As Religious Institutions Decline, the Left Loses Out. We Can Change That.

The decline of religious affiliation in the United States has harmed the Left more than the Right. It has also produced millions of spiritual-but-not-religious Americans who are lonely and hungry for a nourishing community. We should organize them.

Catholic worshipers attending the New Year's Eve Mass in New York's Saint Patrick's Cathedral. (Artem Vorobiev / Getty Images)

Last year, Gallup reported that, for the first time in the nation’s history, most Americans don’t belong to religious congregations. This was a landmark moment in a long and familiar story: America is becoming less religious, and its many declining religious communities are the clearest sign of this cultural transformation.

Many people on the Left welcome the decline of religious affiliation in the United States. They point to the fact that religion is often “co-opted in sustaining the status quo for poor and politically subjugated groups,” as Megan Rogers and Mary Ellen Konieczny write. As followers of the so-called Prosperity Gospel blame poverty on impiety and corrupt megachurch pastors pad their pockets at the expense of working-class parishioners, it’s easy to see their point. Yet the decline of religious affiliation has also had profound drawbacks for the Left, contributing to a lack of community structures among leftists that often leaves them unable to organize people behind their causes and political candidates.

Historically, religious congregations were a vital site of left political organizing. Following the successes of the civil rights movement, which was spearheaded by pastors and other religious voices, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized religious leaders behind a radical program for economic justice. Before that, the Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was instrumental in galvanizing support for legislation that created an eight-hour workday, abolished child labor, and improved factory conditions. The leaders of the Social Gospel movement, including Rev. Washington Gladden and Rev. Mark A. Matthews, were not only authors and lecturers but also congregational leaders, actively organizing their local communities in support of these social reforms.

Current religious leaders, such as Rev. Dr. William Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign, have attempted to revive the religious left, developing a religious movement that is “anti-racist, anti-poverty, pro-justice, [and] pro-labor.” But, because of the decline in congregational affiliation among left-of-center Americans, these voices and their communities can’t exert the influence of their Social Gospel forebearers. According to a study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, there are three times as many conservative Christian churches as there are liberal ones. Religious affiliation is declining across the political spectrum, but left-wing forms of Christianity have been losing their hold on the American population more quickly than conservative evangelical ones. As a result, Pew reports that left-of-center Americans are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than those on the Right.

Because of these changes in America’s religious landscape, leftists have lost their access to religious congregations, a structure of community still effectively used by conservatives to organize people behind a right-wing agenda. Political scientists increasingly stress the centrality of what Ismail K. White and Chryl N. Laird call “social constraint” in politics. White and Laird emphasize that political behavior often reflects the influence of a community, which is capable of exerting the “social pressure” of rewarding or sanctioning its members. Evangelical Christians on the Right have such communities, where individuals receive regular encouragement and social pressure to vote and organize for Christian nationalist Republicans. The paucity of parallel religious communities on the Left represents a relative organizational weakness.

The Deinstitutionalization of Political Life

This competitive disadvantage would be minimized if religiously unaffiliated Americans were joining alternative political communities, but for the most part they aren’t. Tens of millions of Americans remain outside of communities of any kind, struggling as a result with chronic loneliness, and the communities that religiously unaffiliated Americans do join are often ones without a clear political identity.

In their landmark report “How We Gather,” former Harvard Divinity School ministry innovation fellows Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile — with whom, full disclosure, I’ve cofounded an organization dedicated to fostering alternative spiritual community rooted in social justice principles called The Nearness — identify venues such as Crossfit where religiously unaffiliated Americans are meeting many of the needs historically met by religious institutions, like the need for community or for structures of personal growth and accountability. While these venues answer a number of deep-set human needs, they often fail to serve as engines of political change, housing people with a wide variety of political viewpoints and making no effort to organize them toward political goals. Georgia Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene was the owner of a Crossfit affiliate gym and a proud Crossfit athlete — a bastion of leftist politics Crossfit is not.

To reverse their competitive disadvantages, leftists need to join and grow their political communities. Many on the Left participate in local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapters, which have a clear track record of producing political change and cultivating tight-knit relationships among members, hosting social events alongside canvasses, rallies, and meetings. Along with providing community, these groups meet many needs historically met by religious institutions, supplying a framework of values, structures of moral accountability, and meaning. As a woman told the Atlantic after joining the DSA chapter in Denver, “I found a purpose.”

While leftists must continue joining and developing DSA chapters, they should also acknowledge the reality that the growth of these groups has slowed recently, and they should consider whether some audiences might be more interested in different kinds of left communities. Membership in the DSA is no longer increasing at the pace it did after Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign or in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the longtime goal of one hundred thousand members in the DSA remains unfulfilled. Existing political groups will meet the needs of some on the Left, but new communities likely also need to emerge to expand the organizing reach of leftists.

One unexpected audience for these new communities might be the approximately ninety million spiritual-but-not-religious Americans, the majority of whom are left-of-center politically. According to research by the Fetzer Institute, spirituality remains intimately tied up with this audience’s approach to ethics and politics, with 68 percent of Americans claiming that “their spirituality guides how they act in the world,” including on social issues. Spirituality is a major potential determinant of the political behavior of millions of Americans whom leftists should hope to persuade and organize, yet many leftists ignore the role that spirituality might serve in political organizing, reflexively dismissing spirituality as “woo-woo.” In doing so, these leftists perpetuate a class divide by which a more secular educated class fails to connect with a more spiritual working class.

Gallup reported in June of 2022 that 81 percent of Americans believe in God, making clear that the United States is not so much undergoing a process of rapid secularization so much as it’s experiencing the deinstitutionalization of spiritual life. Fewer Americans are attending church, but they are not necessarily becoming less spiritual — nor are they necessarily less interested in spiritual community. Old forms of community are fading, but many Americans are hungering for new ones. As a high school teacher in Colorado told me in a research interview, “I feel like spirituality is sort of solo venture, and what I’ve been searching for and hoping for is to make that communal.” There is a tremendous opportunity for new spiritual communities to emerge to meet the needs of religiously unaffiliated Americans — and this is a distinctive opportunity for the political left, since left-of-center Americans are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than those on the Right.

Of course, a deep historical connection exists between socialism and atheism, and many leftists surely do not identify as spiritual. As leftists attempt to foster communities, they should naturally focus their attention on developing DSA chapters, unions, and political campaigns. Yet, if the Left in the United States is to accomplish its political goals and build on the successes of its Social Gospel forebears, leftists will also need to create political communities that appeal to new audiences. The decline of religious affiliation in the United States has produced millions of spiritual-but-not-religious Americans who are lonely and hungry for a nourishing community, and the Left should attempt to organize them.