Nonreligious voters present a puzzle for political parties (ANALYSIS)

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A girl (top R) sits above a campaign town hall meeting with U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Manchester, New Hampshire on October 5, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-NONBELIEVER-POLITICS, originally transmitted on Nov. 5, 2015.

A girl (top R) sits above a campaign town hall meeting with U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Manchester, New Hampshire on October 5, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-NONBELIEVER-POLITICS, originally transmitted on Nov. 5, 2015.

(RNS) Political candidates are facing a new reality: Within the Democratic coalition, there are more religiously unaffiliated voters than belong to any single religious group.

This is a significant change in American politics, where nonbelief has long been a liability.

Survey data show that Americans with no religious affiliation are a growing share of both major political parties. But the trend is particularly strong within the Democratic coalition, where the unaffiliated now represent 28 percent of those voters, according to a new Pew Research study.

Given their expanding share of the electoral pie, and their political alignment, some have argued that their rise bodes ill for Republicans and well for Democrats. Religiously unaffiliated voters, known as “nones,” showed their preference for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008, giving Barack Obama 75 percent of their votes, and 70 percent when he ran for re-election in 2012.

But the rise of the nones may not translate into more Democratic votes so easily.

“Politically speaking, religious nones seem to punch a little bit below their weight,” said Gregory A. Smith, Pew’s associate director of research. It’s a finding in the report, he said, “that suggests that the political consequences of the growth of the nones might not be as pronounced as the consequences for the American religious landscape as a whole.”

Changing Religious Composition of Party Coalitions. Photo courtesy of Pew Research Center

Changing Religious Composition of Party Coalitions. Photo courtesy of Pew Research Center

According to Pew, 62 percent of nones are registered to vote, compared with 71 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion.

The nones are also a difficult group for politicians to define and woo, said Dan Cox, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute. They’re not cohesive, in that they include atheists and agnostics but also believers unattached to religious institutions. And unlike the pursuit of an actual religious group, it’s not so clear how to connect with the millions of people defined by their lack of religious connections.

“If I want to reach out to Jewish voters or African-American Protestants or Latino Catholics, I know where to go,” Cox said. “There are institutions where these folks congregate.” The nones, by contrast, have no presiding bishop, no pews, no holiday celebrations at which politicians can press the flesh.


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Despite these challenges, parties need to take the nones seriously, he added, “because they’re growing at a pretty dramatic rate.”

Since 2007, the last time Pew did its U.S. Religious Landscape Study, the nones have jumped by 9 percentage points among Democrats and those who lean Democratic. Catholics make up the next largest group, at 21 percent, followed by evangelicals at 16.

Questions about the nones face Republicans too, though to a lesser extent. GOP nones are rising more slowly — by 4 percentage points since 2007 – and now make up 14 percent of Republicans or those who lean Republican. Evangelicals still represent the largest share of red America, followed by Catholics and mainline Protestants.

In light of these trends, for both the Democrats and the GOP, national candidates may be likelier now to appeal to voters in more secular terms.

In some ways the parties have already begun to do this, simply by acknowledging that the nones exist. Obama both raised eyebrows and drew praise when he became the first president to note in an inaugural address that faith does not define all Americans. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers,” he said in January 2009.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) shakes hands after a town hall meeting with students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia on October 28, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders shakes hands after a town hall meeting with students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., on Oct. 28, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Joshua Roberts *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-NONBELIEVER-POLITICS, originally transmitted on Nov. 5, 2015.

And the unexpectedly strong showing in the polls of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish but unabashedly irreligious, indicates that a national candidate may no longer need to tout his religious credentials to appeal to a large swath of the electorate — though he did give a speech at the evangelical Liberty University in September.

Back during the Cold War, candidates railed against “godless communists” while stressing their own piety. In 1954, Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. But signs show that the insistence on religion, and a Christian one in particular, may be lessening. Congress is becoming more religiously diverse and now includes two Muslims, two Buddhists and a Hindu.

David Kinnaman, president of the Ventura, Calif.-based Barna Group, a market research firm that caters to Christian clients, said he has noticed in recent years that candidates for national office have toned down their religious rhetoric.

“President Clinton regularly quoted Scripture in his speeches,” he said. But now politicians are more mindful of the diversity of religious constituencies and are likely to replace the biblical references with a more general “shared vision of what the nation ought to be and ought to become.”

But Kinnaman said an “increasing sense of pluralism” made itself evident in the widespread condemnation of Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s recent remark about his unwillingness to vote for a Muslim for president, and the religiously unaffiliated may also benefit from expectations of tolerance.


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Just who are these nones? Twenty-three percent of all Americans, according to the latest Pew report, up from 16 percent in 2007. The vast majority of them say they have no particular religious connection. A fraction call themselves “agnostic” and an even smaller fraction “atheist.” They skew young and liberal, particularly on social issues, and they are not growing more religious as they age.

Secular activists are aware of the nones’ growing numbers and have tried to form a voting bloc. But groups such as the Secular Coalition for America and “AtheistVoter” have a ways to go before they can claim significant influence in American politics.

U.S. Republican candidate Dr. Ben Carson talks to reporters after speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, on October 9, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GROSSMAN-COMMENTARY, originally transmitted on Oct. 12, 2015.

Republican candidate Dr. Ben Carson talks to reporters after speaking at the National Press Club in Washington on Oct. 9, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GROSSMAN-COMMENTARY, originally transmitted on Oct. 12, 2015, or with RNS-NONBELIEVER-POLITICS, originally transmitted on Nov. 5, 2015.

And though it’s not yet clear just how politicians are going to respond to the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, few feel safe ignoring the data, and even Republican political consultants in deeply red states are reviewing the numbers.

You can’t learn too much about the people going to the polls, said Luke Byars, a veteran GOP campaign consultant with First Tuesday Strategies in Columbia, S.C. The 4-percentage-point rise in nones among Republicans nationally is something he wants to track.

“Four percent in an election can be the difference between a close race and a landslide,” he said. “Or defeat and victory.”

JS/MG END MARKOE

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  • Fran

    As a Christian and theocrat, I will not vote for any of these parties, but “vote” for and support God’s kingdom or heavenly government instead (Daniel 2:44).

  • Tammye

    It is no surprise that the number of non-believers is growing cause so many
    of so called “preachers” today don’t preach the Truth/there is no fear of the
    Lord anymore cause bad mouthing religion backfired and many are spiritual
    instead of Biblical. People in church are even falling away from the Truth or
    they only talk about abortion/homosexuals so their sins don’t seem as/so bad
    when 1 Corinthians 5/Luke 13 plus 1 Corinthians 6:9-12 and Matthew 7:13-23
    also Romans 1:18-32 plus in Galations 5:12-26 show us all sin is wrong/bad!

  • MC

    Non-religious voters try to say the world just happened by random chance
    which is impossible and yet many so called “Christian” people still are not
    living like a Christian cause so many still get drunk,be mean,gossip,gamble,
    have premarital sex,covet/are jealous and don’t bridle their sharp tongues.

  • Fran

    Steve,

    I rather be “spiritually wise” than “worldly wise,” or “political”, or “politically correct,” since God’s government will make ALL matters right on earth.

    I already know what to expect from man’s governments from our history, and I’m over 50 years old.

  • Bernardo

    Why the rise in the “none” population? Some reasons:

    The pedophile horror to include the cover-ups. Muslim horror and terror as dictated by the koran. The flawed history and theology of all religions to include belief in the afterlife, bodily resurrections, angels, devils, hell, purgatory, limbo, reincarnation, castes systems and reverence of cows and monkeys.

  • Jon

    Reading the article, I saw the word “woo” and my mind quickly expected a statement about how many of the non-religious see religious beliefs (just look up “woo” in the urban dictionary).

    Alas, it was the old use of the term. Maybe next time.

    Until then, may you be safe from woo-

    -Jon

  • robert henry

    As one of the nones let me say a few things. There are some points we all agree on. Or at least most of us.
    1 science education. let’s keep science in the science classroom.

    2 evidence is a better way of knowing things than faith.speaking in specific terms and citing specific sources and showing evidence and facts that are verifiable goes a long way to impress us.

    3 keep your religion in church where it belongs. If you invoke God in all of your speeches you probably already lost our vote. this isn’t for all of us but its definitely for everyone I know especially if I have a choice to vote for a religious person or a non religious person.

    4. accept the facts. evolution and climate change are scientific facts. just like the germ theory of disease and the theory of gravity. if you can’t accept scientific fact you are uniquely unqualified to lead this country.

  • Junebug

    Our citizenry is too often duped by the loudest voices and the “powers that be”. We need informed voters of whatever stripe. As a former minister’s wife, now an 80 year old “None”, I care about America. I have to live here so I try to be a well informed voter who fact checks. I do not vote for a “Minister in Chief”. I vote for the person most qualified (or who is associated with persons so qualified) in areas of economics, science, foreign affairs, and how government is designed to function. A person who knows that Capitalism, along with its success, can run amok. A person who will strive for equality of opportunity and justice for all.
    “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” [Rev. Billy Graham — Parade, 1981 ]

  • Tammy

    I am a 44 year old “none” and have raised 4 “nones” who are collectively raising 4 “nones” of their own (so far) where does this come from?….education. How do you “woo” us?, With intelligence, social responsibility, science fact, education, healthcare, keep your “church” separate from the state.

  • John Testor

    Thinking that words written by a superstitious bronze aged ignorant wandering tribe of desert goat herders is anything close to the truth stretches credulity to its limits.

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  • Truth doesn’t change even if people do. A good leader recognizes this and doesn’t try to chase after the latest delusion that is circulating among the people. That is called leadership, something that is not seen very often today. But when we see it, we know it. Jesus was such a leader. He never gave into the political or religious leaders of His day. On the contrary, He changed the world. He is the author of the New Covenant which is established by His own blood. He was sent from heaven to die for our sins. Receive Him as Savior and Lord and turn away from sin, and abide Him. God Bless

  • Vardy

    Fran, god isn’t running in an election. God doesn’t exist, so your “vote” is being wasted, as is your life.

  • Vardy

    You aren’t wise in any form, Fran. You are just old. And pretty stu​pid.