Chris Nelson grew up in the heart of the Bible Belt in central Alabama and attended a Pentecostal church. He explored other denominations in college and later became a Lutheran.
But Nelson, 41, has turned away from religion in recent years. He says he’s troubled by the rise of right-wing politicians whose adoption of a certain brand of conservative Christian faith has blurred the lines between church and state in Alabama. Lawmakers passed one of the toughest anti-abortion laws in the country in 2019. This year, lawmakers approved a measure criminalizing transgender health care for minors.
“Alabama has a Republican supermajority and they tend to lean heavily on culture war issues and they put it in religious language, which I think fits their base well,” Nelson said. “They realize it’s an easy way to influence people and win elections.”
Nelson is part of an organized effort to speak out publicly against belief-based politics. The campaign is led by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonpartisan advocacy group that promotes worldly values.
“We want government out of our bedrooms, out of our healthcare system, and we’re sick of not getting representation,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, which says it has about 38,000 members nationwide. This month, the group funded dozens of billboards and newspaper ads in state capitals to highlight the political power of atheists. (Nelson’s photo appears on one such billboard and in newspaper ads in Huntsville, Birmingham and Montgomery next to the phrase, “I am an atheist and I vote.”)
According to the Pew Research Center, 63% of Americans identified as Christian in 2021, up from 75% a decade ago. “Nones” — people with no religious affiliation — are among the fastest-growing demographic, accounting for 3 in 10 US adults, Pew found.
Despite the decline in church attendance, some conservative politicians have promoted the idea that the US is a white, Christian nation. Their platforms often merge religious doctrines on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights with belief in so-called QAnon conspiracy theories, along with false narratives about the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 election.
Christian nationalism, the belief that Christianity is inherent in American civic life, is also gaining ground among some Republican voters. A new poll by the University of Maryland’s Critical Issues Poll found that 61% of Republicans supported declaring the United States a Christian nation, although more than half believe such a move would be unconstitutional.
Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, has called the US a Christian nation and dismissed the separation of church and state as a “myth.” Other politicians such as US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado have expressed similar views.
“Mastriano is far out. He’s a passionate Christian nationalist,” said Mark Silk, director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. “There’s clearly some pretty extreme stuff out there, and the Republican Party in its Trumpist mode is playing in that sandbox. You have to be a social conservative,” he added, to be successful as a Republican.
The Freedom from Religion campaign aims to convince politicians that secular voters represent a large and growing voting block, Gaylor said.
“We wanted to take our message to lawmakers in capital cities, to remind them that we exist,” she said.
Silk said he’s not sure how much impact the ads will have. “Most people who don’t go to church aren’t anti-religious, they’re just being checked out,” he said. “These groups can raise awareness, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest this is something that moves the needle.”
“A Closet Rationalist”
Ray Matthews, a retired librarian from Salt Lake City, sees himself as an Abraham Lincoln-style Republican, not Donald Trump.
“I turned away from the party when it started aligning itself with the religious right,” said Matthews, a former Mormon who left the church in the mid-1990s. “I’ve always been a secret rationalist.”
Matthews said he was troubled by the deep ties between the state government and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Utah’s dominant religion. More than 85% of state legislators are members of the Church.
“In our culture here, there isn’t a strict division between our religious life and our governmental life,” he said. “White Christian nationalism is just beneath the surface here, but a lot of people don’t recognize it.”
Matthews worked to elect Republican Gov. Spencer Cox, who was elected earlier this year vetoed a bill Banning transgender athletes from participating in school sports. (The legislature voted to override the veto.)
Matthews, a longtime volunteer with Utah’s American Civil Liberties Union, said he agreed to join the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s campaign to counter the church’s influence on state policy. “The word ‘secular’ here is blasphemy,” he said.
The foundation’s efforts aren’t just focused on red states. “We’re not in the Bible Belt,” said Jack Shields, a New Hampshire atheist whose photo appears on a billboard hanging over a busy Manchester street. “But the Christians stick their noses under the tent.”
Unlike Alabama and Utah, New Hampshire legislatures have not enacted new abortion restrictions. But Shields said he fears the wall between church and state is eroding, citing a 2021 state law that allows public money to flow into religious schools.
“Christians take their moral sense of duty and impose it on the rest of the population,” he said.