In the Atlantic, under the headline “What Really Happens When Americans Stop Going to Church,” Daniel K. Williams argues:
people become even more entrenched in their political views when they stop attending services. Though churches have a reputation in some circles as promoting hyper-politicization, they can be depolarizing institutions. Being part of a religious community often forces people to get along with others—including others with different political views—and it may channel people’s efforts into charitable work or forms of community outreach that have little to do with politics. Leaving the community removes those moderating forces, opening the door to extremism.
Williams cites his own research that suggests that Christians who stop attending church “become hyper-individualistic, devoted to law and order, cynical about systems, and distrustful of others.” Notably, Williams published that analysis in Christianity Today and serves as a senior fellow at Ashland University–so he may be able to reach audiences that I could not. However, he also cites Samuel Stroope, Paul Froese, Heather M. Rackin, and Jack Delehanty, who reached similar conclusions and published their paper, “Unchurched Christian Nationalism and the 2016 US Presidential election,” in Sociological Forum in 2021.
This argument makes good sense to me, and I have tried to test the same thesis myself in different ways. At one point I found: “For white Christians, being actively involved in a church builds the values that we need for a pluralistic democracy. At the same time, simply identifying as Christian and hearing Christian messages is associated with intolerant values.”
I still believe the Tocquevillian theory that people learn to collaborate, deliberate, and accept other human beings by participating in self-governing communities, of which churches are key examples. Of course, Christianity also makes a compelling moral case for love, acceptance, and fairness when it’s interpreted in ways that both challenge and uplift the believers, which is supposed to happen in a church. However, for White Americans, the sheer sense of being Christians (Christian identity) is associated–in my research and others’–with intolerance. This means that when White Americans who identify as Christians go to church, there is at least the potential to channel their beliefs and behavior in positive ways. If they leave the church and also stop identifying as Christians, things can go well or badly. But when they stop attending church and yet continue to think of themselves as Christians, bad results often ensue.