October 27, 2017
In the first issue of the new magazine American Affairs, its editors ask: “Can nationalism be leavened by justice—or even be essential to it—rather than being abandoned to its worst expressions?”
At the moment in which a major public American university (UVA) can become a site for marches of the clean-shaven, torch-bearing neo-Nazi white nationalists, and in which the ruling nationalist party of one of the European Union’s states (Hungary) can unapologetically produce and post antisemitic advertisements, relating justice to nationalism seems not only indefensible but also irresponsible. The idea of nationalism as a possible path toward more just societies would seem historically unwarranted as well: The record of oppressive, hegemonic political institutions and violent conflicts that nationalist movements and nationalist politicians have helped shape during the last two centuries is long and hardly reassuring. But nothing more greatly fuels contemporary doubts about nationalism—and specifically, the power of nationalism to produce a democratic civic culture—than the current tendency to identify nationalism with populism.
This is not surprising. Both nationalists and populists act in the name of strong visions of collective identity; both nationalist and populist politicians assert the sovereignty of a people to include some and exclude other groups in the notion of “the people.” Perhaps most importantly, many of the contemporary populist movements and parties—whether progressive in Latin America, Spain, and Greece, or radical right populists in France, Austria, and the Netherlands—employ nationalist and, in the case of the latter group, nativist agendas. Yet distinguishing between nationalism and populism has never been more important, for reasons that are analytic, normative, and political in nature.
It is important to avoid the temptation to substitute one tendency among scholars and certainly among religious studies scholars—that is, thinking about nationalisms as identical to and embedded in nation-states—with another inclination: thinking of nationalisms as they are expressed in populist movements and politics. Both tendencies carry the same danger—the conceptual and historical flattening of nationalism rather than a fuller, more nuanced appreciation of its cultural narratives and political manifestations. For scholars of populism, identifying the differences between nationalism and populism is central to understanding the multiple forms of populism that are not always organized around nationalist rhetoric or agendas. But appreciating the differences between nationalism and populisms is also vital in helping us see both the expressions and the democratic possibilities of contemporary nationalisms.
While all populisms, progressive or conservative, are (as Jan-Werner Mueller correctly asserts) about the denial of pluralism, that is not the case with nationalisms. Yes, nationalisms always involve some level of homogenization inside the national group and impose boundaries around those who are not considered to be members of that group; and, yes, nationalisms often share with populisms the exclusive focus on justice for one people or one nation. But populisms represent what scholars call a “thin ideology”. As such, they might initially increase the level of political contestations and bring together many ideological constituents, but they ultimately involve two processes: a narrowing of political imagination and platforms, and the silencing of many voices in the political arena to accentuate the one voice of “the people” in its struggle against “the elite.”
By contrast, multiple narratives of national identity can exist next to, or in competition, with one another. As a result, nationalism is not simply an ideology of collective identity defined against other nations; it is also a significant field of democratic antagonistic struggle (to use Chantal Mouffe’s terminology) within some society. Most importantly, nationalisms can involve expressions of identity that do not marginalize or abolish pluralism but can simultaneously affirm drive toward homogeneity and respect for plurality; nationalisms can also, while clearly asserting boundaries of belonging and collective attachment, frame more expansive forms of national identification that acknowledge and respect the members of other national groups.
I’ve written about the historical and contemporary expressions of such nationalisms elsewhere (while uncovering the place of religion and religious ethics in collective identities and while staying away from the simplistic distinctions between civic and ethnic nationalisms). Here, I want to highlight two concrete instances in which nationalism is framed within narratives that link homogeneity and pluralism, on the one hand, and inclusion and justice, on the other. The first is the event that started as a symbolic protest of just one NFL player, Colin Kaepernick, and grew into a movement of solidarity (as well as contention) among many NFL players—the event that, at least in one reading, emerges as part of a narrative of American identity that is not just a protest against racial injustice but also the affirmation of the idea of what America as a nation ought to be. The second event I want to highlight is the sustained protests of American citizens of all ethnic and religious backgrounds against Trump’s policy to prohibit immigrants of selected Muslim countries from entering the United States— protests which are constitutive of a vision of a more just, more inclusive American national identity.
These two cases—as well as the American history of (in John Courtney Murray’s words) “a unity of a limited order,” wherein “one” and “many” are in conflict but also in a productive tension—are central to distinguishing contemporary expressions of populism and nationalism, in the American context and beyond. Most of all, such cases raise important questions about the range of democratic responses to contemporary populist politics: Is the only plausible and forceful challenge to a populism that threatens democratic pluralism some type of cosmopolitan vision and identity (which is often, it ought to be underlined, intertwined with the discourse and practices of global capitalism)? Or can a more powerful response to white nationalism and radical populisms be a nationalism that asserts a robust but more expansive—pluralistic—narrative of American national identity, defined by questions of justice, equality, and inclusion?
While white nationalists and radical right populists continue to bring torches to the lawn of a public university to call for a resurgence of white-only America, citizens all over the United States keep responding with their own vision of America by posting signs on their own lawns welcoming the others in their mother tongue. Nationalism is not synonymous with populism; it can be its foil.
Slavica Jakelić is Associate Professor of Humanities and Social Thought at Christ College, The Honors College of Valparaiso University. Her scholarly interests and publications center on religion and collective identity, religious and secular humanisms, theories of religion and secularism, theories of modernity, nationalism and populism, interreligious dialogue, and conflict resolution. Before joining the Christ College faculty, Jakelić has worked at or been a fellow of a number of interdisciplinary institutes in Europe and the U.S., including the Erasmus Institute for the Culture of Democracy in Croatia, the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University, the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, Austria, the Erasmus Institute at the University of Notre Dame, the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago, and the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, and the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame. She is an Affiliated Scholar of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, where she was a faculty member and co-director of the institute’s program on religion for several years.
Jakelić is a co-editor of two volumes, The Future of the Study of Religion and Crossing Boundaries: From Syria to Slovakia, a co-editor of The Hedgehog Review’s issue “After Secularization,” and the author of Collectivistic Religions: Religion, Choice, and Identity in Late Modernity. She is currently working on a book The Practice of Religious and Secular Humanisms.
Isaac Barnes May & Sarah Azaransky
Sarah Azaransky, Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, just released her new book This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement via Oxford University Press. Isaac Barnes May, Doctoral Candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, spoke with her about it — read their conversation below.
Q: Your book looks at the careers of a number of prominent black Christian intellectuals. What attracted you to those particular figures?
A: This project grew out of my dissertation and first book about Pauli Murray. In research on Murray’s time at Howard Law School, Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays grabbed my attention. Their theological voices were anticipating black theology, they were doing groundbreaking work in religious studies, and they were great friends. I wanted to learn more about them and set out to write a kind of theological buddy book. I soon discovered that they visited India, separately, but both in 1936, where they interviewed Gandhi, and that they mentored a subsequent generation of activists.
The book then grew broader in scope as I found that Thurman and Mays were part of a network of black Christian intellectuals who were creating the intellectual infrastructure for a black Christian activism. They were also experimenting with forms of activism—like sit-ins, multicity marches, and integrating buses—that would become mainstays of the later civil rights movement.
In short I was attracted to these figures because they are great examples of intellectuals whose work is interested in social application, and activists who grounded their work in intellectual reflection. They show the symbiosis between theory and practice that helped fuel the most important American social movement of the last century.
I emphasized relationships, professional and personal, because they were an important part of what helped to build the movement.
Q: This book draws from different bodies of scholarship on history and religion, peace studies, civil rights studies, and even Quaker theology. What were the advantages and challenges of writing a work at the intersection of so many fields?
A: Researching interdisciplinarily is the only way, to my mind at least, to tell a story like this. The challenges are also significant: these are indeed different disciplines with different audiences and slightly different interests.
The larger challenge is how to be accountable to the people I’m writing about—how to offer a version of the international and interreligious roots of the movement that does some kind of justice to the brilliance and bravery of this group of intellectuals and activists. With that criterion in mind, the fields start to feel less divergent; instead disciplinary differences start to feel more like different kinds tools that are necessary to develop a better version of this history and its moral lessons.
Q: How does putting the religious aspects of the struggle for civil rights in a global context change our understanding of that movement?
A: The story of the civil rights movement is often told as inexorably American—that American democratic (and American Christian, for that matter) ideals necessarily coalesced in a great social movement that affirmed U.S. egalitarianism. This is not what happened, of course.
That the greatest civil rights movement has significant international and interreligious roots tells us that American resources were not enough. This group of black Christian intellectuals and activists looked abroad, including in other religious traditions, for ideas and practices that could inspire an American racial justice movement. For example, after Thurman and Mays traveled to India in the mid-1930s they began to understand Jim Crow as a kind of colonialism, and believed that black Americans should organize themselves as people of color around the world were organizing against white supremacy.
Q: How did examining the religious and theological convictions of the black Christian intellectuals featured in your book inform your understanding of their activism?
A: To best answer this question, I’ll point to how Bayard Rustin’s theological convictions were integral to his activism. Rustin is best-known as the organizer of the March on Washington and as an important advisor to King. He was both things, and he was an incredibly sophisticated thinker; actually a religious thinker. People miss this, because he was an activist, so they overlook all the intellectual work that requires. And Rustin was Quaker, so even people trained in religious studies or Christian theology don’t necessarily know how to make sense of his particular kind of religious reasoning. Reading so much of Rustin’s writing from the 40s and 50s convinced me that he is among the most important—and most effective—religious thinkers of the mid-twentieth century.
As a Quaker, Rustin’s religious belief was always connected to practice; in fact, Quaker theological ethicist Rachel Muers describes Quaker religiosity as a kind of “interpretation-in-practice.” Rustin wrote about how Quakers seek to develop “workable trials;” that is social activism to address social, political, and economic injustice. Examples include prison reform, women’s rights, pacifism, and post-war reconstruction. For Rustin, then, religious convictions are somewhat unintelligible unless they are connected to social action.
From Rustin’s experiments with direct action in the 1940s to his engagement in what he would later call the “classical” phase of the civil rights movement, Rustin’s careful moral reflection and his thoughtful action are necessarily connected.
Q: Does studying this phase of the civil rights movement offer any insights or guidance for the contemporary political situation?
A: I think there are many insights. I’ll list two:
1. The importance of learning from people whose moral visions are limited. This is a crucial skill as we look for moral and intellectual resources to address contemporary crises.
It turns out Gandhi is someone with a limited moral vision. Lately, there has been important reevaluation of Gandhi’s work, prompted by questions like: Why did Gandhi exclude black South Africans from his movement there? Could Gandhi reconcile his service in the Boer War with his later anti-imperialism? Why did Gandhi oppose untouchability, but not caste? These questions suggest that Gandhi’s program was not as nonviolent as he insisted it was. In 1936, Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays asked these exact questions to Gandhi himself.
Thurman and Mays knew that Gandhi had moral blind spots that limited his activism. Yet Thurman and Mays were able to learn crucial lessons from Gandhi about antiimperialism and organizing a mass movement.
2. This history shows us how the greatest American social movement has international roots. Indeed, the international history of the civil rights movement affirms how democratic histories are always transnational. If our president asks whether Western values will survive, well, this is the wrong question. History shows that democracy has prophets in every region of the globe, and that learning from many others has made this country more just and more free. And it strikes me that these are the kinds of lessons we need today, as we develop our own disciplines, methods, and techniques toward a more just social order.
Elizabeth Cable, Elizabeth Bucar
Elizabeth Bucar, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Northeastern University and one of our Senior Fellows, has a new book out this September called Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress. Elizabeth Cable, a doctoral student in Thelogy, Ethics and Culture at UVA asked her about it.
Q: What prompted you to research this topic and write the book?
A: I actually avoided writing about Muslim women’s clothing for many years, even though as a scholar of Islam and gender I get asked to comment on this topic all the time. My hesitancy was because I think non-Muslims put too much importance on the Islamic headscarf, and assume it symbolizes the patriarchal and radical strands of Islam. And frankly, after a while, I grew tired of trying to explain to various audiences that Muslim clothing has so many variations that it couldn’t possibly mean one thing.
Then a couple of years ago while I was in Indonesia, I began to think about the connections between aesthetics and ethics, beauty and character, fashion and piety because much of the cut, color, and fabric used there differed from other locations I was more familiar with, such as Iran and Turkey. And I realized that the fashion in those three countries was reflecting local politics, values, and taste in interesting and unique ways. So I decided to try my hand at focusing on the fashion of Muslim women’s dress, as a way to explore larger issues of authority, consumption, nationalism, innovation, and social control.
Q: What surprised you during your research?
A: I realized very early on that modesty was defined and enacted in different ways, so I spent a fair amount of time trying to understand how this was the case. And I was surprised by how even though trends and styles were radically different among the three, there were some themes that continued to pop up.
Take the case of the incorporation of traditional cloth in each location. Pious fashion featuring batik is a distinct feature of clothing fashion in Indonesia. It asserts Indonesian identity, national pride, and local aesthetic values. But when this cloth is made into a modest dress or a headscarf it is also the expression of a particular version of a modern Indonesia which is publically Muslim in new, more visible ways.
In Tehran, forms of urban fashion also use embroidered cloth from the region. This “ethnic” style challenges existing aesthetic standards by asserting the value of the taste and style of minority groups over that of the dominant tastemakers. However, this valuation of minority taste or village life only pertains to fashion. “Village chic” can only be adopted by fashionable women in Tehran because there is an immense distance between these women and the poor rural people they are imitating.
In Istanbul, we see a recent reclaiming of forms of clothing reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire which links a Turkish Muslim identity to a period of regional power, wealth, and opulence. This trend is a far cry from the 1970s when Turkish Islamists were promoting an anti-consumerist lifestyle as a way to combat what they saw as the moral corruption caused by materialism and capitalism. In today’s model, religion is not corrupted by consumption; rather, consumption, such as buying and wearing pious fashion, becomes the mechanism through which religious ideals are transformed into aesthetic style.
Q: What would be one “take-away” from this book for academics, policy-makers or journalists covering religion?
A: While modest clothing can indeed be used as a form of social control or as a display of religious orthodoxy, in practice, it is both much less and much more. Much less, because for many Muslim women, it is simply what they wear. Much more, because like all clothing, Muslim women’s clothing is motivated by social and political reasons as well as religious ones. Islam may be an important factor in what Muslim women wear, but it is not the only one.
Q: Which scholars have played a significant role in shaping your thought in this work? How might you compare your work with that of Saba Mahmood, or Judith Butler, or other feminist theorists?
A: I have learned a tremendous amount about how to think about gender, consumption, and ethics from scholars outside religious studies who have written about Muslim women’s fashion. I am thinking especially of the careful work of Banu Gökarıksel and Anna Secor, geographers who focus on urban Turkey, and Carla Jones, a cultural anthropologist working on contemporary Indonesia.
My book adds something new to this conversation, by comparing pious fashion in three Muslim-majority locations. Comparison, arguably one of the trademark methods of religious studies, prevents us from viewing one particular form of Muslim dress as representative of piety or style. I also intentionally selected locations that are not part of the Arab world. Westerners tend to assume that Muslim dress around the world is based on the styles of Cairo, Mecca, or Abu Dhabi. The three countries treated in this book have fraught political and cultural relationships with Arab nations and societies, which play out in interesting ways in how women dress. Observing pious fashion in non-Arab countries underscores the global diversity of this practice.
In terms of the feminist theorists you mention, I assume something like Judith Butler’s theory of performance in my book, emphasizing the idea that clothing choices involve a kind of role playing. Much like Saba Mahmood, I also conceptualize clothing as a practice that occurs within structural constraints—whether based on social class, religious authority, or political institutions. As a practice, I think Mahmood and I would agree that pious fashion is not entirely “empowering” for Muslim women in a liberal sense, since it relies on traditional gender ideologies and structural injustices. However, wearing pious fashion is an expression of agency, one that can succeed as a political critique, the habituation of virtue, or a shift in the visual culture of public religion. Where I think I depart most from Mahmood’s work is that I have made the material and aesthetic aspects of women’s clothing central to my research. Fashion is not a peripheral or trivial matter to Muslim women. Their clothing matters, and not only to non-Muslims trying to make sense of it. Within Muslim communities, there are multiple, competing opinions about what pious fashion should look like. The story of pious fashion is not a simple one of patriarchy or orthodoxy; rather, it is one of religious politics grounded in local debates about taste, nationalism, authenticity, and public norms.
A recent study reported that Christians are more likely than people of other or no faiths to believe that people are poor due to their own failings, rather than to external circumstances. The Washington Post reports, “When comparing demographics and religious factors, the odds of Christians saying poverty was caused by a lack of effort were 2.2 times that of non-Christians. Compared to those with no religion, the odds of white evangelicals saying a lack of effort causes poverty were 3.2 to 1.”
I’m with other early responses to this study in finding these results extremely disconcerting. What’s troubling is not so much differing views about the genesis of poverty, as the conclusions they can lead to: if poverty is a person’s own fault, I must be exempt from helping that person. After all, whatever they may be suffering, they deserve it. (One Christian who sees things that way is quoted in the WaPo article, and others can be found in your local congregation.)
It is troubling that many Christians believe poverty is earned. This belief isolates the poor and deprives them of needed support. It is a false belief, because it ignores the fact that a host of political and social practices, from regressive tax policies that funnel economic growth to the wealthy, to wages too low to live on, from civil asset forfeiture to wage theft, to racist practices like redlining and sentencing disparities, make people poor, and keep them that way. But most significantly, the idea that poverty is earned—and that therefore relative prosperity must be as well—is a serious theological error. It gets God wrong.
For those of us who are not poor, it’s very seductive to look at our comfort and think that we’ve earned it. “Look what I’ve achieved through my own hard work: this house, this two car garage, these new clothes and bags of groceries.” For sure, work is more meaningful when it benefits ourselves and our family; that’s why the Catholic tradition gives a qualified endorsement to private property. But the reason that endorsement is qualified—the reason the question gets asked in the first place—is that all goods, whether we work for them or not, are God’s free gift. Every single comfort we enjoy, every drop of something that might be called wealth, originates in God’s creation. We humans are no more the sources of our own wealth than we are of our own lives. God is the source of all of it.
When we imagine that we created the blessings we enjoy, we fail to let God be God. And when we extend our concern for others only to those who couldn’t possibly be responsible for their suffering, we reject the chance to imitate Christ. It is no exaggeration to say that the central mystery of Christianity is an offer of help to those who don’t–who never could–deserve it.
It’s no coincidence that it is white Christians who most believed that poverty is earned through personal failings, rather than the result of misfortune. Like other forms of earthly power, white privilege tempts those who have it to see their advantages as their own doing, not as gifts from God. White Christians are barely beginning to learn how to talk about the unearned benefits whiteness brings to our lives. The violent hatred on display in Charlottesville last weekend, as well as the fact that it surprised many white Christians, makes it clear that we need to learn, and soon.
The Bible is obsessed with wealth and poverty, and justly mediating between them. Catholic social thought demonstrates that poverty is a plant with many tangled roots, never simply one’s own fault but traceable to the sins of employers, consumers, apathetic Christians, and more.
Christians, who believe God offers us grace that we don’t and never could deserve, should strive to extend the same grace to those who are poor.
Kate Ward is Assistant Professor of Theology at Marquette University
Yet, it was Trump’s proposed ban on transgender individuals in the military that proved most revealing. It suggests that for someone so obsessed with his manly image and proud of his newly-acquired military command, gender nonconformists in one of the most intensively masculine institutions pose an unequaled threat to masculine norms. And while Trump seems especially sensitive to challenges to his masculinity, he has tapped into a pervasive anxiety, not least among fellow, male politicians, some of whom signal that women’s bodies are theirs to grab, punish, and, in one case, challenge to an old-fashioned pistol duel.
Polls suggest that two out of five Americans think the country has become too soft and feminine, and this evinces what many are calling a crisis of masculinity. Due in part to a decrease in “masculine” jobs like construction or mining, many men feel like victims of an economy and society that are leaving manliness behind. Trump’s behavior stokes the grievances of those who believe they are losing out on jobs to immigrants, are made impotent by affirmative action, and are assaulted by a political correctness crafted to discriminate against them. Put simply, these men feel “stiffed.” Trump’s announced ban of transgender people from the military and continued vilification of his female election opponent assures his followers that he can restore men to their proper place.
Masculinity crises are not new phenomena. Nearly every male generation peers back nostalgically to a simpler past when men were allowed to be men, when they displayed the grit of a cowboy or valor of an Iwo Jima marine (both occasions where “real” manliness was pitted against a male ethnic other). All of this before feminism became fashionable and gender identity a matter of choice. When America used to be great, people knew what a real man looked like—they reason—and maybe Trump can make it great again.
Despite its generational recurrence, this diagnosis is not unfounded—men are experiencing lower rates of employment, for example. Yet, the label risks feeding a victimization narrative. The crisis of masculinity is more accurately described as a legitimation crisis of masculinity. This points to a deeper, more sinister pathology, trading on fears of losing control and reasserting masculine “norms” (sometimes by violent means) in response to the disruption of “long-established and powerful ideals for men’s lives” and sense of self.
The problem is not that men have been culturally and politically neutered. Rather, when the social system that has maintained male power is openly questioned and experiences tangible resistance, men entrench themselves ready to fire back against anyone who confronts the legitimacy of their cultural and political authority. Public displays of virility from the White House are both a goad to and a symptom of this larger cultural problem: a toxic masculinity, defensive and often aggressive, that infects the public consciousness and the structural systems of society.
This coincides with a rise in white nationalism and what Robin DiAngelo has coined “white fragility.” In this case, there is a white, masculine fragility, fueled largely by Christian working class people defensive and frustrated because they suspect that “others” are cutting them in line. All of this rings eerily similar to historian Doris Bergen’s assessment of 1930s Germany in which men felt delegitimized by their loss in World War One and began to exclude men of other ethnicities and religions from what counts as a real man. Like those gloried times past when men defended their women from racialized others, today even black and Latino men present threats to (white) masculinity; any success they achieve competes with the status of white men.
The reality is that this is fuelled in part by evangelical anxiety. Grievances over the perceived perils of feminism, LGBTQ rights, and immigration—and desires to “take back” America from these liberal forces—are recorded most commonly among the white evangelical males of Trump’s base. 81% of white evangelicalsvoted for him, choosing to overlook – and sometimes maybe even embolden – his misogynistic flaws.
And this makes sense theologically. The valorization of Christian machismo is rooted not only in the patriarchy that marks evangelical faith, based on interpretations of the Apostle Paul’s teaching about women’s roles, it is also the legacy of the colonialist theology that helped birth this nation.
The marriage of masculinity and white supremacy boasts a strong union. During the period of European exploration and expansion, Christian theology became filtered through a masculine colonial logic. As Willie James Jennings argues, when Europeans encountered the native inhabitants of Africa and America, their masculine missionary impulses to simultaneously evangelize and conquer contorted their theology into one framed by comparison: sorting others into insiders and outsiders, those further from and closer to themselves—the Christian norm of the white European male. This competitive and evaluative focus continues to hold captive the modern Christian imagination. Any upstart “other” challenges the legitimacy of the stable masculinist economy established within this tradition.
Ultimately, Christians are responsible for giving voice to toxic masculinity, and for giving it a name and face in the White House. This must be resisted on a political level: the twin evils of white supremacy and toxic masculinity must be combatted by forming coalitions across all of those imperiled by white male fragility and their allies. Considering its theological origins and engines, white toxic masculinity must also be contested with better theology, compelling to those evangelicals feeling most embattled. I am thinking ofworks like that of biblical scholar Brittany Wilson, whose book, Unmanly Men, demonstrates the way scriptural figures like Zechariah, Paul, and Jesus shed “manly” characteristics in order to fulfill their divine calling. These stories challenge the assumptions of Christian masculinity and create alternative narratives of manhood—dependent and vulnerable, compassionate and meek—that may be able to trump the legacies of white toxic masculinity.
Kristopher Norris is Visiting Distinguished Professor of Public Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary.
No single trend has transformed the American religious landscape so rapidly and challenged traditional notions of American identity so completely as the rise of the religiously unaffiliated. Since the early 1990s, the religiously unaffiliated—people who do not identify with a particular religious tradition, often referred to as the “nones”—have grown from a mere six percent of the American population to one in four adults. At 25 percent of the adult population, this group now rivals America’s largest established religious traditions. Yet, despite the rising cultural and political influence this group has begun to exercise, there are still significant disagreements about who they are and what their arrival portends for religion in America.
In the U.S. today, few social groups of this size and significance have been subject to such strongly contested characterizations. Unaffiliated Americans have long served as a religious Rorschach in the battle between those who believe that America’s national character is fundamentally religious and those who look forward to a long-awaited secular future. The devout tend to view the unaffiliated as troubled seekers, searching for a more authentic religious experience; while the country’s growing minority of atheists—a group that is potentially much larger than originally thought—claim the unaffiliated for their camp, heralding the trend as a sign that America is finally shedding its religious commitments.
As it turns out, both characterizations miss the mark. Unaffiliated Americans are not necessarily nonbelievers. Self-identified atheists make up a only of minority unaffiliated people—most hold on to some type of belief in a higher power, even as they reject institutional religion. However, there is no uniform conception of God among the unaffiliated. Only 22 percent believe in an anthropomorphic God, while 37 percent imagine God to be some type of impersonal force in the universe. What’s more, unaffiliated Americans express considerable skepticism about the existence of God: a majority (53 percent) report that they sometimes doubt whether God exists.
The description of unaffiliated people proffered by religious leaders does not fare much better against the factual record. Unaffiliated Americans express little interest in religious pursuits, even broadly defined. Roughly three-quarters of unaffiliated Americans report that they seldom or never attend religious services, while more than six in ten say they rarely if ever pray. The secular orientation of the unaffiliated appears to be strengthening. A recent study shows that the unaffiliated are becoming less involved in religious activities and experiences.
Perhaps the most damning challenge to the argument that unaffiliated Americans are just momentarily unmoored from a religious community is that the vast majority do not believe religion or God are relevant to their life. Close to three-quarters of the unaffiliated agree with the statement: “In my day-to-day life I do not spend much time thinking about God or religion.” And few appear poised to return. The same survey also found that only seven percent of unaffiliated Americans report that they are currently looking for a religious community.
But what of spirituality? Perhaps the unaffiliated are latent spiritualists? Again, the evidence is lacking. Although measuring spirituality is inherently difficult, most research finds that unaffiliated Americans are less spiritually inclined than religious Americans. Much less. Moreover, spirituality and religiosity are highly correlated—the more you express interest in one, the more likely you are to demonstrate an inclination toward the other. According to the General Social Survey, only about one-third of unaffiliated Americans simultaneously identify as spiritual, but not religious.
In large part, the unaffiliated belie easy characterization because they encompass a range of religious experiences, identities, and beliefs. Recent research has shown that there is a considerable degree of diversity among the unaffiliated. The group includes a combination of people who are largely apathetic about religion, those who actively reject it, and those who retain some personal, cultural, or emotional connection to it.
Despite the lack of a shared theology and a healthy degree of diversity among their ranks, there is much that unites unaffiliated Americans. They are largely liberal on matters of personal morality—they are supportive of legal gambling, pre-marital sex, marijuana legalization, and homosexuality. They are less authoritarian in their outlook than religious Americans and more suspicious of hierarchical institutions, such as organized religion. Partly as a result they are less likely to join social, civic, and political groups. They vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in presidential elections, but also turn out at far lower rates than religious Americans. But more than anything else what defines the unaffiliated is what they are not—not religious, not attached, not practicing, and not particularly concerned about this perceived deficiency.
Daniel Cox is the Research Director at PRRI.