April 2, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Too many non-religious liberals are magnifying the preferred worldview of religious zealots

Secularization is not the absence of religion.

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It’s Good Friday, a good time to talk about religion and politics. Gallup released a poll Monday showing the number of people belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque is the lowest it’s been since the opinion surveyor started asking in 1937. It’s the first time religious membership has been below 50 percent, according to Gallup.

This news has been met by two perspectives that dominate the national discourse on politics and religion. Though they appear to be at odds, indeed, they are at odds, they are nevertheless mutually reinforcing. In reality, these diametrically opposed views work together to misinform the electorate as to the real nature of the relationship between religion and politics, thus encourage people to choose sides when they need not choose, thus enable dangerous people to act in increasingly dangerous ways.

On the one hand are agnostics or non-religious liberals who are either indifferent to religion or hostile to it. These people are always more interested in the politics side of the relationship between politics and religion, and they can be found in virtually all elite press, especially in the op-eds pages. On the other hand are the zealots. Religion is the goal, politics the means. While the liberals think of religion and politics as two things, not so for the zealots. As “the political” was to Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt,1 “the religious” is for them. Neither ends, ever. Those who have managed to find a spot in the elite press have done so by mastering the appearance of being reasonable.

Just so I’m clear, I side with the non-religious liberals. Every time. What’s maddening, however, is their tendency to magnify the preferred way of seeing the world among the zealots. While the liberals see reasons of their own for why religious membership has declined below the majority for the first time in 80-some years, they have, without (I suspect) meaning to, come to the same dangerous conclusion as the zealots. They have concluded, even celebrated, that America is becoming increasingly secularized.

So much to unpack. First, religious membership is a bad measure of religion. I mean, it used to be a good one, but not anymore. People still attend church occasionally. They still think of themselves as Methodists and whatever. They still celebrate religious holidays; they still honor religious traditions. But the institutions of religion have been in a state of precipitous decay for 20 years the way most other institutions have been.

Secularization liberates the diversity of religious feeling. It’s a means, not an end. Non-religious liberals have forgotten.

Even the word “religion” smacks of institutional rot. That has certainly been the sad experience of lay Catholics faced with sex crimes in the priesthood. That will likely be the experience of the next generation of white evangelical Protestants who will puzzle over their seniors’ devotion to a lying, thieving, philandering sadist.2 From this context has arisen the idea that “I’m spiritual but not religious,” which is really another way of saying “I’m religious but I don’t want to say so,” which is a reason I suspect religion is not so much in decline as changing in ways we can’t yet understand. It is evolving such that the old ways of measuring its political impact aren’t as accurate as they used to be.

Second, and this is my main point, is that secularization is not the absence of religion. Religious people and secular people are not by principled necessity at opposite ends. Religious people can be secular at times. Secular people can be religious at times. The same person can be religious and secular at the same time. Secularization is not, or should not, be a goal in and of itself. It is a means, rather, to an end, namely liberty.

Here’s the tip jar!

Non-religious liberals of the kind that populate elite op-ed pages have lost sight of this. I suspect many of them believe religion itself is the problem, and they believe this, because they have accepted uncritically what the zealots themselves believe when they say the only way to be a religious person is by first being a conservative person. In doing so, non-religious liberals are locked in a mutually reinforcing relationship in which they end up enabling the zealots’ efforts to install a theocratic fuhrer-king.3

All religions have liberals traditions. They may be buried. They may have been silenced. But they are there. More importantly, for liberals, is that these traditions be given oxygen, which is to say, be given the freedom they need to thrive. For the zealots, the point of religion is not doing unto others as you would have done unto you. It is not bringing the greatest good to the greatest number. It’s about dominance. To the extent the liberals know this, it’s from the inside of the zealots’ preferred view, which means they are fighting against freedom even as they fight for a secularized America.

A secular society is not one in which religion is absent. A secular society is one in which there is enough room for the vast variety of religious feeling to be expressed openly and safely, inside and outside the realm of politics. Liberals should pursue religious diversity with the same oomph with which they pursue racial diversity. With enough time and effort, perhaps religion will stop being a byword for conservative. That would be good for religion. That would also be good for American politics.

John Stoehr


See The Concept of the Political.


That is, Donald Trump.


Again, Trump.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:42 pm

    Thanks for writing this piece. I think you are exactly right in your analysis of the situation. I cannot read the basic teachings of Jesus without thinking he agrees with you as well. He taught inclusion and not exclusion. When we start seeing efforts to exclude people from easy access to voting, for example, then obviously something has gone terribly wrong in politics and religion.

    • LIBA on July 30, 2021 at 11:42 pm

      I’m not convinced that Jesus is the ultimate “good guy” that more left-leaning Christians think he is. Correct me if I’m wrong on any of the following, but according to the Bible, He never condemned slavery, did he? He also said that brutal laws/practices of the Old Testament were still valid. Finally, the Jesus of Revelations (which conservatives gravitate towards) seems to be quite different from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus (which is the Jesus liberal Christians prefer). Sermon on the Mount Jesus is portrayed as a good, kind-hearted guy, but Revelations Jesus is portrayed differently: vengeful and violent.

      • Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:42 pm

        Yes, I think I get what you mean LIBA. Of course you’re right. I try to be mindful of what the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke (which were written half a century after Jesus’s death) tell about his teachings and his parables. I imagine a knowledgable Rabbi could help us out here as well. Also, I’ve found Professor Amy-Jill Levine, Ph.D. is helpful in understanding the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament. Also, many Christians have raised questions about the Book of Revelation and whether it should have been included in the New Testament.

      • Josh Lang on July 30, 2021 at 11:42 pm

        Jesus never addressed slavery. Paul did, and Paul supported it (“slaves obey your masters”).

        Jesus decried many of the OT laws and called himself the “new covenant” (of love, not law).

        It’s “Revelation” (singular) and it’s a metaphor. Jesus wasn’t around when this was written — it’s just some guy writing apocryphal stories. Such narrative was very common in that day — somehow one of those texts made its way into “the canon.” A number of scholars, dating back to the 5th century, do not agree with its addition to the NT, including Luther.

        • jibal jibal on July 30, 2021 at 11:42 pm

          “Jesus decried many of the OT laws”

          Um, no, he said “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished. ”

          In any case, that this has become a conversation about xtian theology when the topic was secularization and a warning to non-religious liberals illustrates why so many of us rejoice at any reduction in the number of church goers.

    • jibal jibal on July 30, 2021 at 11:42 pm

      “I cannot read the basic teachings of Jesus without thinking he agrees with you as well. He taught inclusion and not exclusion.”

      The article is addressed to non-religious liberals, who don’t subscribe to “the basic teachings of Jesus”, so referencing those teachings is already exclusionary of the very people addressed by the article.

      That’s aside from the fact that you’re utterly wrong–Jesus taught that people like me are fools, evil, and going to hell.

  2. abbyinsm on July 30, 2021 at 11:42 pm

    Part of the problem is that the culture/press/education system has adopted a two thousand year old idea of the divine that is out of date. As long as “being religious” means that you believe in a superhuman individual who has direct power over you in the same way a parent has direct power over a child, the default among people with a sense of their own agency will be to reject that label. When the definitions of “holy”, “higher power”, “worship”, and “divinity” are expanded to include the powers inherent in love, nature, community, etc., those who are spiritual but not religious will be able to call themselves believers.

    I’ve read a number of books by Christians including Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, and Francis Collins who are articulate in their understanding of the compatibility of science and religion, but my biggest influence is Martin Luther King Jr. who saw clearly the power of “beloved community”. Selfishness is evil, but every single article about any legislation focuses almost exclusively on how this will benefit or hurt individuals or groups of individuals, not on how it will improve things for the whole. For example, the infrastructure proposal currently being introduced is described in terms of who gets what, instead of how a better infrastructure is good for our whole country and perhaps the world. This kind of individualized thinking rots our souls.

    When I was a Catholic child we sang a song that goes “God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God.” I’m now a church-going Unitarian Universalist active in Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. Depriving people of marriage, voting, family planning, and fair wages is against my religion, as is environmental destruction, corporate greed, and homelessness. All of these things are an affront to LOVE, which is a power greater than each of us individually. The press, the education system, and our whole culture needs to change its foundational commitment to fostering competition, individualism, and selfishness. It’s a time of abundance and inclusion. God is love and Love is god.

  3. LIBA on July 30, 2021 at 11:42 pm

    Yes, but secularization means that the “one true religion” (in America anyway), conservative Christianity, will no longer be dominant and will no longer be able to dictate the culture and society. It will have to share space with blasphemers, heretics, infidels, etc. That’s no good. You can’t expand “God’s Kingdom” with religious neutrality.

    • jibal jibal on July 30, 2021 at 11:42 pm

      It’s telling that most of the comments here are from religious people explaining how Jesus or the UU church has it right, when the article is about secularization and is addressed to the non-religious–at least on the surface. But articles like this just serve as frameworks to bash the latter.

  4. jibal jibal on July 30, 2021 at 11:42 pm

    “Religion is the goal, politics the means. ”

    This is mostly backwards–religion is used to get right wing politicians elected, and right wing policies enacted. And on a personal level, right wingers use religious dogma to justify their own prejudices and to justify their superior social position. Dig into their actual beliefs, and they don’t believe in the principles that supposedly are at the core of their religions.

    ““I’m spiritual but not religious,” which is really another way of saying “I’m religious but I don’t want to say so,””

    Not in my experience–such people want to find meaning for their lives in the universe but don’t “believe in and worship a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods”, or “a particular system of faith and worship”–that’s what “religion” means.

    Secularization is, by definition, “disassociation or separation from religious or spiritual concerns”–i.e., the absence of religion from the law, policy, etc. It doesn’t mean the absence of religious people from society, and I don’t think “non-religious liberals” generally make that mistake.

    OTOH, it’s difficult to secularize policy in the face of uncritical acceptance of superstition and dogma, and it’s difficult to win the autonomy of women in the face of a Catholic church that on the one hand officially accepts evolution and most science, but on the other hand outlaws abortion and feeds the Federalist Society movement to stack the courts top to bottom with extremist Catholics.

    I hang out out on Reddit quite a bit and I’m heartened to see to what a large degree the young people who dominate that platform have rejected religion and theology as anti-scientific and an impediment to a just world.

    In any case, this is a complex topic and we non-religious liberals are not ignorant boobs so I don’t think this bogeyman warning that we’re enabling religious zealots is going to sway us.

  5. TRCIII on July 30, 2021 at 11:42 pm

    At the risk of putting too much into several broad generalizations, I agree with you that when I hear liberals launching into anti-religious rhetoric and intentionally antagonizing people of faith—equating it directly with conservativism and/or being uneducated—I feel they seem to be forgetting that a significant portion of their “core base” is both religious AND “liberal”: Jews, Blacks and Hispanics/Latins. These are often people of deep faith and a bedrock belief in God, and yet they also tend to vote Democrat…unless alienated by some anti-religious rant.

    And not just those folks, but the rest of America as well, still, overwhelmingly, believe in God, with 85% believing to at least some degree.

    And finally, they also seem to be guilty of promoting diversity/inclusivity of other religions over Christianity as an end goal, when Christianity/Catholicism is still the clear front-runner in the U.S. (for now) among religious affiliations at 70% Christian/Catholic (with the non-affiliated at 22%, and non-Christian faithful at 6%).
    All religions should be treated equally, respecting those who ascribe to them as people, rather than just the label attributed by their faith, with all the baggage that entails.

    In sum, I agree with most of your article, and that extremist (elitist) spokespeople for the liberals should probably “take it down a notch” and back away from a strictly atheistic/agnostic/anti-religious message, because it turns off a lot of moderates who might otherwise lean their way, and yes, promotes a feeling of vindication (and backlash) among their counterparts in the extremist religious right. The loudest shouters become the de facto “face” of a group.

    I believe, as I feel you implied, you can promote the GOALS of separation of church and state without denigrating either the church or the state, and that those who seek freedom of religion and those who seek freedom from it, can live together harmoniously…if the zealots on BOTH sides of the issue would just let them.

    • jibal jibal on July 30, 2021 at 11:42 pm

      “they also tend to vote Democrat…unless alienated by some anti-religious rant”

      Do you have any evidence that this has ever happened? Are these “people of deep faith and a bedrock belief in God” *that* irrational?

      “they also seem to be guilty of promoting diversity/inclusivity of other religions over Christianity as an end goal”

      This is dishonest nonsense.

  6. David Rector on July 30, 2021 at 11:42 pm

    “Secular” means: denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis. So to say that religious people can be secular is fine – they can certainly do things that are not religious. But it is weird to say that secular people can be religious since the word “secular” applied to a person means they have no religious or spiritual basis! I am secular and I cannot, therefore, be religious… ever. But really, there are no secular people, there are just secular actions.

    Secularization is absolutely the absence of religion. When people talk about secular society, they are not talking about the people having no religion, they are talking about the society and the government having no religion. There is no place for religion in government, at least not in the USA where it is forbidden by our constitution.

    It seems like non-religious liberals are being blamed for the troubles with society that they are specifically trying to fix. It almost sounds like victim plaming. As a non-religious liberal who wants to remove religion from government activities/laws, I cannot figure out exactly how I am making things worse – without non-religious liberals, more laws would be based on mythology and backward (anti-science, anti-women, anti-gay, anti-choice) 2000 year old ideas. More people would be forced to follow the religious teachings that they believe to be false or baseless when you remove the non-religious liberals from the fight to make our society more secular. Sure, you as a person that believes there is a god has no problem blaming the non-religious for you perceived problems – it’s typical for religious people to blame the non-religious for every problem in the world – but it’s not convincing as an argument.

    To be honest, I am a non-religious liberal and I have a bias. I suspect that you also have a bias. It sounds like it.

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