Democrats Finally Acknowledging Secular Voters

The party is starting to appreciate the growing nonreligious bloc.

Posted Nov 25, 2018

DonkeyHotey,  Flickr, Creative Commons license
Source: DonkeyHotey/Flickr,

The recent midterm elections reflect the increasing clout of secular voters, a group that has grown significantly in recent years, and at least one major party is starting to take note.

According to polling data released by Pew, 17 percent of voters in 2018 were religiously unaffiliated, up from only 11 percent in 2006 and 12 percent in both 2010 and 2014. While this unaffiliated bloc grew by about half, the “Protestant/other Christian” bloc was shrinking, down from 55 percent in 2006 and 2010, to 53 percent in 2014, to only 47 percent this year. 

As impressive as these figures are for the religiously unaffiliated (also known as “Nones”), the numbers suggest that there is room for even more growth. The 17 percent figure, for example, still trails the overall size of the religiously unaffiliated demographic nationwide (24 percent of the United States population as a whole, according to PRRI data, and an even larger percentage of the younger population). The Nones were in single digits a generation ago, but now they are one of the largest and youngest religious demographics.

The growth of the influence of Nones would appear to be good news for Democrats, as recent history shows that the unaffiliated tend to lean heavily blue. In the 2010, 2014 and 2018 midterms, about seven in ten Nones voted Democratic. By comparison, 50 percent of Catholics votes for Democrats in 2018, and slightly fewer in 2010 and 2014. Protestants have favored Republicans in each of the last four midterm elections, according to the Pew data, with white evangelicals being the most solidly in the GOP corner (75 percent in 2018 and similar figures in previous years).

For anyone familiar with the culture wars, none of these numbers should be very surprising. The Religious Right has called the GOP home since 1980 when the Moral Majority helped elect Ronald Reagan, and the party has consistently courted the conservative Christian demographic ever since. Opposing abortion rights and LGBT rights, denying scientific consensus on issues like evolution and global warming when it conflicts with literal interpretations of the Bible, Republicans have frequently snubbed the secular demographic while catering to the party’s Christian base. As such, it’s no surprise that those who say they “never” go to church voted 68/30 for Democrats in 2018, according to the Pew data, whereas those who attend church weekly voted for Republicans 58/40.

Despite the GOP's romance with the Christian right, over the years the Democratic Party has never openly pursued the nonreligious demographic. On the contrary, elected Democrats have usually been older, oblivious the growing secularity of the population, and they’ve often accepted the much-repeated but inaccurate claim that America is a “very religious country.” Although a large and growing portion of the American population is secular, and even many who claim religious affiliation are lukewarm about it, establishment Democrats have unfortunately been slow on the uptake.

Finally, however, there are signs that Democrats are starting to appreciate the importance of the Nones. In what might be a first, the Massachusetts Democratic Party this month passed a resolution recognizing the importance of the religiously unaffiliated demographic. (Full disclosure: I was involved in drafting the resolution.) The resolution, which can be seen here, recognizes the “value, ethical soundness, and importance of the religiously unaffiliated” and affirms that “the ‘Nones’ are a group that, as much as any other, advocates for rational public policy based on sound science and universal humanistic values.” The document is also critical of the use of claims of “religious liberty” as a means of justifying policy that threatens the rights of women and minorities. 

Time will tell whether other states, or even the national party, will follow the Massachusetts lead, but it seems clear that many are starting to recognize that the secular demographic is not going away. Earlier this year, for example, several members of Congress even formed a Congressional Freethought Caucus to solidify the presence of secular values on Capitol Hill. Perhaps not surprisingly, all members of the caucus so far are Democrats.

As the secular demographic grows and flexes its muscle, time will tell whether the GOP makes an effort to attract them. Seculars are not monolithic, so traditional Republican mantras of low taxes and deregulation might resonate with some, but the secular numbers within the GOP are likely to remain relatively low so long as the Christian right is steering the ship. As such, if demographics continue to trend secular, at some point Republicans will have to consider whether there is a future in Bible-based politics.

On Twitter: @ahadave