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Two trends in America are finally converging in a way that could become the dominant story of future elections: More Americans are leaving organized religion, and nonreligious voters are crucial to Democrats and their agenda.

The Associated Press, which conducts a massive survey called the AP VoteCast, says that voters without any religious affiliation—roughly 22% of all voters—backed Democratic candidates and abortion rights “by staggering percentages” during the midterms. Here’s reporter Peter Smith:

The unaffiliated — often nicknamed the “nones” — voted for Democratic House candidates nationwide over Republicans by more than a 2-1 margin (65% to 31%), according to VoteCast. That echoes the 2020 president election, when Democrat Joe Biden took 72% of voters with no religious affiliation, while Republican Donald Trump took 25%, according to VoteCast.

For all the talk of the overwhelmingly Republican voting by white evangelical Christians in recent elections, the unaffiliated are making their presence felt.

By comparison, 30% of voters were evangelical Christians, who are overwhelmingly Republican. 22% of voters were Catholics (who are typically split down the middle, politically). 13% of voters were other flavors of Christian. 13% of voters were from other religious groups.

The AP also noted some specifics about how those nonreligious voters may have influenced various races and ballot measures:

  • About four in five people with no religious affiliation voted against abortion restrictions in referendums in Michigan and Kentucky.
  • Between two-thirds and three-quarters of nones supported Democratic candidates in statewide races in Arizona and Wisconsin.
  • About four in five people with no religion voted for Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman, the Democrats elected Pennsylvania’s newest governor and senator, respectively.

The Michigan abortion measure passed with 56% support. Kentucky’s attempt at a constitutional abortion ban failed with 52% of voters rejecting it. Arizona’s state-wide races were incredibly close, but Democrats pulled off major victories by extremely slim margins. In an extremely gerrymandered Wisconsin, Democrats prevented a GOP super-majority, allowing the Democratic governor to maintain his veto power. And in Pennsylvania, Fetterman’s win was called on election night, while Shapiro (who has famously gone after religious sexual abuse as attorney general) won comfortably against a Christian nationalist.

That means Secular Americans helped tipped the scales to Democrats in extremely close races. Without their support, the Republicans and their Christian base would have upended politics in several swing states while enforcing religious extremism in others.

For all the talk about how important white evangelicals are for the GOP, and for all the ways the GOP caters to conservative Christian beliefs, there’s just no parallel on the left. Elected Democrats aren’t promoting atheism (nor should they) and Secular Americans aren’t asking for politicians to endorse their (non)religious beliefs. But there’s a tremendous opening for Democrats if they promote church/state separation, call out religious bigotry, and make policy decisions that are based on facts and reason rather than irrational faith-based beliefs. We don’t need Democrats to function as an arm of American Atheists; we need Democrats to respect the secular roots of our nation’s history and act accordingly. (Republicans should do that too, but they’ve repeatedly shown they’re not interested in governing, much less science and reason.)

That means not feeling obligated to mention God in every speech, not treating religious beliefs as some sort of default option when it comes to the average American, and acknowledging the diversity of religious views instead of only citing the Christian God. That does not mean ignoring religion or avoiding the subject if it’s personal to a candidate; it means recognizing that more and more Americans are living without religion and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The creation of the Congressional Freethought Caucus is a step towards that goal. All 15 members of that Caucus won their re-election bids. Also keep in mind that, in this past election, 70 openly nonreligious candidates won their races for seats in state legislatures. (Of those 70, only one is a Republican.) Virtually all nonreligious candidates on the ballot won or lost based on reasons that had little to do with their religious beliefs. That suggests being openly nonreligious is no longer the political dealbreaker it used to be. It’s no longer a weapon for the opposition.

Even religious allies realize that being God-free doesn’t mean being void of values:

But growing secular constituency doesn’t worry Bishop William Barber, a leader in one of the nation’s most prominent faith-based progressive movements.

“We have a lot of people who claim they’re agnostic or atheist, and they will come to our rallies,” said Barber, who is also co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “They will say, ‘I don’t necessarily believe in God, but I believe in right. I believe in love. I do believe in justice.’”

We need more Christian politicians to talk like Barber.

Here’s the downside to the data: Secular Americans make up roughly 29% of the country, according to the Pew Research Center. But we only made up 22% of the electorate, according to the AP. That means we’re punching under our weight. (Atheists and agnostics punch above our weight when it comes to voting, but the Nones as a whole do poorly.)

The 63% of Christians in the country (Pew), meanwhile, made up 65% of the electorate (AP). Bottom line: There are more of them, they’re very well organized, and they’re more committed to voting. That gives them leverage.

Unless Secular Americans realize the power we have to sway the legislatures around the country, we’re allowing right-wing religious zealots to command control of the country. At the same time, Democrats have so much possibility. We just need candidates to recognize that religion isn’t a virtue, that a pluralistic vision for the country is far better than one catering to Christian extremists, and that elected office is no place for religious proclamations (even if those candidates happen to be religious).

They need to stop being so damn afraid of being labeled as “godless” if they don’t bend over backwards to appease Christians. White evangelicals will always demonize candidates who don’t agree with 100% of their positions on “culture war” issues, so Democrats ought to wear that condemnation as a badge of honor. We saw that shift take place, to some degree, in the midterms, with Democrats finally defending their pro-choice positions and calling out “pro-life” extremism. They’re now celebrating their failing grade from the NRA. That’s good strategy. We need more of it.

Democrats need Secular Americans.

Secular Americans have no choice but to vote for Democrats.

But there’s so much untapped potential on our side.

I may be biased, but this is a huge story for future elections. Can Secular Americans, without a uniting infrastructure, become for Democrats what conservative Christians have long been for Republicans? Will political reporters start giving nonreligious voters the sort of attention we’ve been denied for decades? Will the candidates themselves ever court our vote, and if so, how will they do it?

For what it’s worth, there are nonreligious Americans who vote for Republicans, but let’s be honest about what that means: For any talk about their Libertarian political philosophy and other conservative positions, they’re ultimately voting for Christian nationalists to run the country. They’re not bothered enough by that to vote for the opposition. That should tell you everything you need to know about them. Much like the pathetic “Log Cabin Republicans” who represent gay and lesbian conservatives by electing people who (surprise!) oppose LGBTQ rights, the handful of secular Republicans are on an island of their own creation, not taken seriously by other atheists or the very people who run their party.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.