The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has published an important new study of Americans who are unaffiliated with any religion.
One-fifth of U.S. adults say they are not part of a traditional religious denomination, new data from the Pew Research Center show, evidence of an unprecedented reshuffling of Americans’ spiritual identities that is shaking up fields from charity to politics.
But despite their nickname, the “nones” are far from godless. Many pray, believe in God and have regular spiritual routines.
Their numbers have increased dramatically over the past two decades, according to the study released Tuesday. About 19.6 percent of Americans say they are “nothing in particular,” agnostic or atheist, up from about 8 percent in 1990. One-third of adults under 30 say the same. . . .
But the United States is still very traditional when it comes to religion, with 79 percent of Americans identifying with an established faith group. . . .
Members can be found in all educational and income groups, but they skew heavily in one direction politically: 68 percent lean toward the Democratic Party. That makes the “nones,” at 24 percent, the largest Democratic faith constituency, with black Protestants at 16 percent and white mainline Protestants at 14 percent.
By comparison, white evangelicals make up 34 percent of the Republican base.
The study presents a stark map of how political and religious polarization have merged in recent decades. Congregations used to be a blend of political affiliations, but that’s generally not the case anymore. Sociologists have shown that Americans are more likely to pick their place of worship by their politics, not vice versa.
Some said the study and its data on younger generations forecast more polarization.
“We think it’s mostly a reaction to the religious right,” said Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who has written at length about the decline in religious affiliation. “The best predictor of which people have moved into this category over the last 20 years is how they feel about religion and politics” aligning, particularly conservative politics and opposition to gay civil rights.
I’m struck by the comment that a typical congregations would include people of different political beliefs and how that isn’t the case so much anymore. (My impression is that churches that don’t mingle politics with the gospel, such as Lutheran congregations, still generally contain both Democrats and Republicans. That’s evident in the commentary on this blog, which has people who are very conservative theologically representing different political positions.)
I am also struck by the contention that churches getting involved in politics seems to be a major factor in the rise of the “nones.” I wonder how many pastors who want their churches to be ‘missional” and who make a point of adopting all of the church growth methodologies designed to make their congregation more attractive to the “unchurched” endorsed a candidate on Political Freedom Day, not realizing that this kind of political activism is exactly what is driving people away from churches.