This is a guest post by Rick Snedeker. He writes at the Godzooks blog.
Even though Americans unaffiliated with any religion now make up nearly a quarter of the United States’ population, our political influence is disproportionately slight and likely could remain underpowered for a good while.
The problem is that “Nones,” as demographers call us, are a surprisingly disparate group whose fragmented nature undermines developing the unity and interconnectivity necessary for an effective national political base. And we apparently aren’t big voters, either.
Nonetheless, secular activists are intent on turning around that voter apathy starting with this fall’s midterm elections, a first step in hopefully making non-religious people a prominent, powerful voting bloc.
Salt Lake City’s Mormon-owned Deseret News reported on this movement earlier this week.
“We want to be seen as a powerhouse constituency,” said Sarah Levin, director of grass-roots and community programs at the Secular Coalition for America.
What’s stopping us from achieving this? The main obstacle is that it’s a giant game of herding cats. “Nones” can’t be found in large, homogenous secular organizations or venues, as evangelicals are in churches and other organizations. We’re scattered helter-skelter all over the place, and we don’t necessarily hold the same views on various points of public policy. This heterogeneity has rendered us, unlike evangelicals, largely invisible to political candidates. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have an impact:
Secular activists will never unify all Americans who’ve dropped out of organized religion, said David Campbell, chairman of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame. However, even mobilizing just those “nones” who actively identify as atheist, agnostic or secular will boost the political influence of the nonreligious community in dramatic ways.
“There is a clear historical parallel between the secular population today and evangelical Christians in 1978 and 1979,” he said. “This is a voting bloc emerging right before our eyes.”
He’s right. Consider how powerful Christian voters are — and nearly 20% of white evangelicals wanted nothing to do with Donald Trump in the last election. In a sense, atheist voters are much more united on progressive issues overall than evangelical voters are today. That’s good reason for Democrats to pay us the kind of attention Republicans do with their Christian base.
“I can’t point to a single national politician who has truly made it a point to speak directly to the secular population to bring them to the polls,” Campbell said.
He’s right about that, too. And that’s a mistake for liberal candidates. They’re so afraid of alienating religious voters that they won’t even talk to us about their respect for church/state separation.
That’s why it’s encouraging that secular groups are trying to make it easier for politicians to speak to us.
Secular activists want to change that, so they’re working to be more visible in their communities and more visible to candidates. In the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, they plan to host voter registration drives and attend political rallies.
“We’re having teams of activists across the country going to town halls and asking questions or going to campaign events and asking questions,” Levin said.
They’re hoping to increase voter turnout and strengthen connections between religious “nones,” said Nick Fish, national program director for American Atheists.
Just because there isn’t one organization or one leader who speaks for all of us doesn’t mean candidates can’t reach us. Some of us participate in groups that meet weekly or monthly. We’re online in a number of places. There are national organizations with membership in the tens of thousands. But candidates don’t even need to go through any of those. They could just as easily make posts on Facebook or say in interviews that they’re committed to a secular government that benefits the religious and non-religious alike.
But if candidates are going to do that, we need to meet them halfway. We need to vote like evangelicals do, treating every election as if our beliefs and values are on the line. While a number of factors led to the 2016 elections turning out the way they did, voters staying home because they felt the candidates were more or less the same was a part of the problem. Anyone who thought that was wrong and we’re all paying the price because of their ignorance.
Thus, secular leaders are focused on energizing active “nones” to join the political process. An estimated 8-10 percent of the overall U.S. population is comprised of active secularists, reportedly representing larger numbers than Southern Baptists and five times as many as Mormons. And the entire “nones” demographic is growing fast, surging some 24 percent in the past couple of decades.
So, while the political future is uncertain for an envisioned secular voting bloc, it shows tantalizing promise. And if we could encourage more secular voters to show up, inspired by our lack of supernatural beliefs and the policies that extend from relying on evidence and reason, we’d have a greater impact than a number of religious groups, including Southern Baptists and Mormons, who we now outnumber.
Our numbers are on the rise, but that means nothing if we can’t channel our numbers into political success.
(Image via PRRI)