There is a Decline in the Number of White Southern Evangelicals Attending Church
What happens to American politics and society when white Southerners from the Bible Belt stop going to church? What religious beliefs do they hold? How do people cast their ballots? And will the apparent huge departure from the church in the South make the country less politically polarized—or more so?
These considerations are especially pertinent this summer due to two big news events: the sex abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention and the reversal of Roe v. Wade, which resulted in state limits that made abortion virtually entirely illegal in the South and Midwest.
Twenty years ago, revelations about the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal intensified an already-ongoing huge flight of white northeastern Catholics, contributing to the secularization of New England culture and politics. A region that had some of the nation’s harshest abortion and divorce rules until the late twentieth century became a trailblazer in extending abortion availability and legalizing same-sex marriage.
The similar thing happened in Ireland lately, in the aftermath of the country’s clerical sex abuse scandal. Even as church attendance rates dropped, a country with some of the highest church attendance rates and tightest abortion and marriage restrictions in Europe allowed abortion and same-sex marriage.
It’s not difficult to see something similar happening in the southern Bible Belt. Church attendance rates in the South were already declining before the SBC situation was publicly exposed, as they were in New England just before news of the Catholic church’s sex abuse crisis broke.
According to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey, 30 percent of Southern Baptists “rarely” or “never” attend church. The southern Bible Belt is rapidly becoming a region of unchurched or lapsed Protestants who may retain some evangelical identification but do not believe going to church is vital.
However, these de-churched Protestants are not adopting the political ideas of the northeast’s de-churched Catholics. Instead, they remain staunchly anti-abortion Republicans, even if their other beliefs differ from those of their churched colleagues. A close examination of these non-churchgoing white Southerners may provide insight into what southern politics may look like in the coming decade.
What the data reveals
I carefully examined data from the 2018 General Social Survey (GSS) to learn about the political and theological beliefs of unchurched southern whites who still identify as Protestant. The GSS polls thousands of people around the country and asks them a variety of questions about politics, religion, social attitudes, and behavior.
It is possible to isolate responses for specific groups of people by running the data through a “similar statistical software program” (SPSS), such as white male Protestants in the Southeast who attend church only once a year or less, or New England Catholics who attend church weekly and vote Democratic.
Politics and Social Activism: A Moral Pageant of Self-Promotion?
Politics and Social Activism: A Moral Pageant of Self-Promotion?
Yes, politicians are prone to grandstanding.
The poll covers over a hundred questions on a wide range of issues, so if one wants to look at the questions concerning racial attitudes or prayer practices, for example, it’s simple to examine the disparities between different groups of individuals. This is something that political scientists and other social science scholars do all the time. (I hadn’t done much of this analysis as a historian until lately, but it’s now a really important tool in my study.)
What do the 2018 GSS data say about white Southerners who still identify as Protestant but never or only visit church once a year?
For starters, they are numerous: According to the GSS poll, 45 percent of white Southerners said they only went to church once a year. If “lapsed evangelical Protestant” were a religious denomination, it would be by far the largest in the South.
Second, they are not Republicans. Support for Donald Trump outnumbered support for Hillary Clinton by more than two to one among non-churchgoers (or once-a-year attendees) who voted in the 2016 election.
They are also passionately committed to “colorblind” conservatism and law and order politics. Sixty-six percent felt the courts in their area did not deal with offenders “brutally enough,” while only 11 percent said the courts dealt “too harshly.” 77% agreed that “it is occasionally important to discipline a youngster with a good, hard spanking.”
They were more than 4 to 1 against “preference employment” for Blacks. Similarly, they agreed with this statement by a margin of more than 4 to 1: “Irish, Italians, Jews, and many other minorities overcome discrimination and worked their way up.” Blacks should follow suit.” When asked why Blacks have “lower jobs, income, and housing than white people on average,” nearly half responded it’s because they “simply don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves out of poverty.”
Most institutions, including medical, government, labor unions, religious organizations, and notably the media, piqued their interest. Sixty-five percent indicated they had “barely any” trust in the media. The military was the only institution in which they exhibited considerable confidence; 72 percent indicated they had “a lot” of faith in the military.
SBC Executive Committee personnel perceived advocates’ pleas for assistance as a distraction from evangelism and a legal burden, stonewalling their findings and opposing requests for reform.
Although they strongly supported marijuana legalization and found nothing ethically wrong with homosexuality or premarital sex, they were opposed to abortion. Sixty-two percent of those polled were opposed to the legalization of elective abortion. A majority of the justices agreed that the Supreme Court erred in deciding banning classroom prayer in public schools.
With the exception of marijuana and sex, the most of these sentiments were shared by white evangelicals in the South who frequently attended church. Even beliefs about the Bible did not differ significantly between individuals who visited church on a regular basis and those who did not. Eighty-nine percent believed the Bible was the inspired Word of God, while only 8% thought it was a collection of “fables” and “legends.” Almost one-third of those polled felt the Bible should be “accepted literally, word for word.”
In short, white Protestants in the South who no longer attend church have not changed their politics or the majority of their religious convictions. They’re still typically fundamentalist when it comes to the Bible, and they’re still staunch law-and-order, pro-military Republicans who believe in a Southern civil religion in which people may pray in schools but not have abortions.
They still identify as Protestant Christians—and, based on earlier studies, they most likely still refer to themselves as “evangelical” (though the GSS survey did not directly inquire about this). However, their interpretation of evangelical Protestant Christianity has stripped away most of the grace and left behind a very distrustful individualism in which law, order, and self-defense take precedence.
Individualism without trust among conservatives
This strong individualism is especially noticeable in areas where they differ most obviously from their churchgoing colleagues.
First, sexual accountability. While still anti-abortion, white Protestants in the South who attend church only once a year have rejected traditional evangelical doctrine on premarital heterosexual sex. Sixty-eight percent thought premarital sex between a man and a woman was “not at all improper.”
In comparison, only 21% of white Protestant Southerners who attended church weekly or more thought heterosexual premarital sex was “not at all wrong,” while 50% said it was “always wrong.” Those who never (or seldom) went to church overwhelmingly supported marijuana legalization, whereas those who went to church on a regular basis did not.
The most intriguing distinction, however, occurred in the domain of personal trust in other individuals.
“Do you think most individuals would try to take advantage of you if they had the opportunity, or would they try to be fair?” Most individuals would try to take advantage of white Protestant southerners who visited church no more than once a year, according to 54% of them.
In response to the question, “Would you say that most of the time individuals strive to help or that they are largely concerned with themselves?” The latter was chosen by 58 percent of those polled.
The reactions of white Southern Protestants who went to church every week were virtually exactly the opposite. Sixty-two percent said most people would “try to be fair” rather than take advantage of them, while 57 percent said most people “try to be helpful.” Those who went to church on a regular basis were also more inclined to vote than those who went just sometimes.
As a result, when white Southerners stop visiting church, it appears that they do not lose the church’s political conservatism, moralism, or individualism. Instead, they become hyper-individualistic, devoted to law and order, and ideologically conservative (if they vote at all). They are, nevertheless, cynical and wary of others.
Why did Northerners become more politically liberal after leaving the church, yet white Southerners remained as politically conservative and individualistic as ever? Perhaps this is due to the fact that when people leave church, they maintain the political philosophy and moral orientation they absorbed from their religious group, even if in a distorted version.
The northeast’s liberal Democratic politics reflect the theology of civic duties that both mainline Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church championed for the majority of the twentieth century. Even when they left the church, such political sensitivities remained in a secularized form.
The Bible Belt, on the other hand, draws on a Southern white individualism that predates Southern evangelicalism. When whites quit the church, they rarely become political liberals. Instead, the individualistic moralism instilled in them by their regional culture lives on in a secularized version.
Contrary to widespread perceptions of religion’s polarizing impact, Southern churches may occasionally mitigate these tendencies. To be sure, the majority of Southern white churches supported the Republican political philosophy that helped Donald Trump win the presidency and maintain institutional racism.
At the same time, even the most conservative churches have developed a feeling of community that motivates individuals to care about and trust others. They have supported sexual fidelity while frowning on self-indulgence, particularly with regard to alcohol and marijuana.
When people leave religion, they retain their moralism (at least in terms of other people), but they lose their feeling of self-sacrifice and confidence in others. They keep their Bible, gun, pro-life pin, and MAGA hat, but they also take up a condom and a marijuana joint and lose any desire to care for others in the community.
Many analysts have warned for decades about the political perils of a Southern Christian Right intent on blurring the lines between church and state. But, whatever those threats were, arguably the larger threat to democracy in the South now is a de-churched populist Right that is just as angry about efforts to remedy racial injustice and even more individualistic.
This post-church Southern Protestant Right, whether labeled “evangelical” or just “Southern populist,” is not going away just because the Southern Baptist Convention loses members. In fact, it is expected to grow stronger than ever.