With Easter past and as Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, begins, houses of worship are gradually able to welcome their congregations back after a year of COVID-19 shutdowns and social distancing.
But even as religious communities begin to gather again, the more potent challenge of polarization continues to threaten religion and religious freedom in America.
A March 29 Gallup report found that U.S. church membership fell below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s 80-year history of polling. In 2020, only 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. Two years ago, that number was 50%; in 1999, 70% of Americans were members of a house of worship.
The numbers track the recent increase in the number of “nones” — Americans with no religious affiliation. The percentage of nones in America has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 21% in the past three years, and a third of Americans under the age of 30 are classed as nones.
But many expert commentators point to a deeper cause for the decline of American religiosity: the politicization of religion, in particular by Christians who insist that America is a Christian nation that privileges Christianity above all other religions.
Political scientist Michele Margolis explains, “As religion has been close(ly) linked with conservative politics, we’ve had Democrats opting out of organized religion, or being less involved, and Republicans opting in.”
Partisans split on religious freedom
Alongside the partisan divide on religion, we also see growing partisanship on the issue of religious freedom. In his November national survey, political scientist Andrew Lewis found that when a generic religious freedom statement was attributed to then-President Donald Trump, people were less supportive of religious freedom than they were when the statement was attributed to then-President-elect Joe Biden or an unnamed “both presidential candidates.”
Also in 2020, the University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that the divide over religious freedom is particularly acute when it comes to protections for American Muslims.
White evangelicals are deeply concerned about threats to their own religious freedom, but only 3 in 10 said American Muslims face challenges. For evangelicals, “religious freedom” is as Trump defined it — a tool to protect Christians’ interests against liberals’ attacks on religion — a point Trump repeatedly emphasized, sometimes even as he denigrated Muslims’ rights.
Among plentiful other examples, the COVID-19 shutdown shone a light on this disparity. In April 2020, Paul Sperry, co-author of the conspiratorial “Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld that’s Conspiring to Islamize America” tweeted: “Let’s see if authorities enforce the social-distancing orders for mosques during Ramadan (April 23-May 23) like they did churches during Easter.”
Trump retweeted Perry and when asked about his retweet during a White House coronavirus task force briefing on national television, responded: “I’ve seen a great disparity in this country. I’ve seen a great disparity. … I would be interested to see that because they go after Christian churches, but they don’t tend to go after mosques. … I don’t know what happened with our country, but the Christian faith is treated much differently than it was, and I think it’s treated very unfairly.”
The “they” in Trump’s statement referred to Democrats. In Trump’s view, his job was to protect Christianity against not just Democrats’ threats but also Democrats’ favoritism for Muslims.
In this paradigm, Muslims and Christians are divided into opposing political camps. One side — the GOP — protects Christians, and the other side protects Muslims. One side thinks it’s mostly Christians who face threats to their religious practice; the other side thinks Muslims have it far worse. As numerous surveys show, white evangelicals believe they face far more discrimination and marginalization than American Muslims do. For Democrats, it’s exactly the opposite.
‘Mega-identity’ affects religious views
The phenomenon can be explained in part by using political scientist Lilliana Mason’s concept of “mega-identity.” Our partisan affiliations have morphed into identities, and what’s more, the identities include a host of things that have nothing to do with social policy.
Now, what we eat and drive, where we live and shop, what our religion or race or sexual orientation is are all wrapped up in our political identity. We group hybrid-driving, latte-drinking, Whole Foods-shopping Americans into the Democratic Party, and the Land Rover–driving, Cracker Barrel customer into the Republican Party.
This grouping has also affected religious communities, so that Christians (mostly white and conservative) are associated with the Republican Party, and religious minorities, particularly Muslims, are associated with the Democratic Party.
The ramifications of such groupings are serious. When one tribe opposes the other, it opposes the full range of “traits” that are part of the opposing mega-identity. Today, much of the battle over religion and religious freedom is subsumed by exactly this sort of tribal warfare.
The irony of the tribal approach is that so much of it is driven by a desire to protect religion and religious freedom in the United States, but the tribalism itself poses the biggest threat.
Many Americans are turned off by the divisiveness and are leaving religion. Among those who remain religious, the battles over religious rights continue; ultimately, religious individuals and communities are the biggest losers.
In this springtime season of religious holidays, as houses of worship reopen, this obstacle to religion continues to loom large. One part of the antidote seems obvious: Depolarize religion, and resist taking a tribal approach to religious freedom.
Perhaps then more Americans will see the value of religious community — and they might even venture back.
Asma Uddin is the author of “The Politics of Vulnerability: How to Heal Muslim-Christian Relations in a Post-Christian America.”