I missed this story when it came out last month, but it deserves attention:
More American voters than ever say they are not religious, making the religiously unaffiliated the nation’s biggest voting bloc by faith for the first time in a presidential election year. This marks a dramatic shift from just eight years ago, when the non-religious were roundly outnumbered by Catholics, white mainline Protestants and white evangelical Protestants.
You read that right. If you took all the registered voters in the U.S. and grouped them by religious affiliation, the biggest group would be people of no religion. We’re now a plurality!
As recently as 2008, the nonreligious were just 14% of voters, a distant fourth behind the country’s major Christian factions. But we’ve jumped to 21% of the electorate, while Catholics, white evangelicals and mainline Protestants have all declined. We now beat out the Catholics and evangelicals by a hairsbreadth, while the Protestant mainline is falling further behind. And as younger generations become more secular, we can only expect nonbelievers to take an even more decisive lead in years to come.
This is a momentous demographic shift, which makes it all the more striking how little attention it’s received. There are many analyses of how the American electorate is becoming less white and what this portends for the future of our politics, yet hardly anyone seems to be commenting on the fact that a full one-fifth of all voters are now nonreligious. The Republicans are bearing down even harder on religious culture-war issues, while the Democrats, as I wrote in the Guardian this week, continue to flaunt their faith in public even though nonbelievers are a crucial part of their coalition.
But even if the major parties are slow to acknowledge it, the effects are being felt. From Pew:
The survey also shows that a declining share of Americans say they want a president with firm religious convictions. Today, just 62% of U.S. adults say it is important to them that the president have strong religious beliefs, down from 67% in 2012 and 72% in 2008.
This may be a ripple effect of Donald Trump’s candidacy. American evangelicals have long claimed that religious faith was essential to a candidate, but now that they find themselves compelled by partisan loyalty to support Trump, who scarcely even pretends to be religious, they’ve adjusted their other beliefs to be consistent with that. But it’s not just because of Trump:
…this decline among Republicans predates the nomination of Trump, having dropped 8 percentage points since 2008. And it mirrors changes among Democrats as well; while a larger share of Republicans (74%) than Democrats (53%) say it is important that a president have strong religious beliefs, declining shares of both groups hold this view.
This ought to be a warning to politicians who pander shamelessly to religion or claim God’s endorsement of their personal beliefs. As the electorate becomes more secular, this won’t just be ineffective, but counterproductive. Candidates who flaunt their piety will be seen for the distasteful, archaic relics they are. That’s a very bad omen for Ted Cruz and other GOP nominees-in-waiting who think a redoubled emphasis on domineering religious conservatism is their key to victory.
However, these numbers also show the challenge for the secular movement. We punch below our weight in elections: the number of nonreligious people who actually vote is consistently lower than the number who are registered. Whatever criticism you have of evangelicals and other religious voting blocs, one thing you can say for them is that they show up, and that’s helped them to preserve their cultural influence and leverage longer than the raw numbers suggest.
Many of the nonreligious are young, and the young vote less consistently than older people. Others are apathetic or cynical about politics, and stay home because they don’t believe their vote makes a difference. Of course, when this happens, the religious right wins and gets to set the agenda, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The secular movement can be a powerful, even dominant force in American politics. We have the numbers, but we need the organization. We need to work harder at building strong networks of atheist voters, keeping them informed, and getting them to the polls. That’s especially true in midterms, where there’s a predictable dropoff of young, diverse, secular voters. Too many of us think elections don’t matter if we’re not voting for a president. This won’t be easy to overcome, but if we can do it, nonbelievers can steer the course of our democracy for decades to come.