(RNS) 1976 was, Time magazine declared, “the year of the born-again Christian.” “Born-agains” were the hot demographic in American religion, and one of them, Jimmy Carter, won the presidency.
Though no one could know it at the time, we were entering an era of movement politics unprecedented in American history. Religious conservatives of all stripes, but especially white evangelicals and Mormons, made the Republican Party their own and turned “the social issues” — abortion and gay rights above all — into markers of partisan identity.
Forty years later, that era has come to an end. “Nones” — the religiously unaffiliated — are the hot demographic in American religion, and while one of them won’t win the presidency, they’re having an excellent presidential cycle.
On the Democratic side, the exciting candidate was Bernie Sanders, who as a secular Jewish leftist is a none out of central casting. Hillary Clinton was and remains a Methodist girl from the Midwest, but at a time when mainline Protestant politics are indistinguishable from secular politics to most Americans, she might as well be a none.
On the Republican side, a legion of bona fide conservative Christians lost out to a guy who calls himself a Presbyterian but whose faith is the prosperity gospel without the gospel. The minor-party candidates, Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein, have no discernible religious agenda.
The rise of the nones has, of course, been the big story in American religion for the better part of a decade. My Trinity College colleagues Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar first identified the phenomenon way back in 2001, when they detected a doubling of the none portion of the population to 14 percent over the previous decade.
Now, according to a new survey from PRRI, fully 25 percent of American adults say they have no religion. The number for those aged 18-29 is an extraordinary 39 percent. At this rate, American exceptionalism as it relates to religiosity in developed nations will be history in a couple of decades.
As the PRRI report suggests, voting behavior has been a lagging indicator of the rise of the nones. That is to say, nones vote at a lower rate than their proportion of the population — 12 percent in the past couple of presidential elections. Their forswearing of religious identity is a reflection of their not joining any organizations and not participating in civic life generally.
This is likely to change, however, as the nones come to make up a larger and larger proportion of the older demographic cohorts. Older adults vote at higher rates than younger ones, regardless of religious identification. And that’s bad news for the GOP, because nones are overwhelmingly Democratic voters.
Donald Trump has suggested one approach to solving the GOP’s “godless gap” problem. Give the merest of lip service to the social issues and appeal to the public with nativist bigotry and empty economic promises. The problem is, neither seems to appeal to the nones, who, PRRI finds, are supporting Clinton over Trump 3-to-1.
If the Republican Party has a better solution, no one’s come up with it yet.