Why do the surging hordes of nonreligious Americans, often labeled “nones,” remain politically impotent?
Way, way back in 2016, soon after U.S. President Donald Trump’s ill-omened “American Carnage” inauguration speech, author Susan Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason, 2008) wrote this weighty sentence:
“The question is not why nonreligious Americans vote for these candidates [who pay lip service to religion] — there is no one on the ballot who full-throatedly endorses nonreligious humanism — but why candidates themselves ignore the growing group of secular voters.”
Why, indeed? It is a question I was asking myself even before that startling election, which ultimately proved almost existentially catastrophic for American democracy and democratic institutions as Trump aggressively pushed to reinvent his lounge-lizard self as a chest-beating neo-Napoleon tyrant, not a reincarnated Jefferson.
Not much has changed since. In 2021, U.S. politicians continue to not talk about, much less promote, religious nonbelief, particularly atheism, while data continues to starkly show a relentless growth spurt among American “nones,” those citizens — including atheists and agnostics — who are unaffiliated with and largely uninterested in organized religion.
In fact, Democrat politicians (as Republicans routinely have for decades), continue themselves pandering to religion and religious voters, while virtually ignoring their more heretical constituencies, apparently out of habit. For example, new President Joe Biden, who happily replaced “The Donald” in the Oval Office in 2021, faithfully ends every formal speech with these word: “May God protect our troops.”
Everybody wants American troops protected, certainly, but not everybody thinks only “God” can do that — and I suspect, as I am, the unbelievers are a little embarrassed and annoyed that the American leader of the free world keeps repeating that unverifiable presumption. Yes, Biden is a Democrat, but an old, tradition-minded Democrat for whom “God” and “country” will always be permanently intertwined.
What’s new is that, despite being roundly ignored by the Democratic Party and its political candidates, “nones” now irrefutably represent a huge and growing constituency for the party.
Nonreligious Americans comprised 21 percent of all voters (and 26 percent of all Americans) on the eve of the 2020 election, according to the pre-vote AP VoteCast survey. More than 70 percent of them cast their presidential ballots for Biden, an article in The Humanist magazine reported early this year, while roughly only a quarter of “nones” voted for Trump.
“If on further analysis these numbers prove accurate, the so-called ‘nones’ will have added roughly 21 million votes to Biden’s total and only 7 million to Trump’s, a difference far greater than the more than 7 million votes that secured the popular vote for the former vice president,” The Humanist noted just before the vote.
Although support for Biden among “nones” exceeded that of voters within “clearly defined religious groups, such as Protestants,” evangelicals voted for Trump at an 11-point brisker pace than even “nones” did for Biden, The Humanist reported. Whereas 61 percent of Protestant voters cast ballots for Trump, a whopping 81 percent of evangelicals did. Evangelicals comprise 22 percent of the electorate, virtually the same as “nones,” so their cohesion bleeds votes from Democrats.
But the handwriting seems to be on the wall regarding the steady demise of faith in the U.S., The Humanist opined:
“Overall, the nonreligious—atheists, agnostics, or no religion in particular—make up 26 percent of the American population according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, a significant increase from 17 percent in 2009 and slightly higher than the aforementioned 21 percent of likely voters. These gains are coming at the expense of Protestants and Catholics, whose respective numbers have declined in the same period from 51 percent to 43 percent of the population, and 23 percent to 20 percent, respectively. Furthermore, nones make up an increasingly larger percentage of young people: 40 percent of millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) report no religious affiliation while only 49 percent of millennials are Christians.”
That’s good news for nonreligious Americans, but the political problem remains: Why are they being ignored by Democratic politicians, their seemingly natural allies?
A 2016 article in The LatinNone blog, which referenced a New York Times op-ed by Susan Jacoby, “Sick and Tired of ‘God Bless America,’” offered some compelling reasons why “nones” are getting the cold shoulder from their favorite party.
The LatiNone post noted that whereas “nones,” for whom “religion is not important in their lives,” totalled about 21 million Americans in 2008, their numbers swelled to 36 million by 2016. By 2019, about 55 million “nones” resided in the country.
Again, why would Democratic politicians ignore such a potentially potent political base?
The LatiNone asserts that part of the problem is two-fold: “nones,” who are commonly non-joiners, are not only harder to locate that religious voters (who expansively join churches that are easy to find and religious groups), they also see religion as relatively unimportant so are difficult to motivate to action in any activity regarding religion, or even irreligion.
“These are people changing what we think of secularism and politics: moving beyond policing Ten Commandments monuments and opening prayers into making the world a better place. In other words, they are practicing their humanism. … Many are working in political or social justice causes but their secular identity is superseded politically by other identity or identities. They are active politically, they have candidates listening to them, but they are focusing on other issues.” [boldface mine]
A 2020 article by the online news site FiveThirtyEight seconded The LatiNone post’s conclusions:
“As most don’t regularly gather like a church congregation, religiously unaffiliated Americans can be difficult to reach. A lack of institutional leadership also means there aren’t many prominent people or groups showing up to nudge politicians to pay attention to their issues. And despite rising tolerance for atheists and nonreligious people in American culture, overt appeals to the nonreligious still run the risk of turning off the majority of voters who are people of faith.”
But the striking growth of the demographic should pay political dividends … eventually.
“I think in future elections we’re going to see more of an effort to reach a secular voting bloc and the reason is simply that they’re continuing to grow,” said David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame who studies religion and politics, as quoted in the FiveThirtyEight piece. “It’s too ripe a target for politicians to ignore.”
For “nones,” it’s a new game, so the present lag time in gaining political traction is unsurprising. The LatiNone, observed in 2016 that “the secular movement is in its political infancy. The Religious Right has a 4-decade head start on us.” Clearly, in 2021, we’re still somewhat in the nursery, but we’re walking now and starting to explore the giddy possibilities of political influence.
Still, we haven’t explored very far since Jacoby wrote in her 2016 op-ed:
“Despite the extraordinary swiftness and magnitude of this shift [the abrupt rise of ‘nones’ in America], our political campaigns are still conducted as if all potential voters were among the faithful. The presumption is that candidates have everything to gain and nothing to lose by continuing their obsequious attitude toward orthodox religion and ignoring the growing population of those who make up a more secular America.”
As secular nonprofits increasingly enhance their political awareness and organizing mojo, let’s hope things are different in 2022, helping Democrats expand their majorities in the U.S. House and Senate rather than lose them, as often happens in the mid-terms, and to elect more secular leaders.