SALT LAKE CITY — In 2016, religiously unaffiliated Americans, or "nones," represented 21 percent of registered voters, one percentage point more than white evangelical Christians. However, they only accounted for 15 percent of actual voters, according to Pew Research Center and national exit polls.
Secular activists see the gap between these two figures as a call to action for 2018 and beyond. They plan to improve voter turnout and shape the "nones" into a dominant political force.
"We want to be seen as a powerhouse constituency," said Sarah Levin, director of grass-roots and community programs at the Secular Coalition for America.
If that happens, the "nones" could help drive faith groups from the public square, reducing religious exemptions meant to protect people with more conservative beliefs, said John Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron. But that's a big "if," he added.
"Many of the markers you'd use to target people are not available with this group," he said, noting that religiously unaffiliated adults don't meet with one another on Sunday mornings or follow the same set of leaders.
Secular activists will never unify all Americans who've dropped out of organized religion, said David Campbell, chairman of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame. However, even mobilizing just those "nones" who actively identify as atheist, agnostic or secular will boost the political influence of the nonreligious community in dramatic ways.
"There is a clear historical parallel between the secular population today and evangelical Christians in 1978 and 1979," he said. "This is a voting bloc emerging right before our eyes."
Forming a bloc
Political scientists often define voting blocs in terms of the attention they receive from candidates. Established blocs inspire targeted campaign speeches and campaign stops at their gathering places.
For example, politicians court evangelical Christians by appearing at houses of worship. They promise new limitations on abortion rights or the appointment of conservative judges.
"We see candidates, a large number of candidates, actively seeking the support of these voters," Green said.
Although around 1 in 5 registered voters is a "none," this community has yet to receive this kind of targeted attention from politicians, Campbell said. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke about being not very religious, but not as a direct pitch to nonreligious voters.
"I can't point to a single national politician who has truly made it a point to speak directly to the secular population to bring them to the polls," Campbell said.
Secular activists want to change that, so they're working to be more visible in their communities and more visible to candidates. In the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, they plan to host voter registration drives and attend political rallies.
"We're having teams of activists across the country going to town halls and asking questions or going to campaign events and asking questions," Levin said.
They're hoping to increase voter turnout and strengthen connections between religious "nones," said Nick Fish, national program director for American Atheists.
"What we're trying to do is look at things churches do well, things like getting their members registered to vote, to turn out (on Election Day) and be visible as members of their community," he said.
Through this process, the Secular Coalition for America, American Atheists and other secular groups will work to raise their national profile, gaining more members and building relationships with politicians. Better organization is key to being recognized as a voting bloc, Green said.
"The question is can we point to one or a small number of organizations that speak for this group (of voters) and have a fairly large membership," he said.
As the nickname "none" implies, religiously unaffiliated Americans are linked together by their lack of a religious identity, not their participation in something new. Two people who left their childhood faith may not have much in common beyond that departure, Green said.
"One of the reasons it's been difficult for secular activists to build a cohesive voting bloc out of the 'nones' is that they're so internally diverse," he said.
Few religiously unaffiliated Americans see voting as a way to express their secular identity. Many don't even claim a secular identity, said Michael Wear, who led faith outreach during President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.
Religious disaffiliation is "not a key identifier for them," he said. "They're coming to politics as a member of a political party or a person who cares about the environment or health care. Very few come with the identity of a religious 'none.'"
Groups like the Secular Coalition for America hope to change that by increasing community outreach. They want to meet the "nones" where they are, after they determine exactly where that is.
"We would love to figure out where the unaffiliated are on Sundays," Levin said.
Some "nones" actually are in church-like settings on Sunday mornings. Members of Sunday Assembly Salt Lake City, an organization for atheists, agnostics and other secular folks in Utah, gather once a month to discuss interesting research and sing popular songs.
Brian O'Saurus, the group's vice chairman, plans to do his part to boost political engagement in his community. He already helped arrange a visit from an expert on immigration policy and is considering a how-to event on political lobbying.
"As the elections draw near, we'll encourage people to vote. We may offer rides to the polls for people who need one," he said.
To find the "nones" who aren't part of groups like Sunday Assembly, Levin's urged her team of community leaders to set up voter registration drives at highly trafficked events, like state fairs and music festivals. She also wants them to think outside the box.
"I was talking to someone in Texas, asking him where he thought he could do voter registration. He said, 'On Sunday, everyone is at the IHOP,'" Levin said.
These outreach events will work toward solving the community's leadership problem, drawing more "nones" into politically active groups with trained spokesmen. They will also create opportunities to discover shared values, helping groups like the Secular Coalition and American Atheists craft a political agenda that appeals to most, or at least many, religiously unaffiliated adults.
"We want to have a conversation about what our values are and what we're looking for in our candidates across political spectrum," Levin said.
Similar efforts have succeeded in other countries, drawing "nones" into community groups and encouraging political engagement, Wear said. Humanists UK has brought enough people together that its leaders have true political clout.
They "can speak for tens of thousands of people and carry legitimacy in public conversations," he said.
However, secular activists in America are still a long way from that result, and they need to target their outreach better if they hope to get there, Campbell said. He estimates that only around one-third of the religiously unaffiliated are "actively secular" and able to be drawn into a recognizable voting bloc.
"We speak of the religious 'nones' or the unaffiliated population as though they're one large group," he said. "But there is a very clear divide within that population."
Actively secular Americans search for truth in philosophy or science, finding meaning in mostly nonreligious sources. Passively secular adults, on the other hand, aren't very concerned with life's big questions and may still cite the Bible as a source of inspiration, he added.
Two-thirds of unaffiliated Americans still believe in God and around 1 in 5 say this belief is a necessary part of being a moral person, according to Public Religion Research Institute.
Campbell's demarcation deals a blow to the claim that a voting bloc of "nones" could capture up to a quarter of Americans. But a smaller population of organized, nonreligious voters could still have a big impact, he said.
"Actively secular 'nones' represent something like 8 to 10 percent of the population. That's more than the number of Southern Baptists and five times as many as Mormons. It's a group that's growing," said Campbell, who is currently studying the "nones" for a book about the future of religion and politics.
For religious folks, the rise of religious "nones" has created a host of challenges. Houses of worship are closing due to low membership, and religiously affiliated charities are struggling to keep up with demand for their services as disengagement from religion leads to fewer donations.
If actively secular Americans form a strong voting bloc, faith groups could face additional problems. Democratic politicians are already more willing to battle with faith groups today than they were in the past, Wear said.
"You see politicians being able to say 'Stop with your thoughts and prayers and focus on policies.' You wouldn't have been able to say that 15 to 20 years ago," he said.
But secular activists assert that they're not on a warpath against religion. They want to raise the profile of the "nones," not attack other religious demographics.
"We want to normalize atheism" for everyday people, as well as politicians, Fish said.
Like faithful Americans, secular people value religious freedom, Levin said, noting that it includes the freedom to believe in nothing at all.
"Our view of a secular America includes people of all faiths and no faiths living out their faith or lack of faith without imposing on their neighbors," she said.
However, this vision for America still holds consequences for faith groups, Green said. Secular activists' commitment to the strict separation of church and state means that religious communities could have a harder time passing or protecting policies they favor.
"If the affirmative concerns of secular people become more prominent in politics, there will be a diminution of the influence of religious groups," he said.
For example, tax-exempt status may one day be based on the types of services offered to the community, rather than on religious commitments, Green added.
Moving forward, American politics will increasingly be shaped by battles over how far religious teachings should shape public life, Campbell said.
"It won't be as much about a pro-religion camp versus an anti-religion camp, but, rather, an ongoing debate about to what degree the government should be entangled with religion," he said.
Learning from the past
In 2018, a "nones" voting bloc feels a long way off. Secular groups are still honing their outreach efforts, and faith groups continue to receive far more attention from candidates than the nonreligious community.
However, many political scientists are convinced that change is coming. They look at religiously unaffiliated Americans today and draw comparisons to evangelical Christians in the 1970s, a community of believers that, over the last four decades, has become the country's most notable religion-related voting bloc.
Low voter turnout plagued evangelicals for half of the 20th century, and, in the mid-1970s, few members of the community saw voting as a way to express their religious concerns, according to Randall Balmer, chairman of Dartmouth College's religion department.
"From about 1925 to 1975, evangelicals weren't organized politically," he said. They regarded the political world as "both corrupt and corrupting."
That started to change in 1976 during Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign. Carter, who self-identified as a born-again Christian, was an exciting candidate for committed Christians.
"There was a novelty to being able to vote for one of your own," Balmer said.
Political activists saw this renewed interest in the election and sprang into action. They turned pastors into political operatives, training them to help their congregations approach voting in new ways.
At the time, these efforts seemed almost laughable, Green said. Evangelical Christians in different denominations shared little more in common than religious texts. However, it was clear they could be mobilized around certain issues.
"They didn't read the Bible the same way or practice the same customs, but they agreed that abortion was bad," he said.
Secular activists will have to do the same type of work among nonreligious Americans, identifying the issues that get them to the polls. They may benefit from religiously unaffiliated Americans' distaste for President Donald Trump, just as evangelical activists benefitted from an appreciation for Carter.42 comments on this story
Only 1 in 4 religiously unaffiliated Americans (25 percent) approve of how President Donald Trump is handling his job, according to an October survey from Pew.
It may take years before candidates routinely meet with secular groups and politicians craft legislation meant to please the "nones." But groups like American Atheists are ready to put in the work, Fish said.
"It's not something you see paying dividends in one election cycle or two or even in 10 years, he said. "This is part of a long strategy to be taken seriously."