In recent weeks, a confluence of events has reignited the long-simmering debate about the role of religion in American public life. Louisiana passed a law requiring public schools to display the Ten Commandments in every classroom, a move that was cheered by some conservative Christians as an affirmation of the nation’s religious heritage but decried by others as a troubling erosion of the separation of church and state.

Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination and a longtime force in GOP politics, voted to oppose in vitro fertilization, signaling a growing willingness to translate theological beliefs into policy stances beyond the realm of abortion, where the denomination has long focused its political energies.

Then there’s the leaked recording of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito suggesting America needs to “return … to a place of godliness,” which provoked conversation about the influence of religious conservatism on the nation’s highest court, even as the justice’s defenders argued that the comments were misconstrued.

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But even as these events capture headlines, a more profound shift in the religious landscape is unfolding. New research shows that a significant minority of self-described evangelicals don’t subscribe to core Christian beliefs such as the divinity of Jesus. For them, evangelical identity seems to be less about theological conviction than cultural and political affiliation.

This trend is underscored by the surprising finding that small but growing numbers of Muslims, Hindus and Jews now identify as evangelical — a term once inextricable from its Christian origins. For these Americans, the word “evangelical” appears to be evolving into a catchall designation for a certain strain of GOP politics, one that emphasizes culture war issues and loyalty to former President Donald Trump.

This untethering of evangelical identity from doctrinal belief tracks with a broader realignment in which partisan allegiance is eclipsing religious affiliation as the primary driver of social and political attitudes. In some ways, this mirrors the advent of “cultural Catholicism,” a phenomenon in which many Americans identify as Catholic or partially Catholic even though they do not primarily define their religious identity as Catholic. Similarly, today’s cultural evangelicals may see their religious identity more as a marker of family history, cultural heritage or political inclination than as a matter of deep theological commitment. This has significant implications for how we understand the role and influence of evangelical Christianity in American public life.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that neither evangelicalism nor secularism is a monolithic bloc. Within each camp, there is a wide range of beliefs, practices and political persuasions. Some evangelicals are deeply conservative, while others lean moderate or progressive. Some are single-issue voters fixated on abortion, while others prioritize issues like poverty, immigration or the environment. Likewise, the secular spectrum encompasses everyone from strident atheists to “spiritual but not religious” seekers to indifferent agnostics.

Acknowledging this diversity within and between religious and secular communities is crucial for avoiding the kind of sweeping generalizations that fuel polarization and hinder understanding. When we paint either side as a uniform, implacable force, we lose sight of the complex reality of American religious life.

What might these tectonic changes in the religious terrain portend for America’s future? In the short term, they likely forecast escalating conflicts around the role of religion in the public square, as the devout and the disaffected wrestle over the boundaries of acceptable “God talk” in policy debates. The Louisiana classroom law and the Southern Baptist Convention’s newest foray into reproductive politics are unlikely to be the last such flare-ups.

But in the longer view, the blurring of lines between religious and political identities could also create unexpected opportunities for new coalitions and fresh thinking. The growing phenomenon of Americans of diverse faith backgrounds finding common cause under the evangelical label hints at the possibility of novel political alignments organized around shared cultural affinities rather than formal creeds.

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For example, we might see the emergence of a multi-faith “religious right” that brings together conservative Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Christians who prioritize traditional values and religious liberty concerns over theological differences. Such a coalition could wield significant influence in a political landscape where the “faith vote” is no longer monopolized by a single religious tradition. Such realignments would not erase the deep differences that exist within and between America’s diverse faith communities. But they could scramble the religious-political map in ways that create more room for nuance, pragmatism and issue-specific cooperation across traditional divides.


On the progressive end of the religious spectrum, there are also intriguing possibilities for new alliances. Just as conservative faith groups are finding common cause around shared cultural concerns, progressive religious activists are coming together to advocate for social justice issues like racial equity, LGBTQ rights and economic fairness. Interfaith coalitions like the Poor People’s Campaign and Faith in Public Life are mobilizing diverse faith communities to challenge systemic inequities and promote a more inclusive vision of the common good. These efforts point to the potential for a “religious left” that could serve as a counterweight to the religious right in the public square.

Navigating this new landscape will require a more sophisticated understanding of the complex ways that religious identity intersects with race, ethnicity, generation and geography. And it will demand a more inclusive public discourse that makes space for a wider range of voices and experiences.

None of this will be easy in a time of intense polarization and deep distrust. The current political climate is characterized by a sense of winner-take-all tribalism, where compromise is seen as betrayal and the stakes of every disagreement feel existential. But if the alternative is a zero-sum struggle for religious and cultural dominance, then the hard work of forging a more pluralistic public square may be the only way forward.

Asma T. Uddin is an attorney, a Deseret contributing writer and the author of “When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom” and “The Politics of Vulnerability: How to Heal Muslim-Christian Relations in a Post-Christian America.”

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