(RNS) — If you want a few numbers to help make sense of the place of religion in U.S. electoral politics today, try these on for size.
Over the past six presidential elections, the proportion of voters without a religion has grown from 9-10% to 20-21% and the proportion of those who never go to church has gone from 14-15% to 32%. In all six presidential cycles, dating back to 2000, both of these groups voted Democratic by margins of anywhere from 2-to-1 to 3-to-1.
Meanwhile, the proportion of voters who say they go to church once a week or more has shrunk from 43-44% to 24% and the proportion of white Christians has sunk from two-thirds of Americans into the low 40s. Both groups consistently have voted Republican in the past 20 years by a margin of roughly 60%-40%.
This shift away from religious identification generally and white Christianity in particular goes a long way toward explaining why it’s become the 21st-century norm for the Democratic presidential candidate to win the popular vote.
But of course the popular vote doesn’t determine the winner in presidential elections. The Electoral College does. And in the Electoral College, the God gap (the tendency of the more religious to vote Republican) remains about as problematic for Democrats as the Godless gap (the tendency of the less religious to vote Democratic) has become for Republicans.
Yet, mesmerized by stories about “the rise of the nones” — and because the default mode for the Democratic establishment is to leave religious politics to the Black church — faith outreach was pretty lackluster in the Democrats’ 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns. Not so this year.
As Gabby Orr points out in Politico, the Biden campaign ran ads on Christian radio, picked up endorsements from a few Catholic and evangelical figures, inserted some faith-based messaging at the party’s national (mostly virtual) convention and did some interfaith and tradition-specific networking.
It didn’t hurt that the Mass-going, rosary-toting Joe Biden happened to be the most pious Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter.
Yes, much to the anger of conservative Catholics inside the hierarchy and out, Biden departs from church teaching in supporting a woman’s right to abortion. But then, so do most American Catholics.
All in all, Biden succeeded in cutting the Republican margin among white Catholics by more than half, from 33% in 2016 to 15%. He appears to have shaved a few points off the national white evangelical vote as well, from 81% to something in the upper 70s.
And in what has turned into the crucial state of Georgia, the president-elect managed to secure 14% of white evangelicals, up from Barack Obama’s 10% in 2012 and Hillary Clinton’s 5%.
While that might not seem like much, in a state where white evangelicals make up fully one-third of the electorate, that 9-point improvement was more than enough to (in all likelihood, pending a hand recount) put Georgia into the Democratic column for the first time since 1992.
Biden did all this while holding on to his party’s “none” base. Thanks no doubt to President Donald Trump’s unprecedented readiness to give religious conservatives what they wanted in the way of judges, faith-based exceptions to anti-religious-discrimination rules — not to mention visits to the White House — the nones turned out as never before to vote for the Democrat.
The 6- or 7-point jump in their share of the entire vote from 2016 to 2020 was by far the biggest shift of any bloc on the religion spectrum.
As of today, the trend of declining American religiosity shows no sign of abating. Republicans beware.