The Future Will Be More Religious and Conservative Than You Think

As the 2012 presidential election grows closer, voter demographics will grab ever more airtime. In a finely balanced electorate, switching parties is less common, making internal growth of party bases more important. Getting the vote out is one aspect of this; population change another. Three or four decades ago, most Americans had trouble specifying which party was conservative or liberal, or matching them to issue positions. No longer. What’s more, as Robert Cushing and Bill Bishop observe in The Big Sort, partisanship affects where people choose to live. Robert Putnam and David Campbell add that politics often determines where they go to church. Thus NPR’s Ray Suarez relates that a scout leader he met moved from the Episcopalians to become a Mormon because he didn’t want to be associated with a “fag church.” Over time, though, switching declines and battle lines solidify. As theology, ideology, and political party line up, switching becomes less important and the religious and political market is driven more by population shifts. This is not only true in the United States, but in a growing number of societies around the world.

All of which explains why pundits’ interest in demography has been steadily rising. Ruy Teixeira, for instance, claims that the growth of the college-educated, secular and Hispanic proportion of the population will soon provide the Democrats with an inbuilt electoral majority. Chris Bowers of the Nation styles this the “End of Bubba Dominance.” On the other side of the ledger, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks highlights the role of fertility: “Liberals have a big baby problem: They’re not having enough of them, they haven’t for a long time, and their pool of potential new voters is suffering as a result.” “In Seattle,” adds Phillip Longman of the New America Foundation, “there are nearly 45 percent more dogs than children. In Salt Lake City, there are nearly 19 percent more kids than dogs.”

In order to adjudicate between these competing predictions, I teamed up with Vegard Skirbekk and Anne Goujon, two leading Austrian-based experts in the art of projecting the size of subgroups in populations. The results, published in the journal Population Studies, show that Democrats are only marginally younger than Republicans and Republican women bear the same number of children as their Democratic sisters. Immigration, however, is an important factor. If ethnic party identification remains as it is, Latino population growth will benefit the Democrats, shifting the balance between the two parties by two and a half points in the Democrats’ favor over the next 30 years.

However, Republican fertility is not a dead letter: the GOP has a lead over the Democrats among white women and among younger women at all levels of income and education. If the childbearing gap among women aged 20-40 continues to widen, this will certainly benefit the GOP. But even if Republican women enjoyed a 30 percent fertility advantage for a century, this would only halve the gains accruing to the Democrats from immigration. Were immigration to be cut in half, however, the GOP would quickly begin to close in on the Democrats beyond 2040.

The growing Republican fertility advantage largely derives from religion. In the past, people had children for material reasons—many kids died young, and fresh hands were needed to work the land and provide for parents in their old age. Today, we live in cities and benefit from pensions, while children are expensive. Contraception has severed the link between sex and procreation, placing fertility under our control as never before. Family size, which was once a matter of survival, is now a value choice. Seculars can delay having children and opt for fewer, while the religious—especially fundamentalists—have them earlier and more often. This is sometimes called the “second demographic transition” and is of signal importance because in the United States and elsewhere, ours is an epoch of religious polarization. The challenge of secularism, and its threat to religion in the form of modernist theology, has prompted a fundamentalist backlash across all the major world religions.

Secular-fundamentalist polarization produced the “culture wars” in the United States, in which conservative Catholics, Jews, and Protestants moved closer to each other than to their lapsed coreligionists. Religious Latinos and African-Americans generally vote Democratic, but opt for conservative positions on social issues like abortion. When acting in concert with white religious conservatives, as with Proposition 8 in California, they become a force to be reckoned with. And all have a considerable fertility edge over their pro-choice counterparts. This explains why the pro-life majority in the U.S. population will approach three-quarters of the total by the end of the century. However, the Republican Party is not projected to increase its support. Instead, the growth will be among pro-life Hispanics, most of whom inherit Democratic partisanship.

Those who doubt whether demography can shape politics should consider world Jewry. The combination of religious polarization and demographic upheaval is especially stark among Jews. They began to secularize in large numbers in the 19th century, and Orthodoxy emerged to combat this trend. The temperature of Jewish fundamentalism increased sharply after the horrors of World War II, and an ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community emerged, segregating itself from other Jews. Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, and the largely secular Zionist leadership assumed that the black-hatted, sidelocked Haredim were a relic of history. They gave the ultra-Orthodox an exemption from the draft, subsidies to study at yeshiva, and other religious privileges to make sure their anti-Zionism didn’t dissuade the Great Powers from establishing a home for the Jews in Palestine. In 1948, there were only 400 Israeli Jews with military exemptions, many of which were not used. By 2007, that number had soared to 55,000. Meanwhile, the fringe of ultra-Orthodox pupils in Israel’s Jewish primary schools in 1960 has ballooned: they now comprise a third of the Jewish first grade class. They are gaining power: in Jerusalem, Haredim rioted in late December, demanding the right to segregate women on buses, and have already elected the city’s first Haredi mayor. Outside Israel, work by Joshua Comenetz and Yaakov Wise reveals that the ultra-Orthodox may form a majority of observant American and British Jews by 2050.

The Jewish example shows that population change can reverse secularism and shift the center of gravity of an entire society in a conservative religious direction. Notice that change has come about because values have polarized people and increasingly determine family size.

In a more modest way, the same is true elsewhere. In the Muslim world, women most in favor of sharia law have twice the birthrates of Muslim women who are most opposed. Religious Arabs have the numbers to reap the electoral rewards from the Arab Spring. Meanwhile, Europeans and Americans who report “no religion” are leading the shift to below-replacement fertility. In most of Europe, the nonreligious average around one child per woman. In the United States, they manage 1.5, considerably lower than the national 2.1. This disadvantage is not enough to prevent religious decline in much of Europe and America today, but secularism must run to stand still. Since the history of religious decline in Europe suggests that secularization rates tend to drop over time, this portends the end of secularization. Projections I recently published with Skirbekk and Goujon in the journal Sociology of Religion show secularism losing momentum and beginning to decline in both Europe and America by 2050, largely because of low fertility and religious immigration.

The future has already arrived in major immigration gateway cities in “secular” Europe. Consider London. In the past 20 years, according to religious censuses, Christian attendance has nosedived 40 percent in England but has remained steady in the capital. This is not because the swingers of Soho have sobered up. Peer inside a typical London church and you’ll find that more than 60 percent of the parishioners are non-white and many others are East European immigrants. At the same time, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and other religious groups are growing. The net effect is a more religious London than a quarter century ago. In Paris and other European entrepôts, the same has occurred. England in 2050 is expected to look like London, so it’s easy to imagine a more religious England, and Europe, at the end of our century.

The same is true in the United States. “Nones” may be the third-largest religious group in the United States, and ex-Catholics the fourth-largest, but the switching story needs a demographic context. If America remained 70 percent white, the population would reach European levels of secularization in two generations and Catholics would rapidly lose market share to Protestants. Instead, swift Hispanic and Asian population growth is projected to stabilize the share of nonreligious Americans at roughly today’s levels. Catholics, far from declining, may outnumber Protestants among the nation’s youth as early as the 2040s.

It’s worth remembering that 97 percent of the world’s population growth takes place in the religious tropics, while populations in secular East Asia and the West are aging and would already be declining were it not for immigration. Birth rates are coming down in the developing world, but the peak population pressure between the global North and South lies ahead, in 2050. At that time, the UN projects that there will be four (largely religious) Africans for every European, compared to the situation in 1950 when there were two and a half Europeans per African. According to the Gallup World Poll and World Religious Database, this global demographic revolution has already made the world a more religious place than it was in 1970, and will continue to do so. As the secular regions age and depopulate, they will replenish their workforce with religious immigrants, injecting religion back into society and politics. From this perspective, high profile incidents like the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh or the banning of the burqa in France may prove to be the opening stanzas of a new epic in which religion re-enters public life.

Many of us believe the ethos of society in a century will more closely resemble the ideas of Christopher Hitchens than those of Jerry Falwell. Yet we forget that most people get their religion the old-fashioned way: through birth. Demography is not destiny, but it is the most predictable of the social sciences. As the population of the world peaks and begins to decline later in this century, the strongly religious will stand against the tide. In so doing, they will remake societies and wash away many of our certainties about secularization, Enlightenment, and the End of History.