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.
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.
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.