Nonbelievers have growing impact in U.S. elections

Friday, May 24, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:55 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 24, 2013

In 2009, a newly inaugurated president spoke to the American people for the first time as the nation’s leader. About halfway through his speech, he made reference to a group of people who had been largely unrecognized by politicians in the past.

“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” President Barack Obama said during his first inauguration speech.


Editor's note: Now in its third year of reporting on sensitive issues, Project 573 devoted its attention during 2012-13 to the growing group of people who check "none" when asked to designate a religion.

In 2008, Pew Research Center added “none of the above” to its questions about faith. Since then, there has been a 5 percent increase in the number of people who affiliate with no particular religion or call themselves atheist or agnostic.

This report, "Who are the American Nones?" published fully online as Project 573 "None of the Above,"  looks at their profiles, preferences, philosophies and lifestyles.

Project 573 participants were seniors at the Missouri School of Journalism who studied print and digital news, radio/TV journalism, magazine, photojournalism, convergence journalism and strategic communication.


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That last group, the nonbelievers, had just helped Obama win the presidency by voting overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate.

A vast majority of voters who consider themselves unaffiliated with religion chose Obama in 2008, and these voters did the same for Obama during his re-election bid in 2012.

The group, often referred to as the Nones, includes atheists, agnostics, humanists, non-theists and others.

They represent a significant portion of the American electorate – one that has the potential for considerable impact on the nation’s politics. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

“I think that just by sheer size, (the unaffiliated) are certainly going to become more important and how important they become depends on how they organize ... and how they play up those numbers within the parties,” said Juhem Navarro-Rivera, a research associate at the Public Religion Research Institute.

Yet, the ways they will gain political influence and impact the nation’s political system has yet to be determined.

The politics of the Nones

At first glance, the Nones are firmly in the Democratic corner of American politics.

Navarro-Rivera, a co-author of a 2008 Trinity College study that profiled this group, pointed to a shift among the unaffiliated away from the GOP in the past 20 years.

During the previous four presidential elections, these voters have turned out almost exclusively for Democratic candidates. According to the Pew analysis, 75 percent of these voters supported Obama in 2008 and 70 percent backed him in 2012.

“The unaffiliated voters, the ones that went out and voted, were as important for the Democrats as the religious right was for the Republicans,” said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron.

Green is also a senior research adviser at Pew and was involved in designing the 2012 Pew report. Even if many of the unaffiliated don’t identify as Democratic, they still vote that way, he said.

Navarro-Rivera said those unaffiliated with religion vote Democratic because the party’s stances on issues reflect their views more than Republican positions do.

In the last two presidential elections, 12 percent of registered voters described themselves as unaffiliated. Of those registered to vote, 63 percent identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, while 26 percent identify as Republican or lean Republican, according to the Pew report.

Yet this does not guarantee their political support.

“A lot of Nones have been turned off from the Republican Party because they’ve been so intertwined with the religious right," said Lauren Anderson Youngblood, the communications manager for the Secular Coalition of America, an advocacy and lobbying group for non-theistic interests.

"If that were to change and they were to focus on more economic issues, there is no reason why the religiously unaffiliated would necessarily vote Democratic if our votes are being taken for granted (by Democrats),” she said.

Nones and economic matters

When compared to the general public, the Nones are more liberal on cultural or social issues. They align relatively closely with the general population on other issues, such as the economy or the role of government.

“When you move away from the cultural issues to economic issues, the unaffiliated are not nearly so uniform,” Green said.

The divide on economic issues could redirect some of them to the Republican Party, he said.

“After all, on economic issues there may be unaffiliated voters that like the Republican message of lower taxes and smaller budgets,” Green said.

“The trouble for Republicans is, how do they reach out to the unaffiliated without offending the religious right, which has become a very important part of their base.”

For Youngblood and others, Obama’s mention of nonbelievers in his first inaugural address and other speeches represents a start in political recognition of the religiously unaffiliated.

“Just for lawmakers to simply even mention us and acknowledge us is a start because too often, many lawmakers seem to have the mistaken impression that they don’t even have non-theists in their district,” she said.

In February, when the Republican National Committee began conducting its “autopsy” of the 2012 election, Youngblood said she and other members of the Washington-based Secular Coalition met with Ben Key, executive director of the party's platform committee.

“We wanted to encourage them to pay attention to non-theistic voters and bring to their attention that they’re losing a large slice of the electorate by aligning themselves so heavily with the religious right,” Youngblood said, adding later that she received a positive reaction from Key.

Recognized but underrepresented

The Nones make up about 20 percent of the population, but they still face underrepresentation by state and national lawmakers.

“A lot of the atheists I know got all excited when Obama actually said the word ‘nonbeliever’ in his first inauguration speech,” said Carla Burris, a co-organizer of Columbia Atheists.

“If you get all excited about little piddly crumbs like that, that’s kind of a symptom of how sketchy the nonreligious representation is.”

In most recent election, only one member of Congress — Arizona Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema — publicly described her religious affiliation as “none."

According to a Pew analysis released after the 2012 election, the majority of the members of Congress — 299 — describe themselves as Protestant while 163 are Catholic, 33 are Jewish, 15 are Mormon, five are Orthodox Christian, three are Buddhist, two Muslim, one Hindu and one Unitarian Universalist.

Ten other members said they either didn’t know what religion they would affiliate with or would not declare.

One of the problems behind reaching out to unaffiliated voters is finding them, Green said, since the unaffiliated are typically less involved in social organizations, such as Rotary clubs or church.

“There is no master list of the unaffiliated. ... It’s not that that list can’t be developed, it’s just a challenge,” Green said.

“If you’re going to try and organize them, you have to be able to find them. Once you find them, you can get messages to them and encourage them to participate in a particular way.”

Youngblood said she thinks it should be simple for lawmakers to reach out to the unaffiliated voters by keeping their personal religious preferences to themselves and making laws based on “reason and science and logic.”

However, Kathy Pulley, a professor of religious studies at Missouri State University, said the diversity within this population can make it difficult for politicians to understand whom they are reaching.

“Part of the reason (outreach) is difficult is that I don’t think (the unaffiliated) are or will be an organized movement," Pulley said. "It’s hard to know exactly how to reach out if you’re not getting clear indications from groups as to a certain agenda that a given group has.” 

An effective political group needs a unified political front, she said.

“I don’t know if they have enough in common to really (organize) right now,” Pulley said.

The Secular Coalition of America is trying to pull religiously unaffiliated voters together, Youngblood said.

“(Organizing is the) challenge that the secular community has been facing over the last 10 to 20 years as they’ve been trying to pull together the movement,” she said.

It may be possible to see how the unaffiliated could affect politics by looking at the success of the religious right.

Conservative religious groups were politically dormant before they mobilized in the '60s and '70s in response to court rulings they found unfavorable, Navarro-Rivera said.

For now, it’s difficult to assess exactly how the Nones will develop as a political force.

“I think we’ll have to wait because we don’t know if this group will keep growing,” Green said.

“We know it doesn’t vote at the rate that it could. Participation has been increasing, but there’s a lot of room for improvement."

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