The ‘Nones’ and American Liberty

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As well as laying claim to being land of the free and home of the brave, until recently America could boast of a more devout populace than any other Western country. As Seymour Martin Lipset observed in his 1996 study of American Exceptionalism:

 The puzzling strength of organized religion [is] a phenomenon that impressed most nineteenth-century observers and continues to show up… in cross-national opinion polls… These polls indicate Americans are the most churchgoing in Protestantism and the most fundamentalist in Christendom… Compared to West Europe as a whole, Americans place a higher importance on the role of religion in their lives.

Recent polls suggest Americans are becoming more like their European cousins with respect to losing their religion. According to a poll published last October by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the number of Americans without affiliation to any organized form of religion has grown from 16 per cent of the total population in 2008 to 20 per cent.

In 1990, the proportion of adult Americans who identified themselves as Christian exceeded 86 per cent. Today, no more than 76 per cent do. Likewise, in 1990, almost 2 per cent of adult Americans identified themselves as Jews. Today barely more than one per cent of Americans do.

It is true that, since 1990, there has been a marked increase in America in the number of its adult citizens who avow some Eastern religion or Islam. Their combined total now exceeds the number of adults in America who identify themselves as Jews.  However, neither of these religious minority groups exceeds on its own the size of America’s Jewish community, and even their combined sum of adult affiliates constitutes less than 2 per cent of the total number of American adults.

What accounts for the declining proportion of Americans who are either Christians or Jews has been the sharp increase in the number of Americans without any form of religious affiliation. How exercised should lovers of liberty be by the increasing proportion of Americans without affiliation to any form of organized religion? Is their religious affiliation or lack of any a purely private matter with no political significance, or does the declining religious affiliation of Americans carry any weighty political implications as to how the future of liberty is likely to fare in America should that trend continue?

Anyone tempted to write off the trend as of without social and political import in America should think again. Arguably, there is nothing going on today in America of any greater import for the long-term future of liberty than the decreasing religious affiliation of its population.

In the first place, among America’s registered voters without any religious affiliation, those identifying themselves as liberal — in the sense of being left-leaning ‘progressives’ rather than classical liberals — outnumber those who identify themselves as conservatives by almost 2 to 1. That ratio is the very reverse of that between conservatives and liberals among all registered voters in America.

The religiously unaffiliated are heavily Democratic in their partisanship… More than six-in-ten describe themselves as Democrats or say they lean towards the Democratic Party (as compared with 48 percent of all registered voters)… In recent elections, the religiously unaffiliated have become one of the most reliably Democratic segments of the electorate. Exit polls… indicate that in 2000, 61 per cent of the unaffiliated voted for Al Gore over George W. Bush. By 2004, John Kerry’s share of the unaffiliated vote had increased to 67 per cent. And in 2008, fully three-quarters of the religiously unaffiliated voted for Baruch Obama over John McCain.

The religiously unaffiliated constitute a growing share of the Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters… By contrast, Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters are only slightly more likely to be religiously unaffiliated today than they were in 2007 (11 per cent versus 9 per cent.)

Beyond the impact that the growth in the number of so-called ‘Nones’ is likely to have upon future electoral outcomes in America, there is a second reason why their growing number may not bode well for the future of liberty there. To put it crudely, religious affiliation is by far the best safeguard there is against marital breakdown and single-motherhood, whilst a child’s growing up under the care of both biological parents is by far the best-known prophylactic it can receive against the various social pathologies to which human flesh is all too vulnerable, such as crime, drug addiction and poor educational outcomes, whose redress typically calls for, or at least results in today, costly state interventions. As was explained by Patrick Fagan, the Heritage Foundation’s Senior Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues, in a report published by it in 1996, there is ample evidence that:

  •  Church-goers are more likely to be married, less likely to be divorced or single, and more likely to manifest high levels of satisfaction in marriage.
  • Church attendance is the most important predictor of marital stability and happiness.
  • The regular practice of religion helps poor persons move out of poverty. Regular church attendance, for example, is particularly instrumental in helping young people to escape the poverty of inner city life.
  • Regular religious practice generally inoculates individuals against a host of social problems, including suicide, drug abuse, out-of-wedlock births, crime, and divorce.
  • The regular practice of religion also encourages such beneficial effects on mental health as less depression …more self-esteem, and greater family and marital happiness.

As Fagan concluded in a subsequent report on the same subject published in 2006:

Our Founding Fathers in their dedication to liberty, promoted the freedom of all Americans to practice religious beliefs, or not, as they choose. Although the freedom not to practice religion is intrinsic to religious freedom, that protection does not mean that this non-practice of religion is equally beneficial to society. Social science data reinforce George Washington’s declaration in his farewell address: ‘Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports.’

George Washington, of course, was by no means America’s only founding father to posit a dependency of freedom there upon the continued religiosity of its citizens. A second to do so was Benjamin Rush who in 1786 wrote that:

The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in RELIGION. Without this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican government.

No admirer of the freedom enjoyed by America attached more weight in accounting for why it did to the religiosity of its citizens than did the nineteenth century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville. As he wrote in Democracy in America when recounting his search there for an explanation of its exceptionally liberal character:

A democratic republic exists in the United States… [Its principal] causes … can be reduced to three: the… situation in which Providence… placed the Americans…; their laws; habits and mores.  

Of the accidental or providential causes… the principal ones [are that] Americans have no neighbours and consequently no great wars… or conquest to fear, [so] they need neither large taxes nor a numerous army…

Of the influence of the laws… three things… maintain a democratic republic [there]: the federal form that Americans have adopted;…the township institutions that, moderating the despotism of the majority,… give the people the taste for freedom and the art of being free; [and] the constitution of the judicial power… [which enables] the courts, without ever being able to stop the movements of the majority … succeed in slowing and directing them…  

Of the influence of the mores… religion… serves powerfully the maintenance of a democratic republic among the Americans…  The greatest part of English America has been peopled by men who… brought to the New World a Christianity that I cannot depict better than to call it democratic and republican; this singularity favors the establishment of a republic and democracy in affairs…There is an innumerable multitude of sects…  All differ in… worship… but all agree on the duties of men towards one another. Each sect… preach[es] the same morality… and what is most important to [society]… is not that all citizens profess the true religion but that they profess a religion.

Tocqueville’s account of democracy in America strongly suggests that, without the morality common to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and indeed to all moderate versions of all three Abrahamic faiths, plus the associative ties supplied by religious affiliation in some form, Americans will lack both the internal restraints and social capital to be able to withstand the powerful forces that Tocqueville identified within modern democracies tending towards atomization and demoralization. Not least among these was the standing temptation this form of government offers its citizens to trade their freedom for the notional security provided by the soft despotism of a powerful centralized state, the threat of which Tocqueville concluded his great work by identifying and describing in the following chilling Orwellian terms:

 [I]f despotism came to be established in the democratic nations of our day, it would, be more extensive and milder [than the despotism of antiquity], and it would degrade men without tormenting them.

I do not doubt that in centuries of enlightenment and equality like ours, sovereigns will come more easily to gather all public powers in their hands alone and to penetrate the sphere of private interests more habitually and more deeply than any of those in antiquity was ever able to do… I think therefore that the kind of oppression with which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing that has preceded it in the world… The thing… [being] new, therefore, I must try to define it, since I cannot name it…

I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is besides them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a country.

Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed regular, far-seeing and mild; …it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs; directs their industry; regulates their estates; divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?

So it is that every day it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space and little by little steals the very use of free will from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all these things; it has disposed them to tolerate them and often even to regard them as a benefit.’     

Sounds all too depressingly familiar and accurate a description of present-day America, and Europe for that matter too?  If so, one has to wonder to what extent current rates of religious disaffiliation among the respective populations of each have been responsible for and are contributing towards the ever-increasing diminution of freedom within both continents.