National Edition

Religious groups may lose political influence as religiously unaffiliated voters gain power

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 22 2014 7:10 a.m. MST

A sheet of "I voted" stickers waits for voters who have finished casting their ballots as poll workers check identification and sign in voters during the first day of early voting at the Washington County Administration Building in St. George, Utah Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012. Religious groups are politically instrumental, but their influence is being challenged. One in five citizens are now religiously unaffiliated and made up one-third of young voters who propelled Obama into office. Political strategists are noticing.

Jud Burkett, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees wide berth for religion to play a role in politics. Increasingly, however, religion may be losing its ground in electoral politics. Backed by polling data, some commentators believe religion is increasingly less important in politics than at any time in recent memory, and that a new voting bloc is taking its place.

A new group of “nones” is consuming larger and larger slices of the American electoral pie. They are the 20 percent of Americans who identify as “none” on surveys of religious preference, as The Atlantic points out. Among the under-30 voters who helped propel Obama into office, a full third were religiously unaffiliated.

They’re growing in all age groups, most quickly among the youth. Patheos notes that more than one in three adults under 30 do not identify with a religion, compared with one in 10 who are 65 and older. “And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage of their lives.”

Overall, “nones” make up approximately 20 percent of the country’s population, according to NPR News, and are expected to grow.

This trend is mostly good news for Democrats, and great news if the party is able to effectively rally this group. “Religiously unaffiliated voters are strongly Democratic in national elections,” writes Steven Barrie-Anthony for The Atlantic, and “a majority are socially progressive.” Three out of four believe that abortion should be legal and that marriage equality should be codified. While this is far from good news for the GOP, 29 percent of the religiously unaffiliated nevertheless claim to support the Republican Party, according to the Pew Research Center.

This does not mean that the Democrats are automatically gaining a new reliable source of votes, either. “None” voters are diverse, and it will be difficult for either of the two major parties to reach out in manners that spring voters into action. Some 70 percent are “spiritual but not religious,” while others are non-aligned agnostics and atheists, according to Pew. They cross lines of race, sex, age, color, national origin, ethnicity, creed, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender, marital status, pregnancy, veteran status, socioeconomic status, region and, indeed, political affiliation.

This trend does not undermine the role that religious bodies will continue to play in elections. Evangelicals — and, to a wider extent, “value voters” — are widely credited with President George W. Bush’s electoral wins. Powerful religious coalitions rallied behind Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Similarly, Gov. Mitt Romney ultimately won the conservative religious vote at about the same margins as President George W. Bush and was more successful at securing this instrumental bloc than Sen. John McCain was in 2008. And confusion about President Obama’s faith persists, despite his best efforts — which remains part of his public persona and, to some degree, his approval rating. Signs are emerging that religious groups are already influencing the 2016 federal elections, according to MSNBC.

Ultimately, “religion is far easier to track and poll” than to listen and speak to effectively, Barrie-Anthony writes. There will be hiccups and burps as parties and political strategies take form in the decades to come. Politicians will need to become increasingly adept at sincerely playing to several crowds rather than their bases. Working side by side with an ever more diverse country may soon be one litmus test for allowable by the United States Constitution.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS