The election and inauguration of the second-ever Catholic president of the United States were notably unoccupied with his Catholicism. In a diverse Democratic primary field—up against candidates who were women, non-white, Jewish, or openly gay—Joe Biden’s Catholic identity was essentially a non-issue. Yet religion, and Christianity especially, continues to represent a major force in American politics, even as traditional worship is on the decline. The current U.S. Congress is more religiously affiliated than the population as a whole. More than a quarter of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, but only one member of Congress is, Arizona’s Senator Kyrsten Sinema. How is religion shaping U.S. political life today?

According to Matthew Sitman, an associate editor of Commonweal and the co-host of the podcast Know Your Enemy, religious affiliation in America is often connected these days with patterns of partisan and cultural polarization. To be on the Christian right, he says, is pervasively about opposition to “wokeness” or perceived extremism on the left. But Sitman, a Catholic social democrat, sees a role for religion in liberal and left politics too—and in connecting people beyond politics. While the religious left isn’t a mirror image of the politically united and organized religious right, liberal and progressive religious ideals and leadership can offer moral guidance to movements and politicians alike. Yet the value of religion in American democracy, Sitman says, isn’t ultimately in how it shapes policies but in “serving as a reminder that there are things of importance that go beyond the next election.”

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: What is happening with the role of religion in contemporary American politics?

Matthew Sitman: I hate to say this, as someone who is a religious person myself, but my first, instinctive response is to say that religion, like everything else in America, seems to be breaking down along polarized lines.

I have in mind, the idea in the journalist Ezra Klein’s book on polarization, of a mega identity, where increasingly, your education level, where you live, your professional life, the social groups and institutions of civil association that you’re involved in, all line up. People don’t have very many crosscutting identities these days, where, for example, you’re a Republican but you’re in a union. Increasingly, it seems that politics drives people’s religious convictions, rather than that religious convictions makes people’s partisan affiliations more complicated.

Religious disaffiliation, or the rise of the number of people who say they don’t claim a particular faith tradition, or who see themselves as spiritual but not religious, is happening more—and in a more concentrated form—among people with a progressive, liberal outlook. But for people who are religious, their religious convictions [increasingly] line up with their political ones.

Bovy: As you say, organized religion appears to be on the decline in the U.S. What’s driving this? How much do you think a popular sense that religious equals conservative inspires some Americans to reject religious affiliation?

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Sitman: There are a lot of factors involved in religious disaffiliation, and it’s best not to simplify. But yes, one significant factor is that religion ends up being identified with the most reactionary and retrograde political elements. Even if that’s not fair, even if there’s a lot of American religious life that has nothing to do with the religious right or religious conservatives. Nevertheless, religion can represent a combination of being the most morally preening voices of other people’s morality in American society and defending the grotesque immorality of someone like Donald Trump, or selling your soul in the name of political power.

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