David E. Campbell: Godless Politics: The Politics of Secularism in the United States


Monday, October 23, 2017, 12:00pm to 1:45pm


Allison Dining Room

David E. Campbell, Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy, University of Notre Dame.

There is growing evidence that secularism in America is on the rise. Over one-in-five Americans report not having a religious affiliation, making them the second-largest “religious” group in the population. Similarly, growing numbers of Americans report that they never attend religious services.

This is new. The U.S. has historically been a highly religious country, an outlier among other industrialized democracies. And, in the current era, religion and politics have been tightly interwoven.

Could the rising tide of secularism be related to the melding of religion and politics in the public mind? Could politics be a cause of the secular surge? And what effect does secularism have on politics? In other words, do people put politics ahead of religion? We find that, often, they do.

First, however, we show that not all secularists are alike. Some are merely “passively secular”—defined by what they are not. Others, however, are “actively secular.” They have consciously adopted a secular worldview by putting science and philosophy over faith and adopting a secular identity. We identify these active secularists with a new Active Secularism Index.

Our evidence supports three hypotheses.

Dissonance: using an experiment, we find the combination of religion and the Republican Party leads to cognitive dissonance among Democrats with a religious identity. To resolve the dissonance, they drop their religion. In other words, people—or, at least, Democrats—put their politics ahead of their religion.

We then employ a panel survey of the American population to examine how the two forms of secularism affect, and are affected by, politics (party ID, ideology, cultural attitudes). Just as in the experiment, religious nonaffiliation is driven by politics. Conversely, being religiously nonaffiliated has no effect on politics. The arrow runs only one way—further evidence that politics leads people to drop their religion.

Polarization: When we look beyond religious nonaffiliation, we find that a broader measure of passive secularism and our Active Secularism Index both affect, and are affected by, politics. The arrow runs both ways, causing religious polarization. While Republicans are becoming more religious, Democrats are becoming more secular. Not only are Democrats pulling away from religion—becoming passively secular—but they are also adopting an actively secular worldview.

Perception: As further evidence that politics come first, we only observe religious polarization among people who perceive a connection between religion and conservative politics.

The irony is that the Religious Right was founded to assert a greater role for religion in the public square, in opposition to “secular humanism.” Instead, it has fed the growth of secularism. The result is a likely continuation of cultural conflict in American politics.

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About the speaker

David Campbell is the Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame and the chairperson of the political science department. He is the 2017 recipient of an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship.

His most recent book is Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics (with John Green and Quin Monson). He is also the co-author (with Robert Putnam) of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which has been described by the New York Times as intellectually powerful, by America as an instant classic and by the San Francisco Chronicle as the most successfully argued sociological study of American religion in more than half a century.  American Grace has also received both the 2011 Woodrow Wilson Award from the American Political Science Association for the best book on government, politics, or international affairs and the Wilbur Award from the Religious Communicators Council for the best non-fiction book of 2010.

Prof. Campbell is also the author of Why We Vote: How Schools and Communities Shape Our Civic Life, the editor of A Matter of Faith: Religion in the 2004 Presidential Election, and a co-editor of Making Civics Count: Citizenship Education for a New Generation. As an expert on religion, politics, and civic engagement, he has often been featured in the national media, including the New York Times, Economist, USA Today, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Time, NBC News, CNN, NPR, Fox News, and C-SPAN.

Learn more
David Campbell homepage


See also: Fall 2017