Pod people: Digging for old news on ‘Nones’

Friends and neighbors, the whole media world continues to buzz with news (me too, of course) about the “Nones,” that growing coalition of religiously unaffiliated voters that showed up big time in that recent survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

This was an important survey, don’t get me wrong. It was also a survey that was packed with interesting angles — many of which get dissected in some depth in this week’s GetReligion podcast — so click here to go listen to that!

One one level, the whole Nones thing isn’t that big of a change in the landscape of American religious practice. The action, it seems, is taking place on the left-to-secular side of things. The bottom line: Lots of people who used to describe the state of their souls by saying things like, “I was raised Southern Baptist (Catholic, Mormon, Episcopal, United Methodist, etc.), but I don’t really go to church much, ’cause I really don’t belief most of that stuff anymore” are now being more honest and saying, “I have no religious affiliation at all” (or less wonky words to that effect).

Is this a new trend? Yes and no.

Four years ago, scholar John Green of the University of Akron, and the Pew Forum team, spoke to a Media Project seminar for journalists from around the world — focusing on religion in the 2008 election. He wrote all kinds of data on the board, but what it came down to was this. People who truly practice their faith make up about 20 percent of the population. People who are religiously unaffiliated (including the slowly rising camp of atheists/agnostics) have been around 10 percent of the population, but their ranks are rising toward 20 percent.

In the middle, the territory I have always called “Oprah America,” are lots of mushy believers who have little institutional commitment to practicing a specific faith. They come and go and their beliefs blow with the cultural winds. What’s the big news? That percentage is down from about 70 percent to 60 percent — because lots of “Nones” are hitting the exit doors.

That’s the news: There is a growing candor on the religious/secular left.

The other angle that fascinated me, since it’s election crunch time, is that this whole “Nones” coalition — secular, plus the spiritual-but-not-religious folks — has become the largest religion-related group in the modern Democratic Party, larger than African-American Protestants, liberal Catholics, liberal white Protestants, etc., etc. What unites this crowd? Well, to be blunt, what unites them is the Sexual Revolution and their opposition to cultural traditionalists.

The more I thought about that, the more I had a nagging sense of deja vu. Where had I heard this before?

Well, join me in this flashback to 2004, via one of my old Scripps Howard News Service columns. Here’s a major chunk of two of that:

Any Top 10 list of slogans for abortion-rights signs would include “Curb your dogma” and “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” … George W. Bush will receive few votes from these voters. They’re not fond of Pope John Paul II, Jerry Falwell and other conservative religious leaders, either.

Political scientists Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce call them “anti-fundamentalist voters” and their rise has been a crucial — yet untold — story in U.S. politics. Many are true secularists, such as atheists, agnostics and those who answer “none” when asked to pick a faith. Others think of themselves as progressive believers. The tie that binds is their disgust for Christian conservatives.

“This trend represents a big change, because 40 or 50 years ago all the divisive religious issues in American politics rotated around the Catholics. People argued about money for Catholic schools or whether the Vatican was trying to control American politics,” said Bolce, who, with De Maio, teaches at Baruch College in the City University of New York. “That remains a concern for some people. But today, they worry about all those fundamentalists and evangelicals. That’s where the real animus is.”

In fact, Bolce and De Maio argue that historians must dig back to the bitter pre-Great Depression battles rooted in ethnic and religious prejudices — battles about immigration, public education, prohibition and “blue laws” — to find a time when voting patterns were influenced to the same degree by antipathy toward a specific religious group.

Where was this data coming from?

Bolce, an Episcopalian, and De Maio, a Roman Catholic, have focused much of their work on the “thermometer scale” used in the 2000 American National Election Study and those that preceded it. Low temperatures indicate distrust or hatred while high numbers show trust and respect. Thus, “anti-fundamentalist voters” are those who gave fundamentalists a rating of 25 degrees or colder. By contrast, the rating “strong liberals” gave to “strong conservatives” was a moderate 47 degrees.

Yet 89 percent of white delegates to the 1992 Democratic National Convention qualified as “anti-fundamentalist voters,” along with 57 percent of Jewish voters, 51 percent of “moral liberals,” 48 percent of school-prayer opponents, 44 percent of secularists and 31 percent of “pro-choice” voters. In 1992, 53 percent of those white Democratic delegates gave Christian fundamentalists a thermometer rating of zero. …

What about the prejudices of the fundamentalists? Their average thermometer rating toward Catholics was a friendly 62 degrees, toward blacks 66 degrees and Jews 68 degrees.

How did the press handle this trend, back in 2000 or thereabouts?

Surprise! The elite, mainstream press ignored it. Between 1990 and 2000, Bolce and De Maio found that the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post published 929 stories about the political clout of conservative Christians and 59 about that of secularists and religious liberals. They checked the major television newscasts between 2000 and 2004 and found zero stories on the political rise of the, well, “Nones” and the religious left.

So are the “Nones” new? Not really.

So what now? Someone should interview pollsters in Democratic Party offices. That’s where reporters will find lots and lots of detailed info about this rising force in American politics.

Enjoy the podcast.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Thank tmatt. A small but quite critical piece of the American puzzle just placed neatly and efficiently into its spot. And as you say, I probably never would have read about it from media reports or discussion.

  • dalea

    It would be helpful to learn what the secularists regard as ‘fundementalism’. Is it what the GR writers call fundementalism as distinct from evangelical or is it the generality of conservative Christianity? I suspect the latter but really don’t know. It would be helpful to know the geographical distribution of the secularists: are there areas, like the West Coast, where they approach a plurality of voters.? Or are they pretty much everywhere? Living on the West Coast, I do notice lots of empty churches from the Mainlines. The demographics of this group would be fascinating to cover.

    The paper that lands in your yard had a reporter who wrote vigourously against fundementalism in the 10′s and 20′s and 30′s of the last century. I don’t see any today who could match the scorn shown in ‘The Hills of Zion’.

    • dalea

      Left out the journalist’s name: H L Mencken of the Baltimore Sun.

    • Siobhan

      Well, from my experience of hanging out and being a secularist, here is my take on it.
      What is seen as fundamentalism
      1. Biblical literalism
      2. Rejection of science and the scientific method as the ultimate source of facts
      3. Highly conservative social views on the role of women and gay rights
      4. Respect for authority (religious, family, or military) over rights and tolerance
      5. A seeming disrespect for education and open discussion/open mindedness.
      6. Fear based discipline (if you don’t do what I say, you will be punished by God, thrown out of your community, and lose your family).

      I am reminded of listening to a Christian radio show in the midwest somewhere, and hearing the pastor say “You need to close the fortress of your mind to anyone offering any ideas that are not in keeping with what my church says. Because the devil will get in and lie to you.” This concept terrifies me and many of my secular friends – to actively promote blind obedience to a church authority leader and tell people that learning new facts and questioning authority is dangerous? This is 100% contrary to every value I was raised with.

      • Ted Seeber

        Anybody else find #2 to be intensely unscientific? Under the scientific method, there is no such thing as a fact.

  • Mark Baddeley

    I agree that there’s been a couple of media reports of the rise of the ‘nones’ in the last couple of years, like the one you linked, sari. But I’ve never seen any discussion of the themometer (and similar indicators) and its implications for what is going on, nor that this increasingly strong dynamic has no equivalence since the pre-Great Depression debates. A wide ranging group that is united by its hostility to Christian conservatives (and possibly due to its commitment to the sexual revolution as tmatt suggests), a stance that appears not to be reciprocated in return, explains a lot of what I’ve been seeing from the outside. That’s the piece of the puzzle that tmatt’s post filled in for me, and I simply have not seen any other discussion of a factor that is so illuminating.

    • sari

      Mark,
      I’d expand your comment to say hostility to any religion with mandatory beliefs and behaviors. Where we differ is in the role of the media. The article linked to my post was published two weeks ago and summarized the major points made in the Pew report under discussion. I would not want the media to cross the line from reporting and to the analysis of why, because that’s more the role of academics, who (theoretically) deal with data rather than opinion. Religious clergy, often consulted for such articles, are rarely dispassionate on the topic, and few reporters know enough about religions and how they work to understand how to sift through, prioritize, and present the data in an unbiased way.

  • George Yancey

    I totally agree that the media has neglected to investigate the power of cultural progressives, of which the nones are a big part of. This has also been the case in academia. My recent book “What Motivates Cultural Progressives” tries to fill in that gap. One feature of this academic neglect is that we really have underestimated the social power of this group. It is not just my book but a variety of sources show that this is a group that is overwhelmingly white, male, wealthy and educated. They probably do not have the sheer numbers of the Religious Right but they are definately not insignificant in number. As for why they are hostile to religion, many of them believe religion to be irrational whereas progressvie political polices to be rational. It was a facinating study and I hope that more such studies of this important group is done in the future.

  • Will

    I keep thinking these headlines are about efforts to restore the “little hours” to daily prayer.

    • Gary Keith Chesterton

      If only there were a “like” button for this.

  • Ted Seeber

    This explains a good deal of why the uns are hated by the nones.

  • http://www.wiics.org John W. Morehead

    You are quite correct that the Nones are not new, but in terms of being on the Evangelical radar, and in serving as an opportunity for critical self-reflection they certain are. As I wrote recently for Sacred Tribes Journal:

    There are also aspects worthy of consideration in relation to this segment of American religious expression. First, Gordon Lynch has described the rise of a new progressive spirituality of the religious left in his book The New Spirituality: An Introduction to Progressive Spirituality in the Twenty-first Century (I.B. Tauris, 2007). As I wrote in a previous blog entry on this volume, it “is significant for Christians in that not only does it discuss a popular, influential, and increasingly well organized and intellectual alternative to the Religious Right, but it also describes a spirituality that in some ways has developed in reaction to perceptions of the shortcomings if not outright failures of conservative expressions of Christianity.” As Lynch describes this:

    “The form of religion that is most commonly rejected by progressive spirituality is, as we have already noted, hierarchical religion grounded in a belief in a personal God who is removed from the cosmos. William Bloom refers to such forms of religion as being based on the idea of God as ‘General in Command’ or ‘Chief Executive Officer’. Such religion, it is argued, is authoritarian – dictating what kinds of beliefs and lifestyles its adherents should follow. It is patriarchal – using its power structures to reinforce certain assumptions about who should hold power and what kinds of gender and ethnic identities, or sexual orientation, are more inherently valuable than others. It is rigid and inflexible – asserting timeless doctrines and moral codes without asking whether these are meaningful or constructive in a modern context. It inserts the need for religious authorities and institutions for mediating the divine rather than allowing people to pursue their spiritual search on their own terms. It devalues embodied experience and makes us suspicious and guilty about sexuality. It removes the sacred from the cosmos, and in doing so leaves a desacralized world ripe for capitalist, industrialist exploitation. It places salvation in a life and context above and beyond this one, rather than seeing the cosmos as the only real context in which issues of life and death, salvation and grace are worked out. Because of this, it is argued, traditional hierarchical religion has little to offer by way of a framework for an authentic spiritual search or to inspire constructive responses to contemporary problems.”

    In addition, Pagan writer Jason Pitzl-Waters has suggested that this demographic group must also be understood as involving the rise of “liberal religion” that also incorporates paganism. Pointing to the work of Matt Hedstrom in his book The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2012), Pitzl-Waters states,

    “…I think that talking about the success of liberal forms of religion can’t be complete without mentioning those with no religion, the ‘nones,’ and their recent (and ongoing) growth. Many, including myself, have pointed out that ‘nones’ aren’t without beliefs or spirituality, they simply have abandoned formal religion in the sitting-in-pews sense.

    In addition, Alan Jamieson conducted research in New Zealand which identified a group of people who had left Christian churches which he labeled “church exiles.” He assumed they would be a group of people who had lost their faith, but instead he discovered they were a group that retained a vibrant Christian faith, but that the decision was made to leave the institutional church in favor of alternative expressions as a means of maintaining their faith commitments. Jamieson’s research found similar expressions in the UK and US. The stories of these exiles and and the results of his research can be found in the book A Churchless Faith (SPCK, 2002).

    The rise of the “Nones” is an interesting religious phenomenon that provides for a wealth of reflection by scholars, the media, and people with religious commitments across a spectrum.

  • http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber LogicGuru

    The None phenomenon is new: until recently (see, e.g. American Grace_) religious affiliation didn’t track political or cultural conservatism. Now religious commitment is virtually identified with cultural conservatism and a strong predictor of conservative politics.

    And you are of course right: what unites Nones is “the Sexual Revolution and their opposition to cultural traditionalists.” I share their view: I am utterly, completely and vehemently opposed to “family values” and sex roles, which are constituitive of this cultural traditionalism. I detest people who promote these values and would do anything in my power to harm and humiliate them—and to destroy cultural traditionalism.

    But I’m not a None: I’m a committed, believing Christian. Once that might not have seemed as peculiar as it does now. But these days it’s a socially untenable position: if people find out you’re religious they just assume you’re a white trash social conservative.


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