(Not) one nation, under God

To truly become a more equal society, look to our youth, the ‘nones.’


Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has studied the behavior of young people in America for more than two decades. The subtitle of her 2017 book, iGen, gives you an idea of her thesis: Why Todays Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.” 

Deep in the data from surveys of 11 million people born in the mid-1990s, Twenge identifies a seismic trend, one thats been underway for decades: This generation is also the least religious in U.S. history. But before you assume that godlessness is to blame for their unhappiness, says Twenge, consider instead individualism — a focus on the self — which can alienate young people from society’s rules, including organized religion.

More than 100 abortion-rights activists participated in a protest march in Bloomington, Indiana after the Supreme Court of the United States struck down Roe v. Wade in June.
Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

One young man told Twenge that religion, at least to people his age, seems like “its something of the past. It seems like something that isnt modern.” Another said: I knew from church that I couldnt believe in both science and God, so that was it. I didnt believe in God anymore.Only 28% of high school seniors attended religious services in 2015, compared to 40% in 1976. A growing number also told Twenge that religion was not important at allin their lives. 

It isnt just young people. Across race and ethnicity, socio-economic background and geography, fewer of us are saying we believe in God: 81%, according to a recent Gallup poll, down from 96% eight decades ago. If current trends hold, Twenge concluded in 2015, the America of the future will be “unchurched, unmarried, and unprejudiced. This last may be difficult to envision, given that anti-trans bills have passed in the last year in Arizona and Utah, while California and Oregon have witnessed a rise in hate crimes against Asians and Pacific Islanders since the pandemic began. But imagine, if you can, an unprejudiced nation where that kind of thing would be unheard of; where tribal nations are accepted as sovereign; where there is full access to reproductive health in Arizona and Nevada and Wyoming.

This signals an extraordinary new course for this country and for the West, in particular, where Christianity has long been the dominant creed encouraging settler colonialisms westward push, playing a key part in the subjugation of Indigenous peoples and the occupation of their lands. Christian nationalism has been a common battle cry, used to promote political campaigns and proselytize to young people, from the Pledge of Allegiance to schoolbooks and beyond. At its core is the belief that God has destined the United States of America for greatness. Like all foundational myths, however, Christian nationalism is an illusion: Its been shoved down our throats as a kind of civic faith to create a unifying American identity. 

Abortion rights activists protest in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in June in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. and Christianity are not inextricable, despite those who insist that they are. Its worth noting that Christianity doesnt actually appear in any of the three foundingdocuments — the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, or the United States Constitution. Thomas Jeffersons 1776 document invokes a Supreme Being that is nonsectarian. And it’s worth remembering that his powerful declaration that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” did not include Blacks or women, and that he dismissed Indigenous peoples as merciless Indian savages.” Still, in 1788, the U.S. became the first world nation to abolish a religious test for holding public office. The First Amendment to the Constitution, added by Congress within three years, prohibited the government from dictating a state religion or favoring one religion over another, thereby establishing the separation of church and state. Many of the Bible-quoting conservative Christians in office today would gladly erase these principles if they could. Today, 89% of the House of Representatives identifies as Christian, even as were seeing growing secularism among all Americans, particularly among youth.

Like something of the past,to quote the young man Twenge interviewed for her book, Christian fundamentalism is once again rearing its ugly head. Its a response to many things, including declining church membership. For many of us, belief is simply incompatible with a scientific view of the world. But we cant overlook how the drop in religiosity has been twisted by the Republican Party for political means: Conservative Christians, the self-proclaimed moral majority,are today, in fact, a minority. And not just in the faith department: As the 2010 U.S. Census confirmed, multiracial babies — especially Latinos — now outnumber white babies. Many of the largest Latino populations reside in the Southwest, in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The trend has been going on for decades, fueled by interracial marriage, immigration and U.S. births. And it is expected to continue: By 2050, the United States will cease to be a majority white country.

Abortion rights activists listen to speakers before a march to the White House to denounce the U.S. Supreme Court decision to end federal abortion rights protections on Saturday, July 9th, in Washington, DC.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

With its influence diminished, a threatened white Christian minority is turning to fear-mongering: We see its influence among the increasingly emboldened white nationalists and in last years U.S. Capitol insurrection. We see its power over the current Supreme Court, with its reversal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and refusal to consider comprehensive gun reform. 

But the tide is shifting. Our future is not just secular, but increasingly atheist. Those of us in the West who are concerned with preserving democracy, human rights and the environment must challenge a vengeful white Christian leadership. We can begin by challenging the foundational myth that America is one with God. Perhaps we should follow the lead of younger generations in joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated and nones.We may not all be created equal under the eyes of the state but we have every right to be, with or without God.

Ruxandra Guidi was formerly a contributing editor for High Country News. She writes from Tucson, Arizona. 

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