Atheists politicians might be rare now, but not for long

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Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT),  a socialist with no religion, hits two of the least popular categories in America but that's changing.  Photo courtesy of Joshua Roberts courtesy of Reuters

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a socialist with no religion, hits two of the least popular categories in America but that's changing. Photo courtesy of Joshua Roberts courtesy of Reuters

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Photo courtesy of Sarah Jones

Prowling in statistics for stories is one of my favorite things. Sarah Jones joins me in that passion. Here is a Faith & Reason guest post by Jones, a communications associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, on a fascinating new finding. (The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.) 

Atheists are still the least popular religious group in America, but they outrank socialists in a new poll of political favorability. That’s bad news for presidential contender Bernie Sanders, a non-religious socialist. But it’s not all doom and gloom for religiously unaffiliated Americans.

The poll, released by Gallup this month, reveals that 58 percent of Americans now say they’d consider voting for an atheist presidential candidate. That’s an increase of four points from a similar 2012 poll, and puts atheists just behind Muslims in terms of political viability.

It’s not a steep shift in public opinion. Atheism isn’t about to win anyone any elections, and it’s clear that American voters still expect and respond to candidates with professed religious beliefs.

But the findings are still notable, and they still have serious implications for the movement we often call “the religious right,” because they correspond to the rapid growth of religiously unaffiliated Americans, or “nones.”

A full quarter of Americans identify themselves as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. That statistic necessarily means that the non-religious are more visible than they’ve ever been, and that the prospect of a non-religious political candidate is something more than an outlandish hypothetical.

The Nones also trend young. There are more young “nones” than there are young evangelicals, for example, and Gallup’s latest data seems to reflect this: 75 percent of potential voters aged 18-29 say they’d vote for an atheist. They’re more favorably inclined toward atheist candidates than any other age group.

So far, this tracks with conventional wisdom. A less religious demographic will obviously be more accepting of non-religious political candidates.

But the reality’s a bit more complicated than that. According to Gallup, evangelicals actually tied even with atheists for the millennial vote. There’s no significant generation gap, either; millennials are just as likely as members of the Silent Generation to vote for evangelical candidates.

That’s a bit of a surprise, given what else we know about young voters. There’s mounting evidence that they overwhelmingly support marriage equality, anti-discrimination laws for LGBT people, and reproductive health care access — causes that are anathema to most evangelicals.

So what’s behind this favorability toward evangelical candidates?

It’s possible that young voters just aren’t familiar with what evangelicals typically believe — that they don’t associate the evangelical identity label with certain conservative views. But this doesn’t seem particularly likely. evangelicals are still a powerful social force, and they’ve been visible antagonists to political movements and causes that millennials hold dear.

That leaves another tantalizing possibility: young voters aren’t willing to disregard a candidate based on religious identity alone.

There’s already some evidence that millennials reject the conflation of religious and political identities. As the Barna Group first documented in 2007, young adults who left organized Christianity overwhelmingly identified its political mobilization as a major reason for their departure.

In practice, this could mean the same demographic is reluctant to repeat the mistakes of their forebears; that to young voters, religious identity and political conviction belong to separate categories. Thus, if a candidate identified as evangelical but professed progressive positions on the social issues most important to Millennials, that candidate could successfully capture the young vote.

That spells long-term trouble for the religious right.

Their formidable voting bloc is organized around twin assertions: that America is a Christian nation and thus should be governed by Christians. They amassed political power by pinning a set of political positions to a religious identity, and their agenda is therefore doomed if young voters refuse to do the same.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT),  a socialist with no religion, hits two of the least popular categories in America but that's changing.  Photo courtesy of Joshua Roberts courtesy of Reuters

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a socialist with no religion, hits two of the least popular categories in America but that’s changing. Photo courtesy of Joshua Roberts courtesy of Reuters

It’s still unclear how much rising numbers of “nones” will specifically affect the 2016 elections.

The question of an atheist presidential candidate is technically moot at the moment: Sanders is non-religious, rather than openly atheist, and Gallup’s poll did not measure public sentiment toward agnostics and other unaffiliated categories.

Even if an avowed atheist were to enter the race, she’d still be unpopular with most Americans and millennial tolerance wouldn’t be enough to propel her to glory.

That won’t be the case forever. Eventually, we will have an atheist presidential candidate. And soon enough, the odds will be in their favor.

  • Charles

    Democratic socialist, it’s really different.

  • Calvin J. Bushay

    We’ve had a black president. Now we need an atheist president, a female president and a gay president. Would be great if all those could be knocked out in one person. Also, a trans president. That’s the progress and level of tolerance we need.

  • Tim

    Atheists are not a religious group. We are, in fact,a non-religious group.

  • Joe

    You’re very first line concerns me: “Atheists are still the least popular religious group in America,…”

    Since when has atheism been a religion? It’s simply a stance stating that there are no supernatural beings or gods, which has nothing to do with values/morals or an organized belief system or even community. Using inaccurate language like this adds to the confusion that religious people have about atheists. Please try to understand these terms and write more clearly.

  • Me

    Atheism has to do with disbelief in a god or gods. It has nothing to do with other possible “supernatural entities.”

  • bqrq

    Like Obama, Bernie Sanders would use the Office of the President to hurt families, attack Christians, and push sodomy and immorality on children and young people.

  • Susan

    I believe in God and I support GLBT rights. I don’t think that it hurts families at all. I think that it helps families. bqrq, you have have GLBT family members even if you don’t know it. They are part of your family too. I know a person who was thrown out of his house when his “Christian” parents found out he was Gay. What kind of family values is that?

    Sanders has no interest in attacking Christians or people of any religion.

  • Garson Abuita

    The RNS “5 Faith Facts” article about Sanders from April states that he identifies as Jewish but is “not a religious person.” So is he counted as Jewish or a None in these statistics? It’s an instance of statistics providing more heat than illumination.

  • samuel johnston

    I would prefer that persons running for office refrain from playing the religion card.
    Personal beliefs and religious practices have no place in the public service sector.
    Americans are from many religious and cultural backgrounds. Their representatives should be devoted to the public good, not their private agendas.

  • tonykeywest

    In George Washington’s farewell address he told us to suspect the patriotism of those who fight against what things bring peace and prosperity, namely religion and morality.

  • Susan

    Bernie Sanders values come from Jewish religion even if he claims to not be religious. His working for social justice and to help the poor comes right from the Bible. I think that he would admit that even if he doesn’t believe in God. Although many Jews have complicated relationships with God and religion because of the Holocaust and centuries of persecution.

  • no1453

    Atheists by and large believe in no supernatural occurrences. You might differ.

  • samuel johnston

    Me, No, Joe,
    Atheism, being a negative, has no exact meaning. The Romans called the Jews atheists. Me, I just refuse to pledge allegiance to any idea, and reserve the right to change my mind as many times as I want. After all, ideas are not things, persons, or even an accurate picture of reality.

  • mike

    Religion does not beget morality – likewise a lack of religion does not beget a lack of morality. To think that one has to be religious before they can develop morals is an ignorant, dangerous view.