The Myth of a 'War on Religion'

A recent study found liberals were more likely to fib about attending services—showing there's still a greater stigma against atheism than belief.
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Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Last week, the Public Religion Research Institute published a study showing that Americans want their fellow citizens to think they are more religiously observant than they really are. When asked by a live human being on the telephone how often they attend religious services, respondents were more likely to say they attend frequently. When filling out a self-administered online survey, by contrast, they were more likely to admit that they do not.

Surprising? Not terribly. But this may be: Liberals were more likely to exaggerate their religious attendance than conservatives. Liberals attend services less frequently than conservatives do. Yet their desire to be thought more religiously observant than they actually are is greater.

Why does this matter? Because it’s more evidence that the claim that liberals are waging a “war on religion” is absurd. You can hardly listen to a GOP presidential hopeful or flip on Fox News without hearing the charge. In 2012, Rick Perry promised that if elected he’d “end Obama’s war on religion.” Bobby Jindal recently warned that “the American people, whether they know it or not, are mired in a silent war” against “a group of like-minded [liberal] elites, determined to transform the country from a land sustained by faith into a land where faith is silenced, privatized, and circumscribed.” Ann Coulter explains, “Liberals hate religion because politics is a religion substitute for liberals and they can’t stand the competition.”

Notice the claim. It’s not merely that liberals are not religious themselves. It’s that they disdain people who are, and this disdain creates a cultural stigma (and a legal barrier) to religious observance. “Bigotry against evangelical Christians is the last acceptable form of bigotry in the country,” Ralph Reed said recently.

The truth is almost exactly the reverse. Over the past few decades, liberals have—far more than conservatives—turned away from religious affiliation, though not necessarily belief in God. But while they may feel proud of their views on religion-informed issues like evolution and gay marriage, they’re not particularly proud of their lack of religious observance per se. Indeed, they’re aware that they’re violating a cherished social norm. Asking liberals to admit that they are disproportionately secular is like asking conservatives to admit that they are disproportionately white. It’s a truth they find embarrassing. Liberals love left-leaning religious figures like Sister Simone Campbell, the immigrant-rights-championing nun who addressed the 2012 Democratic National Convention, for the same reason conservatives love right-wing African Americans like Herman Cain and Dr. Ben Carson: They defy a negative stereotype.

After all, if liberals really stigmatized the religious, wouldn’t some of them have objected when John Kerry flaunted his Catholicism in 2004 or Barack Obama flaunted his adult embrace of Christianity in 2008? Is there a single example, even in the most liberal city or district, of one Democratic candidate trying to outdo the other by proclaiming herself more hostile to religious belief?

I doubt it, because most secular liberals understand—even if Fox News commentators don’t—that America’s last acceptable religious prejudice isn’t against evangelical Christians. It’s against atheists. According to a 2008 poll, more than two-thirds of American atheists said they feared the repercussions in their community if they openly declared their belief that there is no god.

They were right to be worried. When three University of Minnesota sociologists surveyed American religious attitudes in 2006, they found “not only that atheists are less accepted than other marginalized groups but also that attitudes toward them have not exhibited the marked increase in acceptance that has characterized views of other racial and religious minorities over the past forty years.” Americans are today more likely to say they would vote for a Muslim or a gay or lesbian for president than an atheist. In a recent Pew study, even nonreligious Americans said they wanted their presidential candidates to be believers—regardless of what faith they profess. Seven states still officially bar atheists from holding office.

Social practices can retain, or even increase, their prestige while becoming less common. Think about military service, which is lionized more today than it was during the Vietnam War, even though fewer citizens serve. Something similar has happened with religion. Americans, especially left-leaning Americans, are less likely than they were a generation ago to go to church. But they’d rather you not know how much less, because religious practice—like service in the military—enjoys prestige as a marker of morality and self-discipline. And the more Americans fret that those values are being lost, the more they value religious observance for carrying them on, if they aren’t religiously observant themselves.

That’s what the “war on religion” types don’t get. Liberals may dislike the political views that religious conservatives espouse, but they’re quite sympathetic to religion itself. Of course, admitting that would make it harder for religious conservatives to play the victim—which is what the “war on religion” is really all about. 

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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