The rise of the presidential Nones

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"No Religion" symbol

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"No Religion" symbol

"No Religion" symbol

“No Religion” symbol

The biggest news about religion in America these days is the rise of the Nones — those Americans who answer “none” when asked about their religious identity. In 1990, they constituted eight percent of the population. A quarter century later they’re pushing 25 percent.

It is, then, a sign of the times that in 2016 a leading presidential candidate from each party — and the two who have generated the most excitement — show little interest in religion.

On the Democratic side there’s Bernie Sanders, a classic secular liberal Jew who makes no bones about his lack of faith. Yes, he acknowledges his Jewish roots in (where else?) Brooklyn. But he does not so much as tip his hat to religious observance. He draws his strongest support from young voters, 35 percent of whom identified as Nones in the last presidential election. Bernie may be an old guy, but in that sense he’s one of them.

Across the aisle, Donald Trump has, to be sure, talked about his little cracker and his little wine, about how the Bible is the greatest book ever, his favorite, and that he has a collection of them.  He calls himself a Presbyterian but shows no awareness of what the denomination stands for. He belongs to Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church but that Dutch Reformed church says he’s not an active member.

In other words, there’s no reason to believe that Trump is a religious person in any meaningful sense of the word. It should therefore come as no surprise that the core of his support comes from the least religious segment of the Republican Party, according to this year’s Pew demographic analysis of the rise of the Nones. As Breitbart succinctly put it: “Pew: Religious ‘Nones’ Tend to Be Undereducated, Poor, White Males.”

One of the truisms of U.S. politics is that the there’s no way an atheist could ever be elected president. But a None? In this election year that’s a whole nother story.

  • I think one of the reasons Bernie is so popular among millennials is that he speaks directly to their sympathy for being “spiritual but not religious”.

    You may recall several months ago many online articles noting the similarities between Bernie’s views and those of Pope Francis. Even prior to that, many, like Jim Wallis, noted how much closer Bernie’s moral views were to that of Jesus that many self-proclaimed “Christians” (after all, Bernie and Jesus belong to the same faith!)

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the “spiritual but not religious” category surpasses 50% in another 20 or so years. One of my favorite lines on the topic comes from Sri Aurobindo, who said, “The age of religions is over” – and he said this nearly a century ago. I think he’s right. Despite the rise of various religions and churches in the so called “developing world” (developing in what sense?) I think that’s a temporary phenomenon.

  • Just wanted to add – Swami Vivekananda predicted something along similar lines when he spoke at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions. He said one day (seems to be starting around now!) each person will, in a way, have “his own religion”, but by then, people will have developed enough spiritually to understand the essential underlying spiritual commonality between/among them.

    This in a way is simply going back to the original Vedic meaning of “swadharma” – that the Divine (God, Allah, Brahman, the Dharmadatu, whatever you like – see David Bentley Hart’s much more eloquent description of this universality in “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness Bliss”) – manifests uniquely through each one of us, and each of us has a unique way to express that Divinity and by that means (karma yoga, in other words) to awaken to and manifest more fully the infinite in this finite world.

  • John McGrath

    Rabbi Jesus or Rabbi Hillel. Take your pick, they said similar things. His main attraction to young people – and oldsters – is that he is not owned bu any corporations, nothing to do with spirituality or lack of it. Like the corporate politicians, he follows the DC maxim “Lean to the Green” (Do what your big donors want”) but in his case his big donors are ordinary citizens giving small amounts. He does not make himself dependent on corporate and special interest donations. And yes, the saying “Lean to the green” is real and spoken with both cynicism and reverence by politicians in DC.

  • John, i’m not sure what the word “spirituality” means to you.

    I don’t think Bernie has any conscious wish or desire to articulate anything he would call “spiritual.” But personally, I see in his socialist libertarian actions, his resolute and steadfast adherence to a vision of the inherent worth and dignity of each human being, a feeling for that Consciousness (Sat-Chit) which underlies not only all human beings but all phenomena.

    Again, just to be clear (and I imagine it grew increasingly obvious as the previous paragraph progressed) I don’t imagine Bernie would have any interest in the explicit ideas I just wrote – and might even radically disagree. nevertheless, it’s what I sense in his actions and views.

  • and wasn’t it Rabbi Hillel who was asked why people no longer saw God, and responded, “because we can no longer bow low enough”.

    I think that people see in Bernie at least a kind of the kind of “self-emptying” that is at the heart of contemplative prayer, and, I think, is the essence of spirituality in its deepest sense.

  • cken

    Nones include atheists, agnostics, and those who just don’t give a damn. The group I find interesting is the SBNRs. It appears to be a group that traverses all religious backgrounds. These are people seemingly seeking what is lacking in organized religion — spiritual growth and soul maturation. It is sad organized christian religions are more interested in ritual, man made theology, and your adherence to their dogma, creeds, and rules rather than spiritual growth. (Hence the attitude — we welcome you to join our church so long as you are just like us. Or OK you were here on Sunday, your good to go and sin some more, try not to though) Some organized religions even believe you must take the whole Bible word for word literally, except for the obvious parables. I applaud the SBNRs for their seeking, seeking truth, understanding, spiritual growth, learning to love more, communication with God and the application of spiritual principals to everyday life.

  • Thanks CKen – great description of the motivation of the SBNRs; very well connected, i think, to what I wrote above about Bernie.

  • Fran

    This Christian will continue to be a “Presidential none” on that basis and because “theocracy” or rule by God instead of democracy and any other form of “human government” is the BEST kind of rule for people of all nations on earth.

  • All this stuff makes me want to call myself “religious but not spiritual” and “socially conservative but fiscally liberal” just to piss people off. But then, I’m fairly old, and don’t care.

  • What are we supposed to do until Jesus returns? Theocracy, unless God is present in person, doesn’t work well.

  • Hcat: I find that an extremely interesting comment. i assume you’re mostly just blowing off steam and not putting forth a carefully worked out thesis… but i also assume you’re expressing a genuine feeling.

    The socially conservative and fiscally liberal is great.

    Not sure what it would mean to be religious but not spiritual – except to me, that fits almost everyone i’ve ever met in most religious institutions. I was a choir director at a Catholic church for 10 years, and it always amazed me how little – if at all – the priests cared about spiritual experience (which is what “spiritual but not religious means to me).

    There was one priest there who was an exception – and in my experience talking to rabbis, imams, ministers, priests, etc – a very rare exception. We talked a lot during those years about his favorite mystics – St. Teresa, St. John, etc, and I shared some of my favorites, Sri krishna prem (who he was very impressed with) , Philip Kapleau and others…

  • 2nd part of letter to H-cat: So, having said that, is there really any meaning to what you said, or, as I assume, were you just blowing off steam?

    There’s a tremendous amount of criticism on the net – particularly by evangelical types – of the whole “SBNR” theme. But in terms of mainstream folks, I don’t see anything wrong, if you aren’t interested in spirituality, in simply devoting your life to an ethical understanding of religion, which is pretty much what the very likable priests I encountered at that church seemed to be doing.

    So again, i’m guessing you probably dashed that of without meaning too much and I’m probably making it far too complicated – but if you have any further thoughts on what you wrote, I’d be very interested to hear (and imagine others might also).

    Thanks much!