Declines in church attendance have made the rural Republican regions of the country even more Republican and—perhaps most surprising—more stridently Christian nationalist. The wave of states banning gender-affirming care this year and the adoption of “proud Christian nationalist” as an identity by politicians such as Marjorie Taylor Greene (who even marketed T-shirts with the slogan) is not what many people might have expected at a time when church attendance is declining.
Still, what’s going on in the South and Midwest is consistent with what happened in the Northeast: People hold onto their politics when they stop attending church. Just as liberal Christians in Massachusetts and Connecticut stayed liberal when they dropped off their church’s membership roll, so conservative Christians in Alabama and Indiana stay conservative even when they’re no longer part of a congregation.
In fact, people become even more entrenched in their political views when they stop attending services. Though churches have a reputation in some circles as promoting hyper-politicization, they can be depolarizing institutions. Being part of a religious community often forces people to get along with others—including others with different political views—and it may channel people’s efforts into charitable work or forms of community outreach that have little to do with politics. Leaving the community removes those moderating forces, opening the door to extremism.
It seems clear that Christian nationalism attracts a lot of adherents who rarely go to church themselves…
But without a church community, in many cases, the nation’s political system becomes their church—and the results are polarizing.
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