As the 2022 midterm elections wrap up, candidates in most states will be temporarily retiring the attack ads. Both parties are preparing for an era of divided government, meaning compromises will need to be made to govern the country. In his post-election address, President Biden highlighted: “On this election season, the American people made it clear: They don’t want every day going forward to be a constant political battle.”
Faith leaders, too, have made calls to reduce the political polarization plaguing America. As Rabbi David Wolpe told his Los Angeles synagogue ahead of the midterm elections, “God has no team … God is greater than parties.” This idea forms the basis of U.S. laws about religion: There is an ostensible separation of church and state, and to retain tax-exempt status, churches must steer clear of political endorsements of candidates or political parties.
Yet, in the days leading up to the election, high-profile candidates, especially in the Republican Party, leaned into their religion, appearing with pastors and prophets in an attempt to convince voters that God was on their side. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis released an ad in which he proclaimed that “on the eighth day … God made a fighter,” referring to himself, and invoking God 10 times in 96 seconds. The message seems to resonate with religious voters: A wealth of research suggests there is, in fact, a “God gap,” with religious voters being more likely to support the Republican Party and non-religious voters being more likely to support Democrats. According to our new research, even after the midterm elections and calls to reduce religious polarization, America’s religious and political divide may be growing.
One culprit? Church shopping.
By church shopping, we mean the growing phenomenon of Americans visiting different places of worship to decide where to attend (if at all). Compared to previous generations, Americans’ religious “brand loyalty” is on the decline. To take one example: Behind Roman Catholics, the single largest denomination in the U.S., the second largest denomination would be made up of ex-Catholics, or what the National Catholic Reporter once called them, “The ‘had it’ Catholics.” These are Catholics who left the church in favor of other options: Protestant churches, non-Christian faiths, or no faith altogether. It is this last option that is especially challenging for religious groups; a recent prediction model by the Pew Research Center suggests that if religious switching trends continue, Christians will make up less than half of the U.S. population by 2070.
Scholars of religion point to many different sources for these developments, but one source seems to be more prevalent now than ever: politics. In 2002, sociologists Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer published a groundbreaking study suggesting that conservative politics is driving people, especially moderates and liberals, away from religion. On the other hand, there is also some evidence that some individuals seek a politically active church that matches their partisan values. For example, Russian Orthodox churches in the U.S. have reported a small recent growth in converts, driven by far-right politics and those with an admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This trend led us to question how exactly church shopping is influenced by politics. We wanted to learn not only how religion may be influencing major political choices like who to vote for, but also how politics might be influencing major religious choices like one’s religious affiliation and identity. We also wanted to ask people about their religiopolitical behavior directly. To do this, we conducted a nationally representative survey of 2,000 adults in the U.S. through the polling firm YouGov.
To begin, we asked respondents whether they have ever church shopped. Indeed, a full majority—nearly 52 percent—said that they had church shopped. We find this to be a high number, especially given that some individuals are strongly committed to their church and some may not even belong to a church at all. This offers further evidence that attachment to a religious “brand” is not as strong as it used to be. America’s religious marketplace is dynamic, and American religious identity is fluid.
Of those who church shopped, 72 percent said that they considered churches in at least one denomination, and 43 percent said they considered many different denominations. While it seems intuitive that Baptists may visit and consider the different Baptist churches in town, it seems that a good number of Baptists are also visiting Presbyterian, Catholic, and non-denominational churches. Looking at religious subgroups, we find that church shopping is common across all religious traditions (and even among the non-religious), but especially so among evangelical Protestants. This makes sense, as evangelicals have fewer denominational barriers to cross when switching congregations than Catholics do, for example, due to the prevalence of evangelical denominations with similar theological views.
Given the intensity of politics in today’s religious environment, we then wanted to learn about how politics influenced their religious choices. Among those who church shopped, a quarter of respondents said that they have left or considered leaving their church because of political differences. Although we do not have comparable data from the past, we suspect that this number is higher than in previous eras due to the politicization of religion. Additionally, because some may be unwilling to admit that politics would drive a religious decision, chances are that even more church shoppers are weighing the politics of a church when deciding whether to identify with a religion. At the end of the day, this is a substantial number of Americans that are sorting themselves into religious groups based on political factors.
When we break the results down further, it is clear that politics influences some more than others: Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to leave or consider leaving religion due to political reasons, as are those who express discomfort with church engagement in politics. This evidence reinforces the idea that conservative politics may be pushing Democrats away from religion. It also supports theories suggesting that not only does religion impact politics, but politics also influences religious choices, especially for those who are less well-represented in the ranks of the religious.
Even as this phenomenon is more noticeable among Democrats, Republicans are still part of the crowd shopping for churches because of politics. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, evangelical demand for a “muscular Christianity” in the face of mandated church closings left some conservatives searching for churches that would defy state orders. We see that at least one-fifth of church shopping Republicans cite politics as a reason to consider leaving their church. To find a church that matches their political identity, these Republicans are largely choosing churches that are unafraid to associate their religion with conservative politics, and, in particular, with Donald Trump. Indeed, a survey in 2020 showed that a majority of evangelicals believed their support of Donald Trump “showed moral courage to try and achieve politics and actions consistent with Evangelical Christian values.”
Tracking political church shopping is not just an academic exercise, however. Pastors in churches report fearing that they are “losing people” with their political agenda. Democrats and moderates are leaving churches altogether. Republicans are leaving churches in search of more consistently conservative and “Trumpy” congregations. The result is growth at the theological and political poles: The only groups making consistent gains are those who are the most liberal (the non-religious) and the most conservative (highly religious, conservative evangelicals).
This reality paints a bleak picture of the future of religion and politics, and for American democracy.
Moving forward, we can expect to see the “God gap” grow. Democrats will increasingly leave religion, while Republicans will double down on religiopolitical values that have been a part of their coalition for the past several decades. Democratic candidates will have to face a coalition that is increasingly diverse and secular, walking the fine line between reaching out to a committed Black Protestant and a committed atheist at the same time. Republicans, on the other hand, will likely need to lean in even more heavily on religious groups, trying to capture and mobilize every last member of a shrinking population.
Most importantly, the politics of church shopping will continue to exacerbate political and religious polarization. As moderates and liberals leave religion, conservatives will find themselves in echo chambers that reinforce their partisanship and make religion even more conservative. This separation may be correlated with the recent rise in white Christian nationalism. On the other hand, liberals will grow in their skepticism of religious institutions and lose some of the social ties that religion used to provide in the form of (ideologically) diverse congregations.
The comments by faith leaders about God not having a political party may make sense in certain theological circles, but at least in the Christian context, politics and church shopping on the ground seem to tell a different story. Even as religious and political elites try to stray from the culture wars, our research suggests that the constant political battle will continue and may even be heightened as a result of our church shopping practices.
In the questions following his post-election address, Joe Biden claimed: “It’s hard to sustain yourself as a leading democracy in the world if you can’t … generate some unity.” At the same time, he continued: “I don’t think we’re going to break the fever for the super mega MAGA Republicans.” Our research on church shopping suggests that, unfortunately, American unity may be even more difficult to come by in the future as partisan identities are reinforced through self-selected religious experiences.
Religious and political polarization are here to stay.
Andre P. Audette is an assistant professor of political science at Monmouth College. Shay R. Hafner is a senior political science and data science major at Monmouth College. This article is based on their research, “The Politics of Church Shopping,” in the journal Politics and Religion.