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.
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.