October 12, 2012 - 4:53 pm

On Tuesday, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report titled 'Nones' on the Rise that shows nearly one-in-five adults in the United States have no religious affiliation. These religiously unaffiliated Americans include those who identify as atheists, agnostics, humanists, or have no particular religion.

Trends in Affiliation

This group accounts for more than 45 million Americans and outnumbers adherents to Mormonism, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism combined. The Nones outnumber white evangelicals (19% of adults) and are nearly even with Catholics (22% of adults). And yet, this immense voting bloc is not being actively courted by the Democratic Party and is met with outright hostility from some members of the Republican Party.

In their survey, Pew found that the religiously unaffiliated voters are much more likely to identify as liberal in their political ideology (38% compared to 21% amongst the general public) and support Democratic candidates by huge margins. In 2008, the Nones supported Barack Obama over John McCain by 52 points (75% to 23%). This is compared to McCain's 47 point margin of victory amongst the evangelical community.

At the Religion Newswriters Conference where the Pew report was first released, John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, indicated that, in the near future, the Nones may "be as important to the Democratic Party coalition as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party coalition."

But there is the problem with that position. The Nones are by no means a politically homogenous group. In fact, 50% of them want a smaller government while 42% prefer a larger government that provides more services, compared to a 52% / 39% spread amongst the general population. That would seem to make many of the Nones natural allies with the (professed) political philosophy of the Republican Party.

Social and Political Issues

So why have the Nones overwhelmingly supported Democrats in recent years?

I have no doubt that the emphasis the GOP has placed on pandering to religious extremists on social issues like marriage equality and abortion is alienating the Nones. Nearly three-quarters of the Nones support marriage equality compared to only 41% of religiously affiliated voters. It should be noted, however, that there are pockets of support for marriage equality amongst Mainline Protestants (52% support) and Catholics (53% support). Support for legal abortion access among the Nones and the affiliated is nearly identical to their support for marriage equality with modestly higher support for access to abortion.

But I believe it is just as likely that this is a rebuke of the distant relationship that certain prominent members of the GOP have with science-based legislating (including their support of abstinence-only sex education, a refusal to acknowledge climate change, and an embrace of "intelligent design" over evolution).

The Nones are setting aside their position on the size of government because they see the Republican Party as outside the mainstream on these social issues and the role of religion in governing. The Democratic Party has become, for many of the Nones, their only acceptable choice despite disagreement on the size and scope of government, possibly the basic question of political philosophy.

And now, with nearly one-third of Americans aged 18-29 being part of the Nones, both political parties must recognize that they need to be doing more to reach out to that community and do so in short order. If the Republican and Democratic Parties want to stay relevant with the voters of tomorrow, they need to advocate for policies which are based in reality and have justification outside of religious dogma. The growth of the Nones can be a good thing for both the Democratic and Republican Party if they are willing to ground their policy positions in reason.

Politicians need to say that there is no intellectually honest secular argument against marriage equality. Period. That science should be taught in science classrooms. Period. That abstinence-only sex education doesn't prevent teen pregnancy or lower STI rates and shouldn't receive a dime of government funding. Period.

The sooner both parties get on board with reality-based legislating, the sooner we can have an honest discussion about the role of government in our lives. When only one party has even a loose affiliation with reality and science-based policy, the debate suffers. Nones overwhelmingly supported President Obama in 2008 and still support the Democratic Party in general. And yet, a majority of Nones support the (supposed) goal of the Republican Party: smaller government.

In the short term, the Republicans in particular need to figure out how they can appeal to voters who demand a reason-based approach to governing if they have any hope of doing any governing in a nation with a growing number of Nones. When Republican Party stops pandering to religious extremists on marriage equality (and LGBT issues in general), abortion, contraception, and the basic facts of science, we can have an actual debate. Until then, the vast majority of Nones may just default to the Blue Team.


February 9, 2012 - 1:40 pm

Yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to demand that the Obama administration reverse course on the enforcement of a regulation included in the Affordable Care Act requiring most employers' health insurance plans to cover no-cost access to women's preventative health care services, including access to contraception.

It is worth noting that this regulation already exempts insurance plans provided by certain religious employers, namely churches and other houses of worship. There are 28 states that require contraception to be covered in insurance plans. Of these, eight do not have an exemption for religious employers and this rule is nearly identical to exemptions that exist in Oregon, New York, and California. The Secular Coalition urged the Department of Health and Human Services, in a letter dated September 9, 2011, to eliminate this exemption or keep it as narrowly tailored as possible so as to not exclude millions of women from access to necessary health services.

This rule, finalized on January 20, kept that exemption fairly narrow, and means that religiously affiliated organizations such as hospitals, universities, and nonprofits must comply with the requirement that access to contraception be provided to all employees. Opponents have cried foul and insisted that this, in the words of Speaker Boehner, is "an unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country."

It is nothing of the sort. We must draw a distinction between an individual's right to practice his or her religion without interference from the government and an organization's "right" to impose its religious views on its employees. Tom Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has insisted that the mandate be removed entirely because it would create problems for Catholics business owners who "can't in good conscience cooperate with this." He went on to say, "If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I'd be covered by this mandate."

Yes he would, and rightly so. Mr. Picarello's religious liberty exists right up until the point where he begins to force it on his employees. Just as 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women and 99 percent of women in the general population have used contraception at some point in their lives, I would be willing to bet that a similar number of women employed at Mr. Picarello's hypothetical business would want access to contraception and reproductive care. In addition, dozens of Catholic institutions, such as DePaul University, already offers employees access to contraceptive care.

To be clear, this regulation does not require Catholic and other religious hospitals and charities to provide contraception to patients. That is another issue entirely and one that may benefit from some additional discussion.

What this rule does do is require that these employers provide access to these services in their prescription drug plans and health insurance policies, just as any other employer is required. The religiously affiliated business which opponents of this rule are seeking to exempt employ millions of people, many of whom do not share the religious views of their employer or even when they do, disagree with doctrinal teachings on the use of contraception. This rule protects the religious liberty of these individuals--allowing them to practice their religious beliefs individually and not be forced to make a choice between their job, their health, and their employer's religious views.

In enforcing this rule, the Department of Health and Human Services is respecting individual choice on the use of contraception and is in line with scientific consensus that access to contraceptive care provides women with substantial health benefits. For this, the Obama administration and HHS Secretary Sebelius deserve our praise.

January 24, 2012 - 5:56 pm

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, following pressure from his Republican rivals for the party nomination to face President Barack Obama in the November election, released his tax records from 2010 as well as estimates for his 2011 taxes today. Romney's tax returns highlight an important issue of religious privileging in our tax code.
Included in Romney's tax filings were deductions from his adjusted gross income for contributions made to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, of which the Romney family is a long-time and prominent fixture. In 2010, Romney gave just over $1.5 million to the church. The past year, Romney contributed $2.6 million to the Church. The $4 million represents roughly 10% of Romney's total income of $42.5 million. As with many members of the LDS Church, Romney gives approximately 10 percent of his earnings to the church as a tithe.
Romney has every right as a citizen to support the work of an organization in which he believes. What should be the concern of every American-not just secular Americans-is that Romney receives a tax benefit for supporting his church. Of course, millions of other Americans receive this same benefit for contributions to religious and secular charitable organizations. The problem here lies with the special privilege and status of churches in charitable giving.
Suppose your earnings over the last two years were identical to Romney's. And let's say that you too gave away more than $4 million of your income. But suppose that, instead of donating to the LDS Church, you instead donated to American Atheists. Or the Secular Student Alliance. Or any number of any worthwhile organizations. In order for your contribution to be tax deductible, these organizations must be registered as 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporations and must file paperwork with Internal Revenue Service that guarantees that they are using your (and other donors') money in a manner consistent with the legal requirements of a 501(c)(3) organization.
These organizations must disclose, through IRS Form 990, how much money they raised, how much was spent, on what they spent it, the compensation of their officers, and then make these disclosures available to the public. Religious organizations, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, are not required by the federal government to make these disclosures expressly because of their status as churches and religious groups. While secular charities and nonprofits must "open their books" in order for their supporters to receive a tax benefit from their giving, churches must, quite simply, be churches.
The Constitution protects our right to practice our religion free from government intervention up to the line that is crossed when our religious practices infringe on the liberty of others. What it does not do, however, is guarantee special standing for some religious beliefs over others (or none). 
The simplest and most fair solution is this: in order for individuals to receive tax benefits for contributions to a charitable group, all groups, secular and religious, must be subjected to the same disclosure and reporting requirements. If churches and religious groups choose not to make the disclosures required by law for their supporters to receive a tax benefit for support, that is entirely within their rights under the Constitution. But it is not their right to receive special accommodations if they are unwilling to play by the same rules as everyone else.