Republicans have Evangelicals, and now, apparently, Democrats have atheists. More specifically, Democrats dominate with what Pew calls “nones;” religiously unaffiliated voters that include atheists, agnostics, and people who have spiritual beliefs but don’t subscribe to any particular doctrine.
Analysis of the exit polls from the last presidential election shows that these ‘nones’ played a key role in President Obama’s victory in November — and demographic data suggests their influence will only grow from here. This could have a major impact on American politics, and maybe even restore the separation that’s supposed to exist between church and state.
In addition to the lost cause of the Evangelical vote, President Obama lost the Catholic and Protestant votes nationally by 15 and two points, respectively — incredibly narrow margins, but significant in such a close race. Those narrow margins plus the overwhelming loss of Evangelicals could have cost the president the election, but he made up for it by carrying the religiously unaffiliated vote by an overwhelming 70%.
Although the separation of church and state was one of the main points of founding this country in the first place, religion plays a major role in American politics. Far right conservatives cater very much to their highly religious base, like presidential hopeful Rick Santorum had no qualms about tying his stance on abortion laws to his religious beliefs. Such pandering and conflation of morality with religion has long alienated non-religious voters, but that didn’t use to matter.
But that could be changing. The religiously unaffiliated population is on the rise, 20% today up from just 7% in 1972, and doesn’t look to be slowing down, with 30% of millennials identifying as religiously unaffiliated.
The implications of this could be huge and wonderful. If religiously unaffiliated voters gain recognition as an increasingly crucial demographic to winning elections, politicians may have to learn to keep their religion out of their work.
Imagine how much simpler political conversations about abortion, access to birth control, gay marriage, and public education would be if they were actually conversations about individual rights, not about whether or not the whole country can be forced to adhere to the principles of one religion.
As an atheist, I have no problem with a politician having personal religious beliefs, as long as they stay personal. President Obama identifies as Christian, but doesn’t confuse the tenants of his religion with overall morality, and he keeps God out of his policies. As long as that’s the case, he can go to church five times a day for all I care. And, according to the numbers, more and more Americans feel the same way.