Checking in on the Cascadian Nones Vote

Back in June I wrote about how a initiative in Washington state on the issue of same-sex marriage could see the first real test of a post-Christian majority at the ballot box. More than half of Washington’s citizens don’t belong to any formal religion, becoming part of the demographic known as “nones,” and these “unchurched” have increasingly gotten more and more attention as their numbers swell. In addition, nones in the Pacific Northwest have their own special character according to the authors of “Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia,” they are “eclectically, informally, often deeply ‘spiritual.’” Specifically, New Age and nature-oriented spirituality loom large among “nones” here.

“According to the just-published “Cascadia: the Elusive Utopia.” … a lot of these “nones” in the Pacific Northwest are actually very spiritual, walking a path of their own making, but not into organized religions and churches. Sociology professor Mark Shibley of Southern Oregon University wrote the lead essay called “The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia.” “This region is different. The people here are not as connected to religious institutions,” he says. The alternative spirituality here shows itself in two main ways, Shibley notes: “nature spirituality,” such as you see in the secular environmental movement, and the more well-known New Age spirituality, where the gaze is shifted inward.”

When I wrote my initial piece, I asserted that “if Cascadian nones are truly the New Age, nature religion, do-it-yourselfers that researchers assert, then this could be a preview for what a truly post-Christian pluralistic political struggle will look like.” So, with the clock ticking down on the November elections, where do we stand on this ballot initiative that would potentially stop gay marriage in Washington state?  A September 10th poll says that 56% of Washington voters support upholding legal same-sex marriage in their state, while only  38% favor eliminating equal marriage rights, 6% are undecided. This is remarkable data, even in a traditionally “liberal” state like Washington, as voter referendums on same-sex marriage have always favored limiting legal marriage rights to opposite sex couples.

Further, Washington isn’t alone in making history with a popular vote for same-sex marriage instead of against it. Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota are also poised to make breakthroughs on this particular issue if the latest polls are to be believed.

Polling numbers suggest a majority of voters support legalizing same-sex marriage on the ballots in Maine, Maryland and Washington, while Minnesota straddles the fence. Should any of the states approve the ballots, it will be the first time gay marriage passes by popular vote as opposed to going through the courts or legislature. “We’re feeling positive. The reality is, we haven’t won a ballot measure on marriage yet,” Human Rights Campaign state legislative director Sarah Warbelow told NBC News. “I think it’s very reasonable and realistic to expect that we’ll win one or more of these ballot measures; certainly the polling suggests that all four are … a possibility.”

Sticking with my “nones” theory, 25% of Maine residents are religiously unaffiliated according to the Pew Forum, while the 2010 US Religion Census shows that area also dominated by the “unchurched.” Likewise, Maryland’s numbers are also highly religiously unaffiliated (you can download a larger version of the map below here). So, like Washington, they could prefigure a “post-Christian” vote in terms of hot-button social issues like gay marriage.

However, it’s Washington that I’m most interested in because of the trends that point to the “nones” in the Pacific Northwest being more like “us” Pagans in inclination and spiritual orientation. If you want tea leaves to read over what a “Pagan” vote might look like, this might be our chance to witness it in action. Of course, this vote could go the other way, as elections are largely about who’s more motivated, and opponents to same-sex unions are often highly motivated and well funded. Also, with this being a presidential election year, enthusiasm for the candidate(s) who supports same-sex marriage will also be a factor. Still this is a very good sign that a demographic tide may have turned in Washington. We’ll check back in as new data emerges.

Cascadian “Nones” vs Conservative Christians in Washington

Over the years I’ve written a lot about individuals who don’t claim adherence to any religion, dubbed “nones” by journalists and researchers. This group has exploded to around 16% of the population in the United States, and defies easy categorization. What we do know is that their growth is most explosive among younger people, and that “nones” aren’t anti-religioun per se, simply against what they feel institutionalized religion has become (ie polarized and fixated on culture war issues). Now, thanks to a ballot initiative in Washington state on gay marriage, it looks like we might see the first skirmish between socially conservative Christian voters, and this diverse grouping of the non-religious.

Gov. Chris Gregoire signing same-sex marriage law. Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP

According to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census, more than half of the state’s 6.8 million residents don’t belong to a religious group. Preserve Marriage Washington, the organization behind the gay marriage petition (Referendum 74), is a coalition of community and faith groups, including the Washington State Catholic Conference. “Almost 4.4 million people are unclaimed, so that’s the group, that if they vote, will decide this referendum,” said Patricia O’Connell Killen, editor of “Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone,” and academic vice president at Gonzaga University. “Any political issue, whether it passes or fails, depends by and large on how the vast majority of these unchurched are persuaded.”

In short, those who want to preserve the right for same-sex couples to marry in Washington need to reach out to Cascadian “nones” to win this ballot initiative. What are “nones” in the Pacific Northwest like? According to the authors of “Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia,” they are “eclectically, informally, often deeply ‘spiritual.'” Specifically, New Age and nature-oriented spirituality loom large among “nones” here.

“According to the just-published “Cascadia: the Elusive Utopia.” … a lot of these “nones” in the Pacific Northwest are actually very spiritual, walking a path of their own making, but not into organized religions and churches. Sociology professor Mark Shibley of Southern Oregon University wrote the lead essay called “The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia.” “This region is different. The people here are not as connected to religious institutions,” he says. The alternative spirituality here shows itself in two main ways, Shibley notes: “nature spirituality,” such as you see in the secular environmental movement, and the more well-known New Age spirituality, where the gaze is shifted inward.”

Normally, whenever same-sex marriage has gone to the ballot boxes, it works against supporters of marriage equality. It is so successful that it has become something of a tactic to boost voter turnout among social conservatives during important election cycles (though that assertion is being questioned). This year, Washington joins Maryland, Maine and Minnesota in putting this issue up for a vote. However, we may see a reversal of fortunes in Washington where a majority of voters believe same-sex couples should be able to get married, and where gay marriage rights have bipartisan support. With a 4 percentage point margin, the outcome will almost certainly rest on turnout, and who will be able to motivate their supporters better.

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

Conservative Christians are rightfully praised for their ability in getting out the vote among their supporters. It is how the Religious Right, the Moral Majority, and other permutations of this bloc have been able to wield so much influence in the Republican party, and in politics in general. Washington in 2012 may see the beginning of a challenge to that legendary ground-game, but only if supporters of same-sex marriage know how to reach out to their “nones.” For once, Pagan organizations, New Age institutions, Unitarian-Universalist churches, alternative health outlets, and other touch-points for the non-religious demographic in Washington could be vital in mobilizing groups that are traditionally distrustful or apathetic about the political process. Because if Cascadian nones are truly the New Age, nature religion, do-it-yourselfers that researchers assert, then this could be a preview for what a truly post-Christian pluralistic political struggle will look like.

“Nones” and the Future of Religion in America

Since the 2010 elections, and some would argue since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Christian social conservatism in the United States has been flexing its muscles. Anti-abortion legislation is at record highs, contraception is a hot-button issue once more, same-sex marriage (not to mention gay soldiers) continues to be used as a political football, and disturbing moments of Christian nativism have been creeping back into our national discourse. There are two popular theories as to why religiously-motivated culture wars have intensified at this moment. The hubris theory, which posits that Christian conservatives have already “won” in changing the American landscape and now are slowly pushing for even more, and the desperation theory, which envisions a demographically doomed conservative Christian rump fighting a rear-guard action against the inevitability of their inconsequentiality.

“…contrary to the whims of lazy pundits, the waning of enthusiasm for battling over “social issues” is not due to higher concerns about jobs, the deficit, and the economic future […] Put simply, the Christian Right is getting old.According to the largest and most recent study we have of American religion and politics, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, almost twice as many people 18 to 29 confess to no faith at all as adhere to evangelical Protestantism. Young people who have attended college, a growing percentage of the population, are more secular still. Catholicism has held its own only because the Church keeps gathering in newcomers from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, few of whom are likely to show up at a Santorum rally. To their surprise, Putnam and Campbell discovered that conservative preachers infrequently discuss polarizing issues from the pulpit. Sermons about hunger and poverty far outnumber those about homosexuality or abortion. On any given Sunday, just one group of Christians routinely grapples with divisive political issues: black Protestants, the most reliably Democratic constituency of them all.”

That January 2012 New Republic article by Michael Kazin, quoted above, draws on the work of Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam and Notre Dame professor David E. Campbell, authors of the book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” In it the two political scientists argue that our religious culture has become increasingly polarized, while at the same time fostering a broad interfaith tolerance. Putnam and Campbell were recently given pride of place in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs to talk about the intersection of religion and politics (hint: they don’t like it), with much of the piece given over to talking about “nones,” individuals who claim no formal religion.

“In surveys conducted by the authors all “nones” grew by about 18% between 2006 and 2011, but young “nones” grew by about 90%–a truly remarkable difference. Campbell and Putnam have a convincing political explanation of this development: The growth of the “nones”, and especially of their young constituent, is a reaction against the Religious Right.”

What many have pointed out, including those who’ve gathered data on this growing demographic, is that “nones” aren’t anti-religious per se, they are simply against what they feel institutionalized religion has become (ie polarized and fixated on culture war issues). In short, as some would have it, we are becoming a nation of heretics. The big question is, if traditional (ie Christian) religion as we know is declining, if we are entering a post-Christian era, what will take its place? According to religion scholar Diana Butler Bass, author of the recently released “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening,” we are at a pivotal moment in history in regards to that question.

“The United States is currently in the throes of a spiritual awakening, says Diana Butler Bass. In her new book, Christianity After Religion, the author argues that we are at a crossroads in history—we can choose to move forward into new emerging spiritualities, or we can heed the siren sound of the traditionalists calling us back to a romanticized, rigid, past.”

Bass makes it plain that this awakening isn’t isolated to Christianity, or even to monotheism.

“…when I talk about the fact that we’re in an awakening, I believe we are in a period of intense cultural reorientation or revitalization, and that during an awakening, politics, worldviews, religion, education—the whole way a society approaches being community, and connecting with one another, and understanding their God or their gods—it all changes.”

I’ve mentioned before that the rise of the “nones” could be a very good thing for modern Paganism, and for religious minorities in general. Many “nones” are picking up spiritual practices from nature and the New Age, and scholars like Bron Taylor, author of “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future,” believe that nature-based spiritualities are best equipped to survive the collapse of the traditional religions.

“Where this cognitive shift has been made, traditional religions with their beliefs in non-material divine beings are in decline. The desire for a spiritually meaningful understanding of the cosmos, however, did not wither away, and new forms of spirituality have been filling the cultural niches previously occupied by conventional religions. I argue that the forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings.”

This all sounds like great news, but it should be noted that Taylor, and Bass, envision a push-back from traditional religions. The numbers may be  shifting, generational plate tectonics slowly changing the old religious order, but the near future will continue to be numerically dominated by Christian adherents. For many of these Christians the answer is simple: teach young people the “real,” “authentic,” Christianity that has been distorted by the modern world (an argument that works on both the Christian right and left).

“It all comes down to teaching and role-modeling the elusive real fundamental Christianity to young people. [Drew] Dyck’s book [“Generation Ex-Christian”] , and books like “UnChristian”“Generation Hex”“Wicca’s Charm”, and many, many, more, all call for a return to an elusive central core of faith that is pure enough to withstand the rigors of engaging the wider secular/non-Christian world.Christians love these books, because it not only addresses a problem that worries them, but tells them that the solution is to become more Christian as a way to solve the problem.”

The latest call for revival comes from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, whose “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” comes out this April. In it, he makes a “urgent call for a revival of traditional Christianity” to “confront our most pressing challenges and accelerated American decline.” Douthat, a proud hurler of the Cynthia Eller brickbat, does not want to live in a “Dan Brown America” and is very, very concerned about Hollywood’s rampant pantheism.

“It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James. But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world. In Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing. If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.”

In the mind of Douthat, and many others, it all comes down to (traditional) Christianity vs. Nature Religion (ie pantheism, New Age beliefs, “false” Christianities, and Paganism). The “green dragon” of environmentalism run amok. A preoccupation spawned by the existential dread of losing one’s invisible privilege in our society. Hence, the uptick in culture-war issues discussed at the beginning of this piece. Of course, being a Pagan, I’m hoping for a day when we truly do enter a post-Christian society. When non-Christian voices, and non-religious voices, truly get seat at the table (as opposed to occasional sympathetic Hollywood films or appearances on reality television). That the moment of reckoning for religion in America swings away from a reestablishment of traditional Christian power, and towards the inclusive awakening envisioned by Bass. A pluralistic nation that lives up to its pluralistic (and pagan) foundations.

In the meantime, keep an eye on the “nones.”

[REMINDER: I am currently raising funds so I can go on assignment to the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting in Chicago this November. Two days into the campaign and I’m already over half-way to my goal! To everyone who has donated so far, THANK YOU, you are making robust and responsive Pagan journalism possible. If you haven’t pledged yet, please consider doing so today, the quicker we reach the goal, the faster we can move forward on building new funding models for Pagan media.]

What Does the Growth of Unitarian Universalism Mean?

There’s a certain truism that’s been adopted by commentators and analyzers of religion in the United States (and more broadly in the West), that liberal Protestant Christianity is in a demographic death spiral, and thus liberal forms of Christianity itself are in danger of winking out of existence. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat, author of “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” made waves this past Summer by asking if liberal Christianity could be saved.

“…if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves. […] Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline.”

Andrew Sullivan recently declared that Christianity itself was in crisis, and several scholars and writers have read the demographic tea leaves to see what happens as the “nones” grow and the generational shifts start to change the makeup of religious bodies. So it is within this atmosphere that I read about how the decidedly post-Christian Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations has actually experienced growth in congregants over the past ten years.

Unitarian Universalists at Pride in Washington DC

“De Lee is one of a growing number of Unitarian Universalists, a group of people who believe in organized religion but are skeptical about doctrine. The denomination grew nationally by 15.8% from 2000 to 2010, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. Although they remain small in total numbers with about 211,000 adherents nationwide, Unitarians believe their open-minded faith has a bright future as an alternative to more exclusive brands of religion.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise since, according to UUA President Rev. Peter Morales, the UUA is perfectly situated to appeal to those apprehensive of traditional Christian religious organizations, especially those claiming “no religion.”

“The great irony here is that these “nones” are very much aligned with Unitarian Universalist values. They are accepting of ethnic and sexual diversity. They are open minded. They also seek spiritual community. They present a huge challenge and a huge opportunity for us.”

Also of note is that the UUA is experiencing a lot of their growth in the South, not just the traditionally “liberal” coasts and open-minded campus towns.

“The denomination, which started in New England, has been growing more in the South than in other parts of the country, said Rachel Walden, a public witness specialist from the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association. […] In Tennessee, Unitarians grew by 20.8% from 2000 to 2010. During the same time frame, they grew by 22% in Georgia and by 42.5% in Colorado.”

Religion scholar Diana Butler Bass, author of “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening,” recently said in an interview that she feels that America is in the midst of a spiritual awakening, one that isn’t necessarily centered on Christianity or even monotheism.

“…when I talk about the fact that we’re in an awakening, I believe we are in a period of intense cultural reorientation or revitalization, and that during an awakening, politics, worldviews, religion, education—the whole way a society approaches being community, and connecting with one another, and understanding their God or their gods—it all changes.”

So what does this growth auger? What I think this means is that liberal, New Age, and Pagan faiths are perfectly positioned to benefit from the growing distrust and disillusionment of rigid one-true-way monotheistic forms of religion. They no longer care to wait while church organizations grudgingly admit the humanity of their gay friends, or litigate birth control yet again. Liberal Christianity is diminishing, yes, but what we’re seeing now is almost a slow-motion alchemy as these adherents search, seek, and often find a home with faiths outside the dominant Christian paradigm. So we see Buddhists grow, and Pagans grow, and yes, we see Unitarian Universalists grow.

The long-mocked theological flexibility of the UUA, which allows Pagans and Humanists alike in their pews to worship alongside the UU Christians  may turn out to be a secret strength that allows it to weather the post-Christian cultural transition that many Christian religious bodies seem unprepared for. Indeed, just a year ago journalists were questioning whether Unitarian Universalists would survive far past their 50th anniversary, with three years of “dips” in membership. Now the narrative has flipped, and suddenly we’re talking about their growth. While the UUA may never become a dominant demographical heavyweight as some denominations are today, their very nature may allow them to thrive and survive while other falter. They may even turn out to be a natural nexus point for liberal religon as it grapples with what the future holds.