Franklin Graham, the evangelical preacher and son of Billy Graham, is in the midst of a 10-city tour of California in the run-up to Tuesday’s primary election, rallying conservatives to “turn this state around.” That may seem like a pipe dream, given the dramatic shifts in America’s religious landscape: In 2003, 21% of Americans were white evangelicals; by 2017, that number had dropped to 13%. Meantime, those identifying with no religion — the so-called “nones” — grew from 12% to 22%.
But Graham is banking on something else besides sheer numbers. Evangelical churches have maintained their core institutional strengths, including megachurches that still can coordinate blocs of voters, wealth amassed over decades, media outlets and donors ready to fund candidates. The nones? They have none of that.
Although a shrinking voter base should mean less influence, that’s not how political power works in the United States. A cohesive and reliable base often can impose its will on a larger but less-organized portion of the electorate. (If political power were solely a numbers game, the fact that 7 in 10 Americans support tighter gun laws would have motivated corresponding action on the part of legislators.) In 2016, 80% of white evangelicals supported Donald Trump, pulling his presidential campaign to victory in key states.
Despite fewer people in the pews, no other grass-roots group rivals the evangelicals. In churches in neighborhood after neighborhood, Sunday after Sunday, evangelical preachers tell congregants just how important it is to get involved in social issues and to be active in shaping society around their moral vision, just as Graham did at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena last week.
Indeed, evangelicals’ numerical decline has produced a leaner, and perhaps meaner, church. The most moderate voices — people who have tempered extremes in politics and policy with commonsense and compassion — are the most likely to vacate the pews. Research shows that the rates of new “nones” are rising most quickly in Republican states. The evangelical church is left with its most conservative, least compromising members in charge of vast amounts of money and influence.
A shrinking voter base should mean less influence, that’s now how political power works in the United States.
By contrast, despite their growing numbers, the nones have no cohesive group identity, and therefore no leaders, speakers or rallies drawing thousands to talk about the transformation of America. They lack the gathering spots, social connections and radio and TV channels that would shape them into a cultural voice. Until the nones can get organized — not just into loose digital social networks, but into strong, real world institutions — they will remain a large minority with almost no political leverage.
The paradox of the new nones is that they often are driven away from organized religion by the political stances of their churches — and yet they now find themselves politically adrift. Nones need some kind of tightly organized political machinery to effect change but are generally uninterested institutions. Instead, they favor their own personal networks and the freedom that comes with political and spiritual independence.
Even if they wanted organizational membership, the institutions that speak to their beliefs and aspirations for the country probably don’t exist. To wield political power and accomplish goals, they will have to grow new groups from the ground up — undertakings they may not have the taste for, especially if they just detached from their churches in the past decade.
For nones to begin to grasp even a fraction of the political power of a Franklin Graham, they will have to conceptualize of themselves as a cohesive group, yet one representing a wide swath of diverse interests. They will have to build strong but flexible institutions that can speak to all of these various constituents. Or — the more likely path — they will have to take on the laborious task of reimagining and transforming old institutions, such as the churches they used to attend, into new ones that can produce social connections and eventually political power.
Until this happens, nones will continue to outnumber white evangelicals, but politically, the evangelical church will keep punching above its weight.
Rebecca Sager is the chair of the sociology department at Loyola Marymount University and a fellow with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Brie Loskota is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.