This Sunday, tens of millions of American Christians will celebrate Easter, and thousands of children and their families will descend on the White House to take part in the annual Easter Egg Roll. As the festivities spill over the grounds of 1600 Penn., I wonder if anyone will stop to note the obvious irony: That President Donald J. Trump is very likely the least religious president to occupy the White House since Thomas Jefferson.
I’m not saying Trump is a closeted atheist, but he’s no evangelical. As a self-proclaimed Protestant, or Presbyterian, or something he describes as “a wonderful religion,” Trump nominally attends the nondenominational Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Marble Collegiate was the one-time pulpit for the self-help evangelist Norman Vincent Peale, author of the mega bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking, an amalgam of pop psychology and cherry-picked scripture (without the guilt and sin), who presided over Trump’s wedding to Ivana. In other words, at most this is Christianity Lite, or Cafeteria Christianity, where one orders only the most appealing items on the menu.
And Trump has made few religious remarks. Among them this tweet from February 2016 is typical: “I am going to be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” Where evangelicals emphasize asking God for forgiveness, Trump says, “I am not sure I have. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.” Compare these remarks to the more earnest faith of President George W. Bush, who claimed divine consultation before invading Iraq, or the incessant God-talk of candidates like Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin and Ben Carson, who said on the campaign trail, “The most important thing for me is having a relationship with God. To know that the owner, the creator of the universe loves you, sent His Son to die for your sins, that’s very empowering.”
The president’s distance from religion is hugely refreshing. It also makes him more traditionally “American,” in at least one respect, than any other modern president. America wasn’t born a Christian nation. As sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark state in their classic 1992 book The Churching of America, in 1776 only 17 percent of Americans belonged to religious congregations. And, of course, many of the founding fathers, most notably Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin, were deists, believing that a higher power may have created the world but was no longer actively involved in human affairs.
It’s only been over the past half century that religion has become a influential force in American politics. The transformation began in the 1950s, with the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God we Trust” to paper currency, both in response to the threat of atheist Communism. But it really picked up momentum in the 1980s, when the Evangelical Right, most prominently represented by Jerry Falwell and his “Moral Majority” (said to be neither moral, nor a majority), began pressuring politicians to include Jesus on the ticket and the Bible on the platform. In the 1990s and 2000s, faith-based organizations such as Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition of America and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family raised millions for candidates willing to pander to religious voters, helping to put the uber evangelical George W. Bush into the White House for two terms.
Since then, it’s hard to see what benefit America’s strong leaning toward theocracy has had. Comparing 17 first-world prosperous democracies on a number of societal health measures, social scientist Gregory S. Paul found that the most religious country of them all—the United States—had by far the worse measures on a number of criteria, including the highest rates of homicides, suicides, incarceration, STDs, teen pregnancies, abortions, divorce, alcohol consumption, corruption, poverty and income inequality. Correlation is not causation, of course. But if religion is suppose to be such a powerful force for societal health, then why is America—the most religious nation in the Western world—also the unhealthiest on all of these important social measures?
There are other reasons why we shouldn’t want religion messing with our politics. For one, believing that problems on Earth are not going to be solved by help from elsewhere—i.e., by God—is key to taking responsibility for our own actions, both personally and politically. It’s up to us to effect change for the better by our choices and actions, not by prayers and supplications. And there’s also the fact that religious exclusiveness further polarizes political differences and divides an already deeply divided citizenry.
The harsh politics of the religious right might actually be one of the many reasons why the religious creep in this country finally appears to be reversing. In 2007, a Harris poll found that 12 percent of Americans said they had no religious affiliation. (They are called the “Nones.”) Just six years later, in 2013, the same Harris poll found that 23 percent of all Americans and 34 percent of Millennials (those born after 1980) identified as “Nones.” Extrapolate that data to the whole U.S. population, and you come out with 55.2 million potential voters that politicians can no longer afford to ignore.
Americans are also abandoning their belief that God is actively involved in our daily affairs. The same 2013 Harris poll found that 37 percent of Americans said they believe God controls what happens on Earth, down from 50 percent in 2003. The point is reinforced by the across-the-board decline in the percentage of people who said they believe their holy book represents the word of God: from 55 percent in 2003 to 49 percent in 2013 for the Old Testament, from 54 percent to 48 percent for the New Testament, and from 26 percent to 22 percent for the Torah.
The decline of religion goes far beyond America’s shores. A 2013 survey of 14,000 people in 13 nations (Germany, France, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Israel, Canada, Brazil, India, South Korea, Britain and the United States) conducted by the German pollster Bertelsmann Stiftung found that there is both widespread approval for the separation of church and state as well as a decline in religiosity from generation to generation. In response to the statements, “Only politicians who believe in God are suitable for public office” and “Leading religious figures should exercise an influence on government decisions,” for example, only 25 percent of Americans agreed with the former and 28 percent with the latter. All other countries reported lower figures (with Spain at the bottom at 8 percent and 13 percent, respectively). And most of the countries in the survey showed religiosity in decline, especially among the youth. In Spain, for example, 85 percent of respondents over the age of 45 reported being moderately to very religious, but only 58 percent of those under 29 were so inclined. In Europe in general, the study found, “only 30 percent to 50 percent of those interviewed regard religion as important in their own lives, and respondents tend to describe themselves as only moderately religious.”
The secularization trend around the world has been under way for centuries. As the sociologist of religion Phil Zuckerman reveals in his 2016 book The Nonreligious, coauthored with psychologist Luke Galen and anthropologist Frank Pasquale, “there are more secular people in the world today than ever before, and their numbers are increasing in various countries on every continent.” Globally, the religion scholars note, “for perhaps the first time in history, there are now some societies that are extremely secular, and most of these highly secular societies are also among the most societally healthy and successful societies on earth.”
It looks like the U.S. religious re-awakening from the 1950s through the 2000s, then, might have been an anomaly. The long-term trend is certainly toward secularization.
The Evangelicals who helped put Trump in the White House would probably dispute that. But they are missing the bigger picture: Trump was elected president despite being the least religious major candidate in the 2016 field. Looked at this way, Trump isn’t the evangelicals’ savior. He’s just another data point in America’s long march away from religion.
Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a presidential fellow at Chapman University. He is th