Secularization, Autonomization, and Polarization: Linking Trends in 21st Century American Religion, Family, and Politics


Smith, Jesse (2023). Secularization, Autonomization, and Polarization: Linking Trends in 21st Century American Religion, Family, and Politics.


The 21st century United States has been characterized by three macro-level social trends which are still unfolding. First, religiosity by any conventional measure is in decline. Second, two-parent nuclear families are becoming less prevalent and marriage and childbearing are occurring later in life, if at all. Third, political polarization between conservatives and liberals has come to dominate public discourse, reaching life domains well beyond that of electoral politics. Although these trends are often treated in isolation, each has important implications for the others. In this dissertation I explore points of interconnection between these trends across
three chapters comprising three separate studies.

In chapter 2, I examine links between a number of family-based early-life factors such as religious upbringing, parenting style, and parent political views, and internalized moral dispositions later in life. I find evidence that family religious practice in early life contributes to the formation of communalistic moral characteristics in young adulthood, whereas higher family SES is tied more to individualistic or universalistic moral sensibilities. I conclude that despite evidence of secularization, religion continues to play a key role in shaping influential moral dispositions. A corollary conclusion is that as religion declines, the population-level moral profile should undergo a corresponding shift away from communalism and towards individualism.

In chapter 3, I ask how family status and relationship history influence midlife religiosity, and whether they do so independently. I show that parenthood, more than marriage, is linked to higher levels of worship attendance, importance of faith, and frequency of prayer, while cohabitation is linked to lower levels. Independently, a history of more sexual partners is tied to lower, but past marriages higher, religiosity. Based on these findings, I argue that scholars examining the well-established link between the institutions of religion and family should do more to take family complexity into account, and furthermore, that societal changes in family structure may undergird declines in religiosity.

In chapter 4, I ask how links between Christian nationalism and partisan identity have changed over the course of the 21st century. I find that Republican-Democrat gaps were muted until 2016, when Democrats exhibited a sharp decline in Christian-American identitarianism, followed by a gradual rise among Republicans through 2021. This points to partisan sorting driven by a combination of secularization among Democrats and religious nationalism among Republicans, concentrated among white respondents. Based on these results, I argue for a more relational and contextual approach to understanding the current iteration of American religiopolitical conflict that takes greater account of white secularists.

Taken together, these chapters point to the importance of treating macro-level social trends not in isolation, but rather examining the interrelationships between them.




Reference Type



Smith, Jesse

Year Published



Pennsylvania State University

Reference ID