More Americans are no longer affiliated with a religious institution. Peter Beinart of The Atlantic tells NPR's Scott Simon how that rise in secularism contributed to the rise of Donald Trump.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
More Americans practice no religion. While polls show that most believe in some kind of God, up to 35 percent of those in their 20s and early 30s do not associate themselves with any religion. Now, there was hope among some commentators that this growing trend might tamp down some of the arguments over gay rights, abortion rights and the whole frame of issues as us versus them. Do you think that's happened?
Peter Beinart has written an article for The Atlantic in which he says that the hard attitudes of secular people might be harsher than those of religious groups. He joined us from New York City yesterday afternoon. Mr. Beinart, thanks so much for being with us. Thank you. We often tie secularism to young people and to tolerance. Is that misguided?
PETER BEINART: It can be misguided. To be clear, I'm not talking about secularism per se in the sense that a lot of people I'm talking about do believe in God. But there's that percentage who regularly attend church or another religious institution has declined a lot. And what you see is that conservatives who don't regularly attend church may be more supportive of gay marriage and drug legalization than those who do regularly attend church.
But there's some evidence that they're actually more anti-immigrant and perhaps more racially resentful. And we know that it's - Donald Trump did best among conservatives who don't regularly attend church. In fact, I think that shift is part of the reason that he won the Republican nomination.
SIMON: Well, there are people both liberals and conservatives who for years have resisted being put - well, here I just called them liberals or conservatives - resisted pigeonholes, saying, look, you know, just because I believe in abortion rights doesn't mean I believe something about an economic issue or vice versa.
BEINART: Right. Certainly there've always been people whose ideological perspectives don't follow the lines of one of the two major parties. I think what I'm trying to suggest in my piece is there seems to be some evidence that as culturally conservative people disengage from religious institutions, they redraw the boundaries of us versus them from religious and moral terms to a divide over race and nation.
And that's what you're seeing for instance with the alt-right, which is an ultra-conservative movement that is quite hostile to Christianity and tends to define its conservatism less in terms of religious morality and more in terms of whiteness.
SIMON: So for example when there were commentators and pundits who might have said last year, well, you know, Ted Cruz is going to be able to get a lot of religiously-inclined voters in the Republican primaries, were they just a year or two out of date?
BEINART: Well, it's interesting. What you find in the data is that Trump did very well among self-described evangelicals. But he did far better among self-described evangelicals who don't regularly attend church. Cruz destroyed him amongst evangelicals who go to church regularly.
And what's also important about that is there's a lot of evidence that white Americans who don't regularly attend church do worse economically and are much more pessimistic about the state of the country. And that's also what Trump tapped into, this sense of deep pessimism about the state of the country. And that pessimism is greater among Americans who don't regularly attend religious services.
SIMON: And you just - according to your article, you don't see this in just one side of the political divide, do you?
BEINART: No. What's interesting is that the same divide you see between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump voters, you also saw between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton voters. So if you look at white Democrats, white Democrats who went to church were much more - religious institutions at all - much more likely to be Hillary Clinton supporters. Bernie Sanders much more likely to win the votes of those who did not regularly attend religious institutions.
Now, partly that's generation. But it's also true that Sanders voters were much more likely to say things like the American dream isn't a reality anymore, which is similar to Trump voters.
SIMON: You see a difference too between, say, this generation of young African-American activists in something like the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil rights movement of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which was church-based.
BEINART: Yes. African-Americans remain more tied to church than do white Americans. And yet, you see this same divide - generational divide where younger African-Americans are substantially more likely to be disengaged from religious affiliation. I suggest in the piece that the Black Lives Matter movement is to some degree a product of that.
But I think that it is interesting that we are seeing a political moment in which on both the African-American left and the kind of white nationalist right, you're seeing a move towards a politics which is not based in Christian or religious language. I'm not in any way trying to morally equate those two movements, but that the disappearance of a Christian vocabulary may make the two sides - right and left - even more alien to one another than they were before.
SIMON: I know I'm going to get emails, perhaps you too, from people who say, look, I am an agnostic or an atheist really specifically because I thought organized religion had a hand in racializing in our society and a history with slavery and has not had a good effect on U.S. history.
BEINART: Sure. I'm not in any way suggesting in this article that I'm telling people that they need to go to religious services. I do think we know that civic connection more broadly tends to help people weather difficulties in their lives. There are many other ways other than doing it through religious institutions.
It just happens that the church has been probably the most central form of civic engagement that Americans have had. And so when Americans disengage from church, for many of them that essentially becomes de facto disengaging from any civic institution. It's not like they're replacing church with some other form of civic institution that might fill some of that same function.
SIMON: Peter Beinart of The Atlantic. Thanks so much for being with us.