Don’t expect any official “Atheists for Hillary” outreach, but political progressives are cheered by a study showing a rise in the number of nonreligious Americans.
It’s not because top Democrats are irreligious; both President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are persons of faith. But liberals welcomed the findings of the 2014 Religious Landscape Study, released last week by the Pew Research Center, which showed a country growing less religious. Republicans consistently do well among voters with strong religious beliefs, and Democrats score better with voters who don’t express religious views.
The huge study — a 35,000-person sample — reveals that over the past seven years, there has been a 10 percent decline in self-identified Christians, though they still are more than 70 percent of the population. At the same time, the religiously nonaffiliated, or “nones,” have increased by about one-third and now account for about 23 percent of American adults. This trend could have political implications. In the last presidential election, Mitt Romney easily won among Christian voters, and Obama carried 70 percent of the unaffiliated. This divide was even more apparent in the 2014 congressional elections.
Evangelical Protestants, the core of the Republican base since Ronald Reagan, have held steady over the past seven years, according to the study, though their share of the population has declined somewhat. In the last presidential and midterm elections, evangelicals made up more than a quarter of the electorate and voted Republican by a four-to-one ratio.
The number of Catholics also has declined slightly. They are about a quarter of the electorate and constitute a political swing group. White Catholics vote are more likely to be Republican, and their non-white counterparts are mainly Democrats.
The growth of the “nones” — designating “people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular,'” is most pronounced among younger Americans. More than a third of millennials — 18 to 33 year-olds — have no religious affiliation. This, experts say, probably is fueled by issues such as gay rights and racial tolerance. A quarter of whites are unaffiliated religiously, along with 20 percent of Hispanics and 18 percent of blacks.
There is a debate over the direct political effects.
“We have not yet felt the impact of the religiously unaffiliated at the ballot box,” said Robert P. Jones, chief executive officer of the Public Religion Research Institute. The “nones,” he said, register and vote less than committed Christians. But “there is untapped potential.”
David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” suggests the “nones” are becoming more active. He pointed to the recent backlash after Indiana and other states tried to remove barriers to discrimination against same-sex couples based on religious beliefs.
He believes that continuing efforts by conservative factions on gay rights and issues that they consider matters of religious freedom will galvanize the nonreligious.
“The single greatest mobilizing force for secularists is the religious right, especially among millennials,” Campbell said. Even at Notre Dame, the most famous U.S. Catholic institution, “there is almost no sympathy for the religious right’s traditionalist’s views.”
Political leaders of the evangelical movement don’t dispute Pew’s findings, but question the implications. They argue that the ascendancy of nonbelievers would energize their base on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to the “war on Christmas” and even, for some, mixed-religion marriage.
Moreover, they doubt the unaffiliated can coalesce behind any agenda.
“Secular voters are simply harder to organize because unbelief historically is not as animating in terms of political engagement as deeply held religious faith,” said Timothy Head, executive director of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition.
With two polarizing camps playing off each other, faith may become like Congress: dominated by the wings with little room in the middle.
The Economist on May 16th 2015
BRANDON PAULIN, the new mayor of Indian Head, Maryland, has been researching his flagship policy—a scheme to discourage out-of-town landlords from leaving properties empty—for seven years. If that makes Mr Paulin sound a bit slow-moving, he has an excuse. When he began that research he was 12 years old. Now a tall, gravely polite college student, he was elected mayor in a mini-landslide on May 5th, sweeping aside town elders who had run Indian Head since before he was born.
By the standards of any age, Mr Paulin is an unusually serious 19-year-old. He first spoke at a town council meeting when he was 11, to report a dangerous road-crossing. Earlier this week, chatting in a coffee shop in a gap between appearing on local TV and being sworn in as mayor, he named Dwight Eisenhower as his favourite president, praising that centrist Republican for building interstate highways and maintaining social safety-nets while balancing the federal budget. Mr Paulin ran as a centrist in Indian Head, a quiet spot on the banks of the Potomac river, where the 4,000 residents mostly work at a nearby naval base or commute to Washington, DC. Like many mayors’ offices, his post is officially non-partisan. In person he also shuns party labels. He calls himself a “moderate conservative”, while hailing his local (Democratic) congressman, Steny Hoyer, as a “genuinely good dude” who has proved willing, on occasion, to cross party lines. He is not from a political dynasty. His father works on Capitol Hill, it is true, but as a policeman.
By the standards of his generation—so-called Millennials, aged between 18 and 34—Mr Paulin is typical in distrusting labels of all sorts. A recent poll of young Americans by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that only just over a quarter called themselves either strong Democrats or Republicans, while 40% claimed to be politically independent. Some may be cheered by this; after all, increased partisanship has hardly improved the places that oldies control, such as Congress. What is more, unease with party labels does not stop younger Americans from being civic-minded: surveys find them volunteering for community projects in large numbers, and worrying about questions of public policy from climate change to health care.
But Millennials stand out for a more worrying reason, and one that reveals Mr Paulin to be a startling outlier. Lots of American youngsters appear to be losing faith in electoral politics as a way of tackling society’s problems. Disengagement by young voters has long caused angst. In the 1972 presidential election (Nixon v McGovern, a youth-pleasing clash) half of eligible 18-24-year-olds cast ballots. Only a third of that age-group voted in 2000. Big events (such as the war in Iraq) or fresh-faced, charismatic candidates (Bill Clinton in 1992, Barack Obama in 2008) can prompt bounces in youth voting. But the trends are downwards.
Now researchers have started pondering a related question: if young people cannot be bothered to vote, will they see any point in running for political office? Early findings are triggering some alarm. Earlier this month two political scientists, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, published “Running From Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off To Politics”, a book analysing the political ambitions of more than 4,000 high-school and university students. Overall, only about one in nine young people in their study could seriously imagine running for public office. Youth disdain was sharpest when contemplating Congress and the federal government. But local, non-party offices were not immune. Asked to pick three possible jobs from a list of 20, students ranked “mayor of a city or town” 17th: above “member of Congress” but below even such despised trades as journalism.
No democracy thrives on apathy. But America is unusually dependent on citizen-legislators. Counting school boards, parks commissions and so on, the country is home to almost 520,000 elected officials. Professors Lawless and Fox worry about the 25% of students who have no opinions about politics. They fret about the roughly 60% who have negative views of it, and so try to avoid the subject. Unfamiliarity breeds contempt, the professors discover: those who tune out politics are the most likely to think politicians are all awful (people in politics are “squirrelly”, a Texan student told them, flatly).
An age of distrust
The young were not always so jaundiced. A 1973 study of high-school students is instructive: back then, most youngsters thought that folk in government knew what they were doing. Today a minority trusts the government to do the right thing most of the time. In the 1970s almost three-quarters of students regularly talked politics with their parents. Now three-quarters seldom do. The subject is deemed distasteful. The professors quote a student who says that among friends, politics “kills the mood”.
They did find a minority of present-day youngsters who follow current affairs, debate with their peers and volunteer on campaigns. Even then, there are worries about how representative such folk are. The children of strong Democrats, for instance, are almost three times more interested in public office than those brought up by strong Republicans (who would rather their kids went into business). College-going men are twice as likely as women to think about running for office in later life.
Many big beasts of politics have been in a hurry. Bill Clinton knew he could be “great in public service” at 15. Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, launched his first campaign—for a zoo in his home town—at 12. The problem is not that there are no new prodigies. Mr Paulin is about to juggle his new office with studying for a political-science degree (handily, he may write a thesis on being mayor). The danger is that modern politics seems to be repelling most young Americans as rarely before. Democracy cannot afford for the gap between prodigies and the rest to grow wider.