Religion and politics: Do the ‘nones’ have it?

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If the U.S. population is becoming less and less Christian, why does the Republican presidential campaign sometimes feel like a revival meeting?

Last month, Jeb Bush became the latest GOP hopeful to make the pilgrimage to Liberty University, the world’s largest evangelical Christian school, where Texas Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy in March.

And this week, a dozen declared and potential Republican presidential candidates will address the Faith & Freedom Coalition, which is trying to mobilize the conservative evangelical vote.

Timothy Head, the coalition director, says he didn’t even have to invite candidates to the Road to Majority Conference in Washington: “People contacted us — ‘Can I come?”’

Yet just last month the Pew Research Center released a survey showing that the percentage of Americans who call themselves Christian has been going down a point a year, to 70.6 percent in 2014.

Meanwhile, those who report no religious affiliation — “nones” —  are increasing their share of the body politic.

And Americans’ confidence in organized religion, which has fallen dramatically over the past four decades, hit an all-time low this year of 42 percent, according to a Gallup poll released Wednesday. Only about half of Protestants or Roman Catholics say they have a great deal of confidence in the church and organized religion.

It’s a remarkable development in what President Harry Truman and many others (including some non-believers) have described as “a Christian nation.”

The political implications of the changing face of American religious identities are stark. Nones are far more likely to vote Democratic — in 2012, Barack Obama got 70 percent of religiously unaffiliated voters, compared with 26 percent for Mitt Romney — and skew liberal on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and legalization of marijuana.

Conversely, in recent general elections three in four evangelicals have gone Republican. So on the GOP campaign trail, it still seems like 2006.

A close look at nones suggests two things: So far, they haven’t changed U.S. religious politics very much, but in time they are going to change them profoundly.

The first is true because, despite their growing numbers, they don’t vote a lot. They now are 23 percent of the general population, but in 2008 and 2012 accounted for only 12 percent of the electorate.

Head, of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, says the Pew data has been “misinterpreted,” because some people who were never particularly religious now feel free to admit it to pollsters; earlier statistics on church affiliation were artificially inflated by fence-sitters who’ve now jumped off.

“Many of the nones were never engaged to begin with,” he says. “Their loss doesn’t worry me politically.”

What about the many younger nones who were never on the fence? That’s just society, Head says — increasingly transient and averse to joining.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, are big voters. And the broad decline in Christian affiliation is concentrated among non-evangelical “mainline” Protestants (Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, etc.) and Catholics. Since 2007, evangelicals’ share of the population shrank by only about 1 percentage point.

Growing dilemma for GOP

For Republican candidates hoping to actually reach the White House, evangelical clout creates a dilemma that will only get tougher.

Nones, despite their sketchy voting record, are relatively young, increase by the day and may be more apt to vote as they age. And not only are they less likely to agree with conservatives on social issues, they are less comfortable than born-agains with the mixing of religion and partisan politics.

Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, says some nones are even beginning to resent the “traditional God-talk” in which most mainstream candidates indulge — “My favorite book? Why, the Bible!”

So a Republican candidate must execute a tricky pivot: appeal to the religious right in the primary and to a broader, more secular constituency in the general election. Although pivoting is as old as politics, it becomes more wrenching as nones wax and evangelicals slowly wane.

Consider Jeb Bush at Liberty University. He stressed the importance of religious freedom from government, which has become a vital concern for the religious right. But equally important was what he did not say — including anything about gay marriage.

Mark Silk, who teaches religion and politics at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. and blogs for Religion News Service, says this could allow Bush, should he find himself in a general election seeking voters who are not conservative evangelicals, to say that when he went to Liberty, he did not pander.

But such hedging undermines Bush’s appeal to primary voters — witness what Silk calls the tepid response to the Liberty address from evangelicals.

A party of nones

What about the Democrats? After presidential nominee John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush in 2004, it seemed the party had “a God problem.”

“They thought, ‘America is a religious country and we need to be in touch with that,”’ says Silk.

The party, including the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigns, tried to reach moderate evangelicals in 2008, but eventually concluded it was a lost cause, Silk says.

By the 2012 election, one in four Obama voters had no religious affiliation. And among Democrats today, Silk says, “political language is much less religious than it was eight years ago.”

Democratic front-runner Clinton has a solid religious backstory — mainline Methodist who was in the youth group of her parish in suburban Chicago. She has participated in a Washington prayer group and has sometimes carried a Bible with her.

Clinton has talked publicly about her faith, although she once said that it “doesn’t come naturally to me.” But in her big campaign launch speech last week, aside from a reference to “our God-given potential” and the obligatory “God Bless America!” the Almighty was absent.

Politically, it may not matter all that much to a Democrat.  White Christians accounted for only 39 percent of Obama voters, compared with 81 percent of Mitt Romney’s.

For Republicans, the question is how much more the conservative evangelical vote —  already high — can be mobilized. Enough, Head replies, so the rise of the nones shouldn’t matter: “Whether you’re fishing in an ocean of 100 million Christians or 85 million, you still only need another 3 or 4 million” to elect a president.

So is America a Christian nation? Obama weighed in on the subject in 2006: “We are no longer a Christian nation — at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation and a nation of non-believers.”

That shout-out to nones notwithstanding, neither party is likely to overtly court atheists, agnostics or unaffiliateds for the time being, says Molly Worthen, a University of North Carolina historian of religion. But their rise is influencing the political debate.

Worthen says that although religious fervor has gone up and down in America —  more people attend church now than in 1776 —  the nones are no fad.

“Look at Western Europe,” she says, where atheists and agnostics —  including French President Francois Hollande —  have won national elections. Sooner or later, ”that’s where we’re headed.”

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