The dynamics of nonreligious growth suggest that many are disengaged from politics, and those that are engaged cannot be assumed to fall in step with a single partisan identity. But the very diversity that makes for a frustrating political coalition could inspire and continue deeper cultural change.
Current Republican candidates for federal office are the most extreme they have been in modern history. The New York Times reports that “More than 370 people—a vast majority of Republicans running for these offices in November—have questioned and, at times, outright denied the results of the 2020 election.”
That’s not all, of course. My forthcoming book The Full Armor of God with Andrew Lewis and Anand Sokhey describes how the Republican Party has advocated Christian nationalism—the desired control of the cultural, political, and economic levers of power by Christians—and using that worldview to turn out white Christians to vote at high rates. That mobilization got out of hand on January 6, 2021, when a Christian nationalist mob stormed the US Capitol in order to “take back their country” by stopping Congress from certifying the results. Combine all that with the deeply unpopular decision by Republican-appointed justices to strike down the abortion rights of women and there is a multitude of reasons for the nonreligious to vote another way.
Taking stock of the religious “Nones” in the 2022 midterms might seem like an easy task. Their numbers have been growing steadily since 1995, and as of 2018 they became the largest “religious” group in the nation. That growth has only continued until the nonreligious are now about 30 percent of the adult population, and have much larger concentrations among younger generations – closing in on a majority of Gen Z.
The figure below shows the more or less steady growth of the nonreligious by state from 2008-2021 using the huge samples of the Cooperative Election Study. Small states have more wiggly lines, large states less so, but all 50 are experiencing comparable growth of the nonreligious. By the way, “nonreligious” refers to the lack of a religious identity—many have some religious beliefs and exhibit religious behaviors, so we cannot assume that they have no religion whatsoever.
The best case scenario for influence is that the nonreligious are a large group in states with tight races where their unity can push a candidate over the top. Do those conditions hold? I decided to look closely at three such states in the 2022 cycle—Nevada (incumbent Democrat Catherine Masto vs. state Attorney General Adam Laxalt), Ohio (Rep. Tim Ryan vs. author J.D. Vance), and Pennsylvania (Lt Gov. John Fetterman vs Dr. Mehmet Oz).
None of these candidates, as far as I can tell, is reaching out explicitly to the nonreligious. As is happening across the states, white Christians have been on the decline while the nonreligious have gained. A combination of Catholics and Protestants, white Christians have dropped between 20-25 percentage points in Nevada from 2008 to 2021 and about 15 percentage points in Ohio and Pennsylvania. That was enough for the nonreligious to become the largest religious group in Nevada but not yet in Ohio and PA, where the nonreligious constitute about a third of the adult population. It is still notable that white Christians no longer represent a majority of adults in Ohio and PA.
Even though they are sizable, the dynamics of nonreligious growth suggest that many are going to be disengaged from politics. For one, they are no longer affiliated with a congregation, which means they lose out on a form of “communal involvement” that promotes political engagement by talking about policies, social problems, and threats to the group. Of course, religion is not the only form of involvement, but it is a widespread one. Related, the politically disengaged are less likely to have a partisan identity. Independents who do not lean toward a political party are less knowledgeable and less engaged in the political process.
The figure below shows that the nonreligious are less interested in politics by 10-20 percent. It is interesting that the gap has closed in Nevada following a drop in white Christian engagement, but the gap remains open and is perhaps growing in Ohio and PA. It seems clear that these two groups are responding to nationwide events since the pattern is similar across groups—a dip from 2008 to 2012 followed by a rise in 2016 and a dip toward 2020 and beyond. Engagement is essentially at its lowest level in 15 years going into the 2022 midterms. That does not bode well for a unified and energized nonreligious vote.
But that’s not all. We simply cannot assume the political affiliation of the nonreligious from the current composition and stance of the Republican Party. Instead, as the nonreligious have grown, the portion of non-Democrats (Republicans + independents) has grown faster than the portion of Democrats in Ohio and PA. In Ohio, for instance, Democrats gained 5 percentage points from the nonreligious, going from 13 to 18 percent of the adult population (38 percent growth). But independents and Republicans among the nonreligious have gone from 7 percent of the population to 16 percent (129 percent growth). Together, non-Democrats and Democrats have almost reached parity in Ohio among the nonreligious.
Pennsylvania largely shares Ohio’s story, though nonreligious Democrats have grown in a more robust way. Nevada is different. There, non-Democrats have grown from 12 percent of the adult population to 17 (42 percent growth), while nonreligious Democrats have grown more significantly, going from 15 to 25 percent of the population (67 percent growth).
Nevada is different, too, in how its white Christians have shifted across this time period. White Christian Democrats have shrunk by 50 percent, going from 14 to 7 percent of the adult population, but white Christian Republicans have also declined (by 35 percent). Remember that the category of white Christians does not include Latter-day Saints, who have become a quite sizable portion of Nevadans over this time period and are heavily Republican – they are the counterweight.
The other two states show a more typical pattern—white Christians have declined, but in a way leaving a more homogeneous concentration of Republicans. In Ohio, white Christian Republicans have increased slightly (22-26 percent) while Democrats have dropped in half (21-11). PA shows almost the same story.
The rise of the nonreligious is the biggest religion story of the last 30 years. There is no religious change that has been so rapid in American history from my analysis of Finke and Stark’s data— not the Second Great Awakening, not the decline and recovery post-Civil War. It certainly has shaken the foundations of the claim that the United States stands as an exception to the secular trend in other western, developed nations. But secular does not mean liberal, which you could be excused from assuming based on the now standard story of their rise.
We have good evidence across a number of studies that the decline of religion is partly a function of the extreme politics of the Christian Right, which has steadily become the politics of the Republican Party. Hard-right stands against LGBT rights, against immigrants, against abortion rights, and now against the democratic process has signaled that religion does not stand for the values liberals and moderates hold. If that “national politics” story is correct, then we have strong inclinations that the nones would rally behind the Democrats as the non-Christian nationalist/Christian Right party.
But that’s not really how it works. While there is a growing segment that was never involved with religion, many more follow a well-documented process of leaving. Disagreement arises from a number of sources such as salient political events, denominational disagreements, clergy agendas, etc. Those who leave were already marginal members to begin with, so it may not take much more to encourage their exit. It is important to realize that this means leaving congregations happens across the political spectrum, not just among liberals. For instance, we found people leaving congregations when the attitudes of some toward same-sex marriage became more liberal as well as when others became more conservative. In other work, we found Republicans, not liberal Democrats, leaving congregations that featured Christian Right politics, a story I know personally from the decisions my parents made during my childhood.
Yes, the Christian Right’s politics was part of what fueled the rise of the nonreligious, but without considering the dynamics of political disagreement within congregations, we will arrive at assumptions about the nonreligious that just don’t play. Due to those congregational experiences, the nonreligious are likely to be diverse out of the gate and it no longer seems safe to assume that Republicans go back to church.
What does all this likely mean for the midterm elections? In the short run, the nonreligious are unlikely to prove decisive in Ohio and Pennsylvania since they are about evenly divided in their partisanship and pay less attention to politics than the dominant groups in their states. Republicans are polarized by the nonreligious, but that feeling is not reciprocated at high rates by the nonreligious. And a midterm election without Trump on the ballot is not likely to make waves. In Nevada, however, the nonreligious are a sizable, growing, and more tightly-drawn voting block, if anyone would care to directly mobilize them. In the longer run, the diversity of the nonreligious is just the sort of pattern that could inspire and continue cultural change.
The US is more secular than it was just a few decades ago, and nonreligious Americans spread across generations, races, and parties are sure to continue that trend.