Overview:

The heavy Democratic lean of the nonreligious vote presents both an opportunity and a problem for the party.

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Will the decline of religion help Democrats in the upcoming elections? 

We hear a lot about the “faith vote,” the “white Christian vote,” and the “evangelical vote.” As these reports make clear, religious Americans, and especially white Christians, lean heavily toward the Republican Party. As one Pew Research headline put it, “Most White Americans who regularly attend worship services voted for Trump in 2020.”

But what about Americans who have no religion? 

The mainstream media has only recently started discussing the nonreligious vote. For the most part, such accounts focus on how nonreligious voters, in contrast to white Christians, lean heavily toward the Democratic Party. But if relied on too heavily, this generalization can hurt the Democratic Party’s chances, both in November 2022 and 2024.

The US nonreligious population has grown tremendously over the last three decades. In 1990, only 7% of Americans said they had no religion. These Americans are often called “Nones” because on surveys they respond that their religious affiliation is “none.” The likelihood of being a None doubled in the 1990s and continued to increase across the first two decades of the 21st Century. By 2021, almost three in 10 Americans were Nones.

This seems like great news for Democrats. Nones appear to be relatively liberal. Both popular media and research organizations suggest that the growing population of Nones will benefit Democrats. While this may be true, it is also true that not all Nones support the Democratic Party.

Nothing in particular

Nones are regularly divided into three distinct groups: Atheists, agnostics, and “nothing in particular” (NIP). People often use the term atheist when referring to the Nones or nonreligious Americans in general, but this is an incorrect generalization. NIPs report having no religion, but given the choice, they do not prefer the atheist and agnostic labels. And almost two-thirds of Nones are NIPs.

Why are NIPs important? Because they are notably more conservative than atheists and agnostics. As the population of American Nones grew, it also diversified. Nones used to be more highly educated than the average American. In younger generations, however, Nones are less educated than those with a religious affiliation. Moreover, atheists are twice as likely as NIPs to have a college degree. This is important because college-educated Americans are far more likely to vote for Democrats.

NIPs are also more religious than atheists and agnostics. It might sound odd to talk about Nones being religious, but rejecting organized religion is not the same as being irreligious. As Ryan Burge shows in his book The Nones, more than one-third of NIPs say that religion is somewhat or very important to their lives, compared to about 5% of agnostics and even fewer atheists. And Americans who are more religious are also likely to be Republican.

As the population of American Nones grows, it is changing in substantial and important ways. The growing number of NIPs in particular is something that the Democratic Party should be concerned about. They are less educated and more religious than other Nones. NIPs are also less politically involved and more conservative than other Nones. In sum, American NIPs cannot be taken for granted as Democratic voters, or as voters at all.

On the other hand, there is also good news for the Democratic Party’s hopes of maintaining a strong electoral advantage with nonreligious Americans. Recent attacks on the US as a secular nation and attempts to create public policy based on religion may lead more Nones, including NIPs, to vote for Democrats. The Trump Administration was particularly vocal in its opposition to the separation of church and state. For instance, President Trump introduced rules that allow healthcare workers to deny care based on their personal religious beliefs. He also issued an executive order to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which bars tax-exempt religious organizations from politicking (though the executive order could not overturn a federal law). Perhaps most importantly, President Trump embraced Christian Nationalist rhetoric. Church-state conflicts are also occurring at the state level. For instance, in the potential battleground state of Florida, Governor DeSantis recently changed the public school civics curriculum so it teaches that it is a “misconception” that the Founders wanted a separation of church and state.

The pro-religion (and more specifically pro-Christian) actions by the Republican Party could cause a backlash among moderate and conservative Nones, including NIPs. Not surprisingly, atheists, agnostics, and even NIPs are highly likely to support the separation of church and state. This pro-separation stance may lead more Nones to vote, and specifically to vote for Democrats. As reported here at OnlySky, Nones helped to elect President Biden. Independent NIPs in particular moved towards the Democratic Party between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. In other words, the Republican Party’s attack on the separation of church and state over the last few years may have already led some Nones, particularly NIPs, to vote for Democrats.

While NIPs’ lower levels of education and more religious worldviews could be problematic for the Democratic Party, NIPs can also be motivated to defend the separation of church and state and to make political decisions based on that issue. And Republican politicians appear to be poised to continue to attempt to erode the separation of church and state. For instance, Republican politicians have signaled their interest in pursuing bills to promote religious speech on college campuses, to ban subjects that conflict with their religious perspectives from being taught in public schools, and to outlaw abortion in order to institutionalize the “white conservative Christian worldview.”

Perhaps the Supreme Court is the most important institution to watch on this issue. The recent Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade is the most prominent example of the Court’s erosion of the separation of church and state, but not the only one. For instance, in Carson v. Makin the Court decided that states must fund religious educational activities, and in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District the Court ruled that public school coaches can pray with students. Such legal decisions promote political mobilization among Democratic constituencies, particularly Nones.   

Back to the original question: How might nonreligion influence the upcoming elections?

There is both potentially good news and potentially bad news for the Democratic Party. Nones can be a tremendous boon to Democrats in 2022 and 2024, but only if they can mobilize NIPs. To do so, Democratic politicians should frame Republican actions on church-state issues as a threat to both Nones and religious Americans alike. Less-educated, somewhat religious, and politically moderate NIPs are a potential problem for Democrats. The Party must avoid ostracizing them if it wants to maintain a strong electoral advantage among the Nones.

On the other hand, the more that Republican politicians attempt to bolster their base by eroding the separation of church and state, the easier it will be for Democratic politicians to garner support among the Nones. This is particularly important for politically motivating the majority of the Nones who reject the atheist and agnostic labels and cannot be taken for granted as a Democratic constituency.   

Philip Schwadel

Philip Schwadel

Philip Schwadel is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Before that, he received his PhD from Penn State and was a Postdoctoral Researcher with the National Study of Youth and...