The Nones are an Important Super Tuesday Bloc

Last week Public Religion Research Institute published a short report on the religious affiliation of self-identified Democrats and Republicans in states with contests on Super Tuesday (tomorrow).

It is not surprising that the nonreligious comprise a larger portion of the Democratic Party coalition than the Republican’s. According to the data collected for the American Values Atlas, more than 1-in-5 (22 percent) Democrats are nones, but only 1-in-10 Republicans are.

In three states the nones comprise at least 3-in-10 Democrats: Colorado (34 percent), Massachusetts (31 percent), and Minnesota (30 percent). Among Republicans, Alaska has the highest rate of nones in their coalition. One-in-five (20 percent) of Alaska Republicans are nonreligious.

Considering that the PRRI analysis divides the party coalitions in large racial and religious groupings, it is fair to assume that in most of these states the nones represent the largest segment of the Democratic Party.

Unfortunately, contrary to most of those racial/ethnic/religious groups, the nones are not as well organized politically. We do not have a well-organized secular left even though the nones have been consistent supporters of Democratic candidates for nearly 4 decades and were an important part of Barack Obama’s coalition. But until we take party politics seriously, we will not be more than a vote taken for granted but not actively mobilized. The time is due for a powerful and strong Secular Left to serve as an antidote to the damage the Religious Right has done to this country.

Photo Credit: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton facing off in the Democratic debate at St. Anselm College, December 19 2015; Ida Mae Astute ABC News via Flickr.

Political Secularism Moves Forward (Slowly)

Secular Americans want to be taken seriously in the political arena. And for good reason, the nones now rival Catholics as the single largest “religious” group in the country. Our numbers keep growing and we have little to show for it.

Two online pieces last week may me think that the tide may be finally turning. First, a press release by the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation announces the (re)launch of their “I’m secular and I Vote” campaign. From the release:

The campaign will include outreach to voters across the nation through FFRF chapters, a national TV ad buy this month focusing on the separation of church and state, paid digital media ads, efforts to mobilize students on college campuses, and coordination with the nation’s other major freethought associations as part of the June 4, 2016 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C.

This sounds like a beginning of an organizing strategy. However, the final quote by Annie Laurie Gaylor “[m]any [secular voters] appear to be waiting for a candidate who acknowledges them as a group and speaks forcefully about keeping religion out of government,” makes me think that FFRF may be free from religious affiliation but not free from religious thinking. The quote indicates that secular Americans are waiting for a messiah, a “chosen one” politician who will finally pay attention to us.

Luckily, better news come from the American Humanist Association. An article in the Houston Chronicle there’s a brief description of the work done by the Center for Freethought Equality.

[T]he political action arm of [Roy] Speckhardt’s organization [the American Humanist Association], maintains an Internet report card, rating lawmakers’ voting records on humanist issues. Texas congressmen generally rate F’s. It lobbies secret nonbelievers in Congress to “come out of the closet” and, in coming months will make public its endorsements for November’s election.

We need to do more of this elite-level type of politics. And our organizations need to take steps like endorsing candidates and contributing to campaigns. But if we want politicians to listen to us we need to produce our own political class. The secular leadership needs to come up with a game plan to develop candidates. Not just for Congress, but for lower local and state offices, places where future secular members of the national government can be trained in the art of governing. We cannot keep just relying on individual candidates outing themselves as secular and running fringe campaigns (as Libertarians or Greens), then complaining that “we are the most hated group” and that is why we cannot get elected.

Photo credits: “Reason Rally – Science, Reason & Secular Values” by Marty Stone (Flickr)

Why Candidates Ignore Secular Voters

Susan Jacoby published an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday titled “Sick and Tired of ‘God Bless America’” where she bemoans the fact that despite being a fast-growing demographic, we the secular still get no respect from politicians. In the piece she asks a question that, well, she doesn’t answer:

The question is not why nonreligious Americans vote for these candidates [who pay lip service to religion] — there is no one on the ballot who full-throatedly endorses nonreligious humanism — but why candidates themselves ignore the growing group of secular voters.

I think I have three answers to the question why candidates ignore secular voters. The first one deals with the strength of secular identity, the second with the intersectional identities of many in the movement, the third is the lack of sophisticated political thinking in the secular community and its organizations.

Although the secular population keeps growing, as Jacoby rightly points out, it seems that most nonreligious Americans do not care much about religion. In other words, among those who identify as nonreligious, being secular is not a very important aspect of their lives. A bit of public opinion polling can help illustrate this point.

In 2012 Public Religion Research Institute, my former employer, released its annual American Values Survey. The 2012 AVS focused on religious change, with an emphasis on Catholics and the unaffiliated (or nones). One of the questions, which is more or less standard in religion studies, is asking the importance of one’s religious identity in our life. The AVS found three different types of religious nones: atheists/agnostics, secular, and a category called “unattached believers.” The latter tend to give more importance to being religious in their life, as 57 percent report that their religious identity is “the most” or “very” important. Among those who identified as secular only 12 percent said this identity is very important.

Self-identified atheists and agnostics are supposed to be the most active in terms of secular identity politics. These are the ones more likely to belong to secular organizations but only 13 percent say that this identity is very important. It is possible that many of these people are very active politically, but their secularism (as an identity) is not political. It is more of a personal choice, like being vegetarian.

It could also be the case, that many secular Americans have intersectional politics. This may be the case with younger cohorts, particularly women and people of color. I participated in the Secular Social Justice Conference earlier this month where I met many secular activists of color who are doing the tough balancing act of being openly secular and working for social justice on issues that are way beyond the sphere of church-state relations. These are people changing what we think of secularism and politics: moving beyond policing Ten Commandments monuments and opening prayers into making the world a better place. In other words, they are practicing their humanism.

But many secular people do not feel they have to bring their secular identity to the fore when doing social justice work. Many are working in political or social justice causes but their secular identity is superseded politically by other identity or identities. They are active politically, they have candidates listening to them, but they are focusing on other issues like when I was working on campaigns with Latino voters.

Finally, the secular movement is in its political infancy. The Religious Right has a 4-decade head start on us. They became a force in American politics not waiting for politicians to listen to them and whining when they don’t. They organized and used the power of their organizations to build an amazing infrastructure of think tanks, political training, and legal work.

They made politicians realize they matter. They didn’t sit around waiting for them to show up. If you do that, you will be irrelevant regardless of how large your presumed constituency is. Politicians don’t do outreach, they look for votes, sure-fire votes. The organizing is ours to do. So far our secular organizations have failed us in that regard. They have not shown the leadership required in the political arena.

There are some exceptions. Jacoby mentions the work of the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy, especially Michael De Dora. He is a great ambassador for politics, but the OPP’s work is primarily lobbying. Also, she calls CFI a think tank, and as much as I like the organization, I don’t think we have real think tanks in the secular world. I know think tanks, having worked for some or other sort for a decade and a half, the secular world is not even close to have the sort of think tank we need. Something like the Heritage Foundation…without the crazy stuff…is more akin to what we need.

There may be other reasons why we are not as strong politically as we should be. These are my three cents. But one thing is clear to me: it is ironic that a movement built on science and reason is waiting for miracles to happen.

Photo: President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast (Wikimedia Commons)

Iowa and the Future of Secular Politics

Many Iowans (on the Democratic side) felt the Bern, leading the former Independent-turned-Democrat Senator from Vermont to virtually tie Hillary Clinton in the caucuses there on Monday.

While Sanders’s lefty populism has been the catalyst fueling his surprising rise, I think his support also tell us a lot about the future of secularism and its relationship to US politics. In my opinion, Sanders is also benefiting from a more secular Democratic electorate. His message, in other words, is resonating with the rising secular left that is mostly comprised of young people with no religious affiliation.

The entrance polls confirm that Sanders’s base is among young people. The CNN results show that Sanders’s support was concentrated among those under the age of 40. Indeed, more than 8-in-10 Democrats under 30 claimed to support Sanders.

The poll did not show results by religious affiliation. But as a proxy we can use the American Values Atlas, a project of the Public Religion Research Institute. PRRI’s analysis of Iowa religious demographics show that the fastest growth has been among young secular people. Moreover, secular people are largest religious cohort in the Democratic coalition in the state. Still, Iowa is not a very secular place. The size of its secular population is similar to the U.S. percentage, and the secular proportion of its Democratic coalition is similar to the proportion of the Democratic Party nationally.

The next stage is New Hampshire, which is terrain favorable to Sanders because is his turf (New England) and is above-average in its secular composition. The question is whether Sanders’s secular economic populist message can fare better once it moves away from New Hampshire and into more religious states. A friend once argued that candidates like Howard Dean (also from Vermont) had a problem reaching out to more traditional Democratic (religious) constituencies such as Catholics and African American Protestants. If Bernie, with a largely secular message can give Hillary a run for her money without major religious outreach, goes far in this race he will show that secular politics are possible the Democratic Party, even if he falls short in the end.

 

 

Secular Americans: 25 Years of Growth

This year is the 25th anniversary of the 1990 National Survey of Religious Identification. With a sample of over 100,000 interviews, it is the largest study of religious affiliation in the United States. Back then only 8 percent of Americans identified as “nones” or non-religious. Yet, when the successors of the NSRI, especially the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, found that 1-in-6 Americans (15 percent) were non-religious, the press started noticing.

Today, the Pew Research Center and Public Religion Research Institute find that nearly one-quarter of the population is secular. The infographic below shows how this growth has happened percentage-wise and in terms of real population numbers.

25 Years of American Secularism (1)