Political scientists examine relationship between secularism and religion

Reviewed By Steven P. Millies
Wednesday, September 1, 2021

What if believers are responsible for secularism?

That is the provocative question raised by “Secular Surge,” where, unlike practically every other argument you ever have heard about secularism, the authors actually bring empirical data.

David E. Campbell and Geoffrey C. Layman both teach at the University of Notre Dame, and their co-author John C. Green teaches at the University of Akron. All three are political scientists, and their book has offered an important, almost unprecedented contribution to how we understand secularization and our politics.

In “Secular Surge,” Campbell, Green and Layman report on an experiment they conducted. “The Clerical Campaign Experiment gauges reaction to politicians who invoke religion,” the authors explain. The experiment asked a group of people to name their religious affiliation. A week later, the same people were shown a news story about a Republican candidate making a religious argument for his political position.

When they were asked to name their religious affiliation after reading that story, the same people were less likely to claim a religious affiliation. In fact, claims of religious affiliation declined by 15% after reading that news story. 

“Does exposure to this linkage between religion and partisan politics trigger religious disaffiliation?” the authors ask. “The answer is yes,” they conclude. The effect of “politicized religion” is “substantial,” they write. Eye-popping might be a better description.

“Secular Surge” is about much more than just a simple question about whether the religious interventions in politics drive people away and create a more secular political culture, of course. Campbell, Layman and Green construct a careful and data-driven argument about what secularism is and why secularism is happening.

Particularly deserving of attention is their observation that there “is great diversity within the secular population,” and leaving a religious community is not the same as losing faith. “Secular” people may still be believers, as the popularity of the spiritual-not-religious perspective seems to affirm. In such cases, faith is not necessarily lost when the church loses members. But that also poses the challenging question of why churches are losing members who still believe. That experiment reported in “Secular Surge” may offer an important piece of the answer.

Campbell, Layman and Green take up the secular question because of the way that secularism characterizes our deeply divided politics. The question of believing itself is a division in our public life. But the authors are carefully optimistic that “the secular surge is not destined to lead to greater political conflict.” We can hope to blunt the divisive effects of growing secularism if we understand secularism better.

But understanding secularism poses an important challenge for churches, and we might say here among friends it certainly should challenge Catholics. We can see all around us that the Catholic Church is mired in arguments about both political and ecclesial questions. Much of this, even after six decades, centers on the Second Vatican Council, which encouraged Catholics to engage the modern world. 

It is not clear yet how many Catholics are comfortable doing that. Yet, if the Catholic Church does not engage the modern world, as popes from John XXIII to Francis have urged us to, there will be consequences.

A church that does not seem to engage the modern world becomes, naturally, a church apart from the world. If we understand secularism as being about the church’s declining influence in the world, then perhaps failing to have stayed with the world is at the heart the problem. Maybe that is what people who leave the church are responding to, not unlike the participants in the “Clerical Candidate Experiment.”

Perhaps the feeling that the world does not pay attention to the church isn’t because people don’t want what our faith proclaims. In fact, many people who have disaffiliated still claim to believe. Instead, the question Campbell, Layman and Green suggests to believers is whether we have done a bad job proclaiming.