks of the religious “nones”—that is, those who no longer identify with any religion. Instead, millions of Americans who leave church continue to identify as Christians, and many retain theologically orthodox beliefs. They continue to view Jesus as their savior and retain a high respect for the Bible.


But without a church community, in many cases, the nation’s political system becomes their church—and the results are polarizing. They bring whatever moral and social values they acquired from their church experience and then apply those values in the political sphere with an evangelical zeal. For many of those leaving church traditions that place a strong emphasis on concern for the poor and marginalized, the values they retain from church translate into socially liberal political positions. Davis and Graham found that dechurched Christians who came from liberal mainline Protestant or Catholic traditions were likely to be political progressives. A quick glance at the politics of historically Catholic (but no longer heavily churched) areas of the country bears this out.

The nation’s most historically Catholic states, such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, have retained the Democratic leanings that they had half a century ago, when more residents went to church. As white Catholics left church, they continued to practice the values of the Social Gospel that perhaps they or their parents or grandparents had learned there, and they channeled those energies into the political community. Although perhaps breaking with the Church on issues of sexuality, gender, and abortion, they continued to embrace the ethic of concern for the poor and marginalized, and insisted that the government champion these causes. But among dechurched white evangelicals (a group heavily concentrated in the South and rural Midwest), the political values that remain are focused on culture wars and the autonomy of the individual.


Whether inside or outside of church, evangelicals in conservative regions of the country have lined up in support of gun rights and restrictive immigration policies—even though these stances run directly counter to the official views of several mainline Protestant denominations, as well as the statements of American Catholic bishops. When evangelicals leave church, they don’t abandon these political views; they instead continue voting for politicians who champion the Second Amendment and tighter border security.

My own analysis of General Social Survey data has suggested that white southerners who identify as Christian but do not attend church are overwhelmingly conservative in their attitudes on race and social welfare (just as church-attending southern white Christians are). A majority of southern white Christians who never attend church (or attend only once a year) also support restrictive abortion laws. Many are liberal or libertarian on matters of personal liberty, such as marijuana and premarital sex, but they’re still strongly conservative on issues of race, gender, and Christian nationalism.

The reasons people who identify as Christian and hold Christian beliefs choose not to attend church vary. For some, dissatisfaction with their church options and the behavior of church members is a key factor in their decision to leave church, but for a sizable number of others, there is no single catalyst; they simply fall out of the habit of going, according to Davis and Graham’s research. The hectic pace of contemporary life, complete with Sunday work schedules, makes it difficult for some people to attend church if they want to keep their jobs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on an average weekend day, 29 percent of the workforce is at work. Restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores, and retail outlets are staffed each Sunday morning by a lot of people who might identify as Christian but who definitely won’t be at church that day.

The result is that a lot of people who still identify as Christian no longer go to church. Even as early as 2014, the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study found that 30 percent of self-identified Southern Baptists “seldom” or “never” attended church—and that was before the “great dechurching” accelerated after the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic. The exodus of millions of Americans from churches will have a profound influence on the nation’s politics, and not in the way that many advocates of secularism might expect. Rather than ending the culture wars, the battle between a rural Christian nationalism without denominational moorings and a northern urban Social Gospel without an explicitly Christian framework will become more intense.

Only half a century ago Christian denominations acted as politically centrist forces. Southern Baptists such as Jimmy Carter and Al Gore ran politically moderate campaigns that appealed to their fellow church members on both the right and the left, and devout Catholics such as then-Senator Joe Biden could still combine relatively moderate positions on abortion with a liberal-leaning Catholic social ethic to win Catholic votes. But those days are disappearing.

Denominations and church commitments once preserved a set of broadly shared Christian moral values that transcended the right-left divide, but now that some of the loudest supporters of Christian nationalism have left these denominations behind, there is little to stop them from refashioning the Christian faith in their own image, with potentially heretical results. And in contrast to the days when both Republicans and Democrats—and northerners and southerners—shared a common religious language despite their differences, little common ground is now left between the post-Christians of the urban North and the post-churched Christian nationalists of the rural South. The decline of churchgoing in America, it seems, has not eviscerated Christianity; it has simply distorted it. And that distortion will have politically unpleasant implications that go far beyond church walls.


Anonymous said...

Ah, the Acela Corridor Picayune projecting its intolerance on those unruly peasants. I lived 40 years in the north, and 12 years in the south. The intolerance, bigotry, and contempt for one's fellow man is *much* more prevalent in the north.

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