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Ask Professor Burge 15: The Crystal Ball for American Republicans


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/06/17

Professor Ryan Burge‘s website states: “I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science as well as the Graduate Coordinator at Eastern Illinois University. I teach in a variety of areas, including American institutions, political behavior, and research methods. My research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior (especially in the American context). Previously, I have completed an appointment as a post doctoral research fellow at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, Illinois. While there I was an adviser on issues of survey methodology and polling, as well as providing data collection and analysis.

I have published over a dozen articles in a number of well regarded peer reviewed journals including Politics & Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Review of Religious Research, the Journal of Religious Leadership, RepresentationPoliticsGroupsand Identities, the Journal of Communication and Religion, the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture and the Social Science Computer Review. 

In addition, my research has been covered in a variety of media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, Vox, 538, BuzzFeed News, Al-Jazeera, Christianity Today, Religion News Service, The Daily Mail, Deseret News, World Magazine, Relevant, and C-SPAN. I am the co-founder and frequent contributor to Religion in Public, a forum for scholars of religion and politics to make their work accessible to a more general audience.

Finally, I am a pastor in the American Baptist Church, having served my current church for over thirteen years.”

Here we talk about developments of faith and non-faith and their influenc on political affiliation.

*Interview conducted on August 4, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Now, if we look at some of the stronger points of this trajectory of developments of faith and non-faith in the United States or religion/religious affiliation in the United States, do you think that this will then change the ways in which political life is represented in the United States? So, we have Republicans and Democrats with a fraction as Independent. However, in the 2016 election, the libertarians came forward and the Green Party came forward a little bit. So, do you think that might be an augury of some of the things to be coming forward in the future?

Professor Ryan Burge: To me, I think what the big shift in American politics is going to be is that the Republican Party is going to have to find ways to reach out to the Nones. You can’t keep winning elections with white Christians because they’re losing market share every single year. That is not a winning strategy long term. Might be well now, but it is going to lose you in 20 years. I think the Republican Party has to find a way to reach out to Nones who are, maybe, more moderate politically, let’s say, or even conservative to the right of center politically and say, “Listen, we do not hate you. There’s a place in our party for you.” But at the same time, they’re going to have to be opened to doing what the Democrats do, which is speaking to the black Protestants. They’re going to speak to the Nones were also speaking to the Evangelical Protestants at the same time. So, they’re going to have to start thinking about messaging going forward that doesn’t alienate their base of white Evangelicals. But also seems at least palatable to moderates or slightly right of center Nones, especially nothing in particular, which is the most interesting category in American religious life. It is 20 percent of all Americans. Over the last three elections, they’ve trended toward the Republican Party. That’s the group the Republicans need to win elections going forward.

Jacobsen: Why do Americans individually leave religion? What are the big reasons? And also, what are the big reasons they join religion in later life? I mean, people are born into it. Two thirds stay, one thirds leave. We all know that. But as adults, why do people leave religion or why do people join religion?

Burge: So the leaving thing is really hard. Sociologically, we’re still trying to figure it out. We think that there’s this big macro level stuff like secularization theory that argues that over time you become more prosperous, economically prosperous, educationally advanced, then people want religion aside. This is not something that we talked about a lot. So, the macro reason, you feel like you believe in science more, religion less. That becomes almost your ‘God.’ Science becomes your God and your belief system in a lot of ways. So, you do not need religion to explain things. You’ve got science to do it for you. That’s part of it. I mean, but there’s also things like politics, for instance. We do know that liberals in America; 40% of them are Nones now, used to be 5%. All conservatives, the number of Nones is under 10% among conservatives in America. So, it also may be politics pulling you away, but it could be we might be caught up in a larger thing in America where we’re less social anyway.

We do not go to the Elks and the Moose, and the fraternal organizations. We do not do the community service events like we used to, because we’re less social. We do not have to be social because of the Internet. That may be part of it as well. In terms of why people come back to religion, it’s more often for social reasons, not theological reasons or spiritual reasons. You come back as you are lonely, especially amongst older Americans. We know that loneliness is an absolute epidemic. Amongst the oldest Americans today most of them spend most of their time alone, which is a real tragedy, and the church becomes a social outlet for them. They can go and have friends there and those friendships they make at church can lead to the social events and social gatherings that give them a sense of purpose again. So, I think a lot of people in America come back to church for social reasons. That also extends, by the way, to young people who have kids who want them to have a moral center, and they think the church is a good moral center. So, they bring them back to church because that’s how they were raised too. So, it is all the same thing. It is more often for social reasons. I think, though, then strictly like saving your soul type of reasons.

Jacobsen: Why do only the Evangelical Christians have their numbers as the majority Christian group to be against or to oppose same-sex marriage? Every other group does not have a majority opposing same sex marriage.

Burge: Americans’ whole world shifted dramatically in favor of same-sex marriage in the last ten years. It has been unbelievable. Looking at the polling data, it is like, “Oh, my gosh, it is an aberration.” We’re talking 10 points in four years. So, I guess part of their identity is: You want to be persecuted. You seek out persecution because the Bible says if you’re persecuted you are blessed by God, that means you’re doing the right thing. So, by holding in these extreme positions, you are getting the blessing of God because it is like, “No, we do not listen to a man’s laws. We do not care what society wants. We do what the Bible says is right. The Bible says that gay people can’t get married. So, we’re not going to allow them<’ if they stand on principle, even to their own detriment sometimes. I think that is what is an Evangelical greatest strength in some ways, which is also their greatest weakness now because they’re facing a generation of people, younger people – young Evangelicals – even now who are 55% in favor of same-sex marriage.

So, even people in their own pews, they do not support the theology being taught from the pulpit. They’re trying to reach out to the generation. The younger generation was not Evangelical already. I’ve got to say: Young people are in favor of same-sex marriage. So, it is boxing them in a lot of ways because they’re not being attracted to this potential audience, because the things they believe are antithetical to what a lot of young people grew up with. So, it is there. As I said, it is their greatest strength to hold it together because it gives them this distinctive idea or distinctive identity. But at the same time, it is their greatest weakness because it will make them incredibly hard to be attractive to young people who can’t go to a church where gay people are seen as less than straight people. So, that’s why Evangelicals are what they are. For good or for ill, that’s who they are.

Jacobsen: Ryan, again, thank you so much for the wealth of information and interview today.

Burge: It is always a pleasure, Scott, appreciate it.

Jacobsen: All right, take care. Have fun at the baseball game.

Burge: Bye-bye.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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