A Mistitled Article and a Challenge for Unitarian Universalists across America

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The Christian Right Is Helping Drive Liberals Away From Religion

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A few weeks ago, the Democratic National Committee formally acknowledged what has been evident for quite some time: Nonreligious voters are a critical part of the party’s base. In a one-page resolution passed at its annual summer meeting, the DNC called on Democratic politicians to recognize and celebrate the contributions of nonreligious Americans, who make up one-third of Democrats. In response, Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor with close ties to Trump, appeared on Fox News, saying the Democrats were finally admitting they are a “godless party.”

This was hardly a new argument. Conservative Christian leaders have been repeating some version of this claim for years, and have often called on religious conservatives and Republican politicians to defend the country against a growing wave of liberal secularism. And it’s true that liberals have been leaving organized religion in high numbers over the past few decades. But blaming the Democrats, as Jeffress and others are wont to do, doesn’t capture the profound role that conservative Christian activists have played in transforming the country’s religious landscape, and the role they appear to have played in liberals’ rejection of organized religion.

Researchers haven’t found a comprehensive explanation for why the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has increased over the past few years — the shift is too large and too complex. But a recent swell of social science research suggests that even if politics wasn’t the sole culprit, it was an important contributor. “Politics can drive whether you identify with a faith, how strongly you identify with that faith, and how religious you are,” said Michele Margolis, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity.” “And some people on the left are falling away from religion because they see it as so wrapped up with Republican politics.”

Liberal Americans are less religious than they used to be

Over the course of a single generation, the country has gotten a lot less religious. As recently as the early 1990s, less than 10 percent of Americans lacked a formal religious affiliation, and liberals weren’t all that much likelier to be nonreligious than the public overall. Today, however, nearly one in four Americans are religiously unaffiliated. That includes almost 40 percent of liberals — up from 12 percent in 1990, according to the 2018 General Social Survey.1 The share of conservatives and moderates who have no religion, meanwhile, has risen less dramatically.

The result is that today, most people’s political ideology is more tightly tethered to their religious identity. The overlap is far from complete — there are still some secular conservatives and even more religious liberals. In fact, the majority of Democratic voters are religiously affiliated. But the more liberal you are, the less likely you are to belong to a faith; whereas if you’re conservative, you’re more likely to say you’re religious.

To be sure, religious belief and practice can still exist without a label. Many people who are religiously unaffiliated still believe in God, or slip back into the pews a few times a year. But liberals are also cutting ties with religious institutions — since 1990, the share of liberals who never attend religious services has tripled. And they’re less likely to believe in God: The percentage of liberals who say they know God exists fell from 53 percent in 1991 to 36 percent in 2018.

Politics is shaping how some liberals think about religion

At first, it wasn’t clear why so many Americans were losing their faith — and of the available explanations, politics wasn’t high on the list. After all, there are lots of reasons why any individual person would stop attending church that have nothing to do with politics. A church scandal might spark a crisis of faith. You might begin to view a religion’s hierarchies or rules as antiquated, restrictive or irrelevant to your life. You might not have been that religious to begin with.

Social scientists were initially reluctant to entertain the idea that a political backlash was somehow responsible, because it challenged long-standing assumptions about how flexible our religious identities really are. Even now, the idea that partisanship could shape something as personal and profound as our relationship with God might seem radical, or maybe even a little offensive.

But when two sociologists, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, began to look at possible explanations for why so many Americans were suddenly becoming secular, those conventional reasons couldn’t explain why religious affiliation started to fall in the mid-1990s. Demographic and generational shifts also couldn’t fully account for why liberals and moderates were leaving in larger numbers than conservatives. In a paper published in 2002, they offered a new theory: Distaste for the Christian right’s involvement with politics was prompting some left-leaning Americans to walk away from religion.

It was a simple but compelling explanation. For one thing, the timing made sense. In the 1990s, white evangelical Protestants were becoming more politically powerful and visible within conservative politics. As white evangelical Protestants became an increasingly important constituency for the GOP, the Christian conservative political agenda — focused primarily on issues of sexual morality, including opposition to gay marriage and abortion — became an integral part of the the party’s pitch to voters, but it was still framed as part of an existential struggle to protect the country’s religious foundation from incursions by the secular left. Hout and Fischer argued that the Christian right hadn’t just roused religious voters from their political slumber — left-leaning people with weaker religious ties also started opting out of religion because they disliked Christian conservatives’ social agenda.

At the time, Hout and Fischer’s argument was mostly just a theory. But within the past few years, Margolis and several other prominent political scientists have concluded that politics is a driving factor behind the rise of the religiously unaffiliated. For one thing, several studies that followed respondents over time showed that it wasn’t that people were generally becoming more secular, and then gravitating toward liberal politics because it fit with their new religious identity. People’s political identities remained constant as their religious affiliation shifted.

Other research showed that the blend of religious activism and Republican politics likely played a significant role in increasing the number of religiously unaffiliated people. One study, for instance, found that something as simple as reading a news story about a Republican who spoke in a church could actually prompt some Democrats to say they were nonreligious. “It’s like an allergic reaction to the mixture of Republican politics and religion,” said David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame and one of the study’s co-authors.

Granted, the people who were leaving weren’t necessarily at the center of their religious community — they didn’t attend religious services often, perhaps dropping in once or twice a year. But the numbers began to add up, opening a rift between conservatives and liberals. According to Margolis’s research, while young people across the political spectrum tend to drift away from religion, liberals are increasingly unlikely to return.

Liberals seem likely to become increasingly secular

As a result, views about religion and its role in American society have become increasingly polarized. According to surveys by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of liberals who believe that churches and religious organizations positively contribute to society dropped from nearly half (49 percent) in 2010 to only one-third (33 percent) today. And according to 2016 data from the Voter Study Group, only 11 percent of people who are very liberal say that being Christian is at least fairly important to what it means to be American — compared to 69 percent of people who identify as very conservative.

And although the people who have left religion could return, it seems more and more unlikely. For one thing, conservative Christians are still a key part of the Republican coalition, where their agenda on issues like abortion and religious exemptions remains a high political priority within the party. This means liberals’ views of the association between conservative politics and religion could be hard to shake.

These patterns are self-reinforcing in other ways, too. Recent surveys show that secular liberals are more likely than moderates or conservatives to have spouses who aren’t religious. That’s critical because these couples are then often less likely to pray or send their children to Sunday school, and research shows that formative religious experiences as a child play a crucial role in structuring an adult’s religious beliefs and identity. It’s no coincidence then that the youngest liberals — who never lived in a political world before the Christian right — are also the most secular. “It’s very, very unlikely that a kid raised in a nonreligious liberal household would suddenly consider going to church,” Margolis said.

The political implications of this shift are already evident. As more liberals become nonreligious, the Democratic Party’s base is growing more secular, complicating the party’s efforts at reaching more religious voters. But what it means for religion is less clear. Paul Djupe, a political scientist at Denison College, said that the impact might be blunted by the fact that the people who are becoming nonreligious mostly weren’t that involved in religion to begin with.

But Campbell warned that this shift is already reducing churches’ ability to bring a diverse array of people together and break down partisan barriers. That, in his view, threatens to further undermine trust in religious groups and make our politics more and more divisive. “We have very few institutions left in the country where people who have different political views come together,” he said. “Worship was one of those — and without it, the list is smaller and smaller.”

Throughout the article, the assumption is that “religion” always meant DOGMATIC religion. But not all religions have to be dogmatic. And one that is certainly NOT is…..Unitarian Universalism.

UUs across America have a challenge to reach out and persuade those that are liberal in their politics that they need not reject religion. Indeed, among UUs, liberalism and religion go together perfectly.


Justice & Inclusion

We have a legacy of “deeds not creeds.” Our work for a better world calls us to unexpected places as we harness love’s power to stop oppression. From grassroots community organizing to interfaith state, national, and corporate advocacy; in protest marches, prayer vigils, and press conferences; in homeless shelters and in prisons, Unitarian Universalists put our faith into action.

Our justice efforts are grounded in our congregationally-driven social justice statements and our call to break down divisions, heal isolation, and honor the interconnectedness of all life and all justice issues. We model these commitments by creating just, welcoming, and inclusive congregations. We act in partnership with groups and communities most impacted by injustice on localstatenational, and international levels.

Our ministry focuses on organizing and includes service, education, advocacy, and public witness (the spiritual practice of taking a public position in support of justice). Our UUA Organizing Strategy Team drives strategy, strengthens the capacity of UUs to organize for justice, and to mobilize power and people for liberation.Our Side With Love campaign harnesses the power of love to end oppression. Our Love Resists campaign — a joint effort with the UUSC — activates people of faith and conscience to resist the harm inflicted by criminalization. Our UU College of Social Justice provides experiential learning opportunities to deepen the work of justice for people of all ages. Our work is led by our denominational staff, congregational leaders, and a wide variety of coalition partners and UU groups focused on justice and identity.

Our justice ministries focus on key priorities for our congregations and communities:

The escalation of economic inequality undergirds a thousand injustices, from climate change to homelessness, from mass incarceration to low-wage worker exploitation. Economic inequality also disproportionately impacts people of color. We work for justice, equity, and compassion in our relationships and systemic change in our society.

All life is interconnected. Creating a sustainable way of life is central to our view of a just and compassionate world. We act knowing that those who are most impacted by environmental destruction are often with the least power.

We stand on the side of love with all families, regardless of citizenship status, and strive to create welcoming communities and congregations. We advocate for immigration reform, for an end to detentions and deportations, and for a world where no one feels forced to leave home or risk death in pursuit of a decent life for their family.

Each of us has worth and dignity, and that worth includes our gender and our sexuality. As Unitarian Universalists (UUs), we not only open our doors to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, we value diversity of sexuality and gender and see it as a spiritual gift. We create inclusive religious communities and work for LGBTQ justice and equity as a core part of who we are. All of who you are is sacred. All of who you are is welcome.

Every person has value as a member of the human family. The suffering caused by racism must be ended if we want to create fair and loving communities. We work to end racial discrimination and injustice, starting within ourselves and moving out into the world around us. We support multiracial, multiethnic congregations and advocate for stopping racist policies like mass imprisonment and attacks on voting rights. Our multicultural ministries will continue until there is peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Decisions about children, families and sexuality are some of life’s most profound. We advocate not only for the freedom of those choices in each person’s life journey, but also for the ability of all families and communities to realize a sense of wholeness with regard to their sexual and reproductive lives. We create safe and healthy environments for children in our faith communities and campaign publicly for just and compassionate laws for family planning, reproductive health, and gender equality.


One of the fundamental principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is the use of the democratic process. As an expression of our faith, many Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations engage in voter registration and protecting voting rights, not for partisan reasons, but to empower all eligible people to contribute their voices to the democratic process. Defending the freedom to vote has been central to the work of the UUA and at the core of Unitarian Universalism for decades.


If all that is what liberals can identify with,  then they can still be religious. And so can anyone with a social conscience. We just have to change how most people see religion.

10 thoughts on “A Mistitled Article and a Challenge for Unitarian Universalists across America

  1. I disagree with you.
    In my mind it is clear that in the article the word “religion” is used to mean what the people who were asked think it means.

    “UUs across America have a challenge to reach out and persuade those that are liberal in their politics that they need not reject religion.”

    I would appreciate you didn’t try to persuade anyone about anything. If you try, you will end up becoming labeled as just another religious nut trying to push their religion on people who don’t want it, and alienate these people even more. As said in the article, it’s like an allergic reaction. Say “religion”, “God”, “church”, to these people and they will shut you out immediately, and can’t hear a word you say after that. And not only about this subject, ANY subject.

    The article about “Justice and Inclusion” sounds just like any propaganda for any religion, ideology, political party or movement. One must remember that propaganda is just “information to promote a cause or point of view”. Even though it is commonly thought to be misleading, deceptive, untrue, even downright lies, that is not what propaganda really is.
    But – that is how people feel about propaganda – unless, of course, it’s propaganda for their own cause.
    I mean, if I feel it’s BS, and I know you, and I know you believe it, you live by it, you posted it because you feel it says what you want to say, how do you think people who don’t know you will take it?

    I can understand that UU is very important to you, but I am a person with God but without religion, and I’m totally fine. Don’t start missionizing, just because you have found something important and precious to you, It doesn’t matter which church or community it is, it’s just as bad as Christian missionizing. Learn from the Jews. If people want what you have, they’ll come to you.

    One important thing to remember here is that God and religion are two different things. Some people have God but no religion, others have no God but religion. Like a lot of Atheists. Church of Richard Dawkins… and they are just as fundamentalist as any Christian or Muslim fundamentalist.

  2. I am an atheist with a spiritual leaning, not to any god, but to life and the connections therein. A friend asked me to visit their UU congregation. At first I was welcomed with open arms. But it didn’t take long before I was bombarded with people trying to bring me back to christ. They used a lot of other labels, of course, but that was their main thrust. I lost all feeling of welcoming, all possibility of humanness. They wanted fellowship in what they called the christ-form, or something like that. So much for universalism, just lots of unitarianism. Believe like us.
    I no longer go there. Atheists are not welcome.

    • I’m sorry you had such a negative experience. I’ve never been to any UU congregation that was so Christian oriented that it made non-Christians feel like outsiders. But I’ve only been to four UU churches, all in north Texas. You must have encountered an exception to the rule.

        • It sounds like you went to a Unity Church and not a Unitarian Universalist one. I googled around a bit because I’ve never heard this Christform thing and it does sounds a lot like what they believe in Unity churches. My father in law used to name the same mistake, although I always thought it was because he was trying to convince himself that we were Christians. The theology between Unity and UU are nothing alike. The UUA directly cites humanism as a source of our tradition.

          • This was definitely UU, or I would never have gone. Not that it really matters, but I was in a strange city, my first ever move to the east coast. so I thought I might find some liberal-minded people there. I was wrong. I moved back to the west years ago, much more open here. In many ways.

    • I would like to know where this UUsociety is located, as Ihave never experienced an overwhelming Christian uu?

        • Ah, that explains it! Most Unitarian congregations outside the USA are NOT atheist or humanist oriented, being much closer to mainstream Christianity than the UUA has been since it was founded in 1961. American Unitarian and Universalist congregations are exceptional in that they have harbored non-theists since about a century ago.

          • One never knows. Such is life, I guess. I was younger then. I doubt I could handle a group these days. I am quite happy being me.
            Thanks for the talk.

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