d r a f t

A recent article in The Guardian that makes sense of some of the cross-currents roiling today’s culture wars. It might also suggest a conceptual framework — or, at the very least, 21st-century parallels — for the kind of religious pluralism I find in my study of immigrant Swedish pastors in the 1850s. In it Ruth Braunstein, director of the Meanings of Democracy Lab at the University of Connecticut, suggests a backlash is building against the white evangelical culture warriors of the religious right, and it’s a multifaceted — dare I say pluralistic? — cultural phenomenon.

The article appeared Tuesday, Jan. 25, under the headline: “The backlash against rightwing evangelicals is reshaping American politics and faith.” Braunstein’s lede suggests the broad reach of the backlash, as she frames her hypothesis as a detailed research question. Asked and answered:

What if I were to tell you that the following trends in American religion were all connected: rising numbers of people who are religiously unaffiliated (“nones”) or identify as “spiritual but not religious”; a spike in positive attention to the “religious left”; the depoliticization of liberal religion; and the purification and radicalization of the religious right? As a sociologist who has studied American religion and politics for many years, I have often struggled to make sense of these dramatic but seemingly disconnected changes. I now believe they all can all be explained, at least in part, as products of a backlash to the religious right.

Braunstein’s piece in the Guardian is based on a scholarly article, to which she links, in the journal Sociology of Religion, published Nov. 15, 2021, by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. The abstract says, in part:

An analysis of available evidence suggests that backlash against the Religious Right has had ripple effects beyond the rise of the “nones,” including a rise in “spiritual” identification, positive attention to the “Religious Left,” depoliticization of liberal religion, and purification and radicalization within the Religious Right itself. This article encourages religion scholars to connect dots between trends that have not been understood as related, and deepens our understanding of the relational nature of religious change.

I don’t have access to the Sociology of Religion article, but Brainstein’s op ed piece in the Guardian appears to cover the same territory in everyday language. She tells readers of the British newspaper that a backlash against heavily politicized evangelical cultural crusades on the part of “nones” — survey respondents who claim no particular religion — has been well known for 20 years. She cites sociologists Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith, who “summarize the sentiment driving this backlash: ‘If that’s what it means to be religious, then I’m not religious’.” She goes on to say:

But this is not the only plausible form that backlash can take. One can also imagine a narrower, more targeted, backlash against the religious right itself, in which people do not abandon religion altogether but rather migrate to more moderate or otherwise appealing religious groups. Evidence of this form of backlash abounds. It can be found in rising numbers of people who identity as “spiritual but not religious”. These individuals are not rejecting religion altogether; they are embracing a new category of religiosity, one viewed as unpolluted by its association with radical conservative politics.

Similarly, those who associate with the religious left do not discredit religion in general, but promote what they view as a more pluralistic form of public religious expression. Since Donald Trump was elected president with the support of religious conservatives, typically low-profile groups on the religious left received a surge of positive attention as observers saw in them a means of checking the power of the religious right. As a column by Nicholas Kristof put it in the New York Times: “Progressive Christians Arise! Hallelujah!”

Finally, new research finds that people who are both religious and politically liberal are intentionally distancing themselves from the religious right by depoliticizing their public religious expression – a development worthy of much more attention.

But here, like everywhere else, the trend is for more polarization as what Braunstein describes as a “counter-backlash” takes hold among the religious right. “White evangelical Christians believe that they are being illegitimately persecuted and are increasingly invested in the boundary between the perceived morally righteous and their enemies.” And that’s not all — religion, she says, is getting further polarized:

Even as this group is shrinking by some measures, recent data suggests that growing numbers of nonreligious and non-Protestant Americans are adopting the label of “evangelical” – not as a statement of their religious identity, but as a statement of their political identity as rightwing Republicans or supporters of Donald Trump. Together, these counter-backlashes seem to be driving this movement toward deeper political radicalism.

Backlash against the religious right has had ripple effects far more widespread than previously recognized. These dynamics are effectively reshaping American religion and politics, and show no signs of stopping.

Braunstein’s bio at the foot of her piece in the Guardian:

Ruth Braunstein is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and the director of the Meanings of Democracy Lab. She is the author of Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy Across the Political Divide.

Cite: Ruth Braunstein, “The backlash against rightwing evangelicals is reshaping American politics and faith,” The Guardian, Jan. 25, 2022 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jan/25/the-backlash-against-rightwing-evangelicals-is-reshaping-american-politics-and-faith.

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