Are the Nones Up for Challenging the Religious Right?

Rachel Laser

In the 1950s, more than 95 percent of Americans identified as Christian. Sixty years later, much has changed. The number of self-identified Christians now hovers around 70 percent, and there has been a striking increase in the number of people who, when asked to name their religious preference, reply by saying “none.”

As a member of a religious minority group (I’m Jewish), I’m fascinated by these demographic changes—and I wonder how they’ll affect our nation.

I believe the fallout will be mostly positive. Culturally, the erosion of Christian dominance and the rise of a significant non-Christian minority group could force us to reexamine some long-held assumptions about “the baseline” and the appropriateness of relying on Christian language and symbols in public spaces. A case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, concerns the display of a large cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, that was erected as a war memorial. [The Center for Inquiry filed a supportive amicus curiae brief in this case. – Eds.] The forty-foot cross was put up in 1919 during a time when Christian dominance was so powerful that no one thought (or dared) to oppose it. A symbol such as that, which claims to represent all war dead but does not because of its sectarian nature, would never pass muster in an America with Nones on the rise.

But the more interesting question is how the growth of the Nones might affect American politics. I’m not a political scientist, and the organization I lead is legally required to be non-partisan; a restriction we take seriously. But we are also people who live in this moment, observing our times and seeing the changes buffeting our society. At the same time, we are informed by the past. Americans United For Separation of Church and State has been around long enough to have observed the rise of the religious Right and politically engaged conservative (mostly white) evangelicals in America. In light of that, there are some things we can say with some confidence.

One of them is that the religious Right has more political power in America than it ought to. Responding to the release of the 2018 GSS, Ryan P. Burge, an instructor in the political science department at Eastern Illinois University who analyzed the survey data, agreed. He told Religion News Service that evangelicals have outsized influence at the ballot box simply because they are committed voters.

“Evangelicals punch way above their weight,” Burge said. “They turn out a bunch at the ballot box. That’s largely a function of the fact that they’re white and they’re old.”

This was not news to us at Americans United. The pages of our magazine Church & State, which has been published since 1948, chronicled the rise of the religious Right as a political force and its alignment with the Republican Party. The trend started in the late 1970s and continues to the present day. In 2016, 81 percent of white evangelicals backed Donald Trump, and his approval rating with this community remains high.

But we can see the potential for change—and the Nones may lead the way. As Burge noted, white evangelicals tend to be older. Conservative evangelicalism, some scholars of religion have argued, is not on a growth curve. Some polls show that younger evangelicals are put off by the incessant right-wing politicking of contemporary evangelicalism; in addition, they’re much friendlier toward LGBTQ rights than the previous generation.

If evangelicalism starts to wane in political power or becomes more moderate as the younger generation takes over, the Nones, who, data from the Pew Research Center shows, tend to lean in a more progressive direction politically, may start to provide a serious counterweight to the religious Right. The potential is there for this to be happening right now. But it’s not happening because the Nones are not as politically disciplined as the religious Right. Their voter turnout pattern is erratic.

If Nones get more active, some academics see the potential for a significant change in American politics. David Campbell, chairman of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame, told the Salt Lake City Desert News in 2018, “There is a clear historical parallel between the secular population today and evangelical Christians in 1978 and 1979. This is a voting bloc emerging right before our eyes.”

Ironically, Nones could tear a page out of the religious Right’s playbook. Conservative evangelicals have never amounted to a majority in America, yet they wield great political power. They do this because they’re well-disciplined, interested in politics, and—most importantly—they’re reliable voters. In a country where 60 percent turnout in a presidential election year is considered good, it’s easy to see how a dedicated bloc of voters gains outsized influence.

If Nones start to look like an organized voting bloc, politicians will take notice. Those who aspire to office will feel compelled to speak to the growing bloc of secularists whose votes may have the power to swing an election. Right now, few politicians openly court such voters, and when it does happen, it tends to be limited to certain parts of the country. Religious voters, by contrast, are wooed in many parts of the country, and even many progressive leaders end speeches with the ubiquitous “God bless America.” The emergence of a candidate on the national stage who openly embraces secular ideals, language, and thinking would be a bracing change in American politics, and within a few years, the Nones may bring one about.

No matter how things shake out politically, the Nones are now a fact of national life. That’s a positive development for America, if for no other reason than religious diversity is a good thing for us. Addressing his fellow Virginians in 1788, James Madison observed:

Happily for the states, they enjoy the utmost freedom of religion. This freedom arises from that multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.

Thomas Jefferson said much the same thing, writing in Notes on the State of Virginia: “Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other.”

The religious Right has monopolized our national debate over questions of “morals” for too long now. These groups audaciously claim to be the guardians of morality, even though so much of their agenda is based on fear, hatred, and division, which are hardly moral precepts. (The fact that their leaders these days are often quick to align with politicians of rather flexible morals doesn’t help.) It’s time for the religious Right to start to fade away as a politically outsized force. Any movement that is helping to bring this about—on legal, political, or cultural grounds—is needed and welcome.

Rachel Laser

Rachel Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.