Christian Right Contributed to Declining Church Memberships, Study Finds


The presence of the conservative Christian movement in American politics has contributed to declining church membership, according to a recently released study.

Political Research Quarterly published an April 26 study which found that in states where the Christian Right was publicly active, the rate of religiously unaffiliated people increased.

The study used data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study as well as expert reports and counts of interest groups, centered on the time period of 2000-2010.

The researchers noted that, for example, during debates over state-level gay marriage legalization, religious disaffiliation increased in the states that enacted bans.

A major factor in this decline, according to researchers, was that the hot button debates made the Christian Right more “salient to the public” and thus churches were judged “on political disagreement,” leading to alienation by some.

Dubbed the “salient controversy,” Christian Right political involvement created an environment that shone “a bright light on the policy controversies that divide” church members.

Politics was not the only, or even primary, reason people left the pews, the researchers added, but it was one factor among many. Other factors found in various studies, they noted, include community or family social pressure, life stressors, social disruption and distance from home, such as when young adults move away for college.

Paul A. Djupe, political science professor at Denison University and lead author of the study, told The Christian Post in a Tuesday interview that he was surprised at how “the link between the presence of Christian Right organizations and the religious nones was limited to states with ‘salient controversy.'”

“Since many states enacted same-sex marriage bans (and like legislation) in the mid-2000s, that means that the salient controversy was relatively widespread and was more common in somewhat redder, more conservative states,” said Djupe.

“So, the other surprising finding was that the difference in rates of religious nones between Republican and Democratic states narrowed across this time period (on average).”

The study’s other authors were University of Wisconsin-Madison Assistant Professor Jacob Neiheisel and University of Cincinnati Assistant Professor Kimberly Horn Conger.

The research drew a parallel to Religious Left activism during the 1960s, in which many mainline Protestant churches suffered membership loss due to their outspoken support for civil rights.

“Clergy involvement in the civil rights and antiwar movements precipitated losses in lay membership. For instance, one survey found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of church leaders who participated in acts of antiwar civil disobedience reported that their churches had subsequently lost members,” explained the study.

In 2014, Djupe and Neiheisel presented research titled “The Choice That Matters: Politics in the Role of Leaving Congregations,” which indicated the Christian Right had little influence in people leaving churches, and in some cases went opposite the expected direction, meaning those who favored, rather than opposed, the Christian Right left their churches. Mainline Protestants were more likely to leave over politics than evangelicals, they also found.

A later version of that study was published in the May 2017 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

That study drew data from the 2012 Election Panel Study, the 2006 Franklin County Republican Primary Study and the Portraits of American Life Study.

“All we’re really seeing here is a little churn,” stated Neiheisel to a campus publication in March.

“These are people at the periphery so we don’t see religious sorting where people on the left are disproportionally becoming anti-religious while people on the right are doubling-down on religion.”

Djupe explained to CP on Tuesday that both studies found that politics must be a salient factor to cause people to leave a church, with Christian Right activism affecting evangelical and conservative church attendance rather than liberal mainline membership.

“We found that the politics of the Christian Right was salient and controversial in evangelical and politically conservative congregations, where we found various measures of decline,” Djupe said.

“So, political disagreement (and other measures of difference) is an important driver of weakening attachment to churches, but that disagreement could be over anything and it has to be linked to dynamics within the congregation.”

Djupe also noted that the May 2017 study focused on the congregation level whereas the April paper focused on the state level.

“We had already found that a fight within the Republican Party in Ohio in 2006 over their pick for governor (Ken Blackwell) had made the Christian Right salient within congregations and occasioned membership loses,” explained Djupe.

“So here we thought to look for more general evidence of ‘salient controversy’ at the state level and found it. To us, the two papers are seamless and just take place at two different ‘levels of analysis’ — the congregation and the state.”


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