As Christians gather to celebrate Easter, a new Gallup poll shows that, for the first time, U.S. church membership has dropped below 50 percent. If you’re applauding this, you shouldn’t be. This milestone should concern anyone who cares about preserving liberal democracy, civility, and comity.
You might be tempted to point out that church membership is not the same as religious belief. This is true, but the Gallup numbers also track with the Pew Research Center’s recent findings on the decline of American adults who identify as Christians. Regardless, there is a stark difference between joining a community of believers and being a consumer of, say, televangelism; these differences are significant and demonstrable in terms of our political behavior. During the 2016 GOP primary, for example, one of the best predictors of whether a person would support Donald Trump was regular church attendance. Self-identified Christians might have supported him, but as The Washington Post noted at the time, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.”
Church membership also denotes community and social connection, and these were also key predictors of Trump supporters in 2016. Parts of the nation with low social capital—places where people go bowling (or worshiping) alone—were more susceptible to Trumpism. As conservative writer Tim Carney noted, “Given two different counties with the same demographics and economics, the one with weaker or fewer community institutions was more likely to support Trump.” To be sure, this didn’t translate to opposing Hillary Clinton (white evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Trump in the General Election), but it did correlate with their opposition to Trump in the primary. If more evangelicals had attended church, Trump would have never won the Republican nomination.