Non-religious voters wield clout, are strongly democratic

When members of the small Pennsylvania group the Secular Democrats of America register for their monthly meetings, they’re not there for a virtual happy hour.

“We don’t sit around in our meetings and pat each other on the back because we don’t believe in God together,” said David Brown, a founder from Ardmore, a suburb of Philadelphia.

The group, made up mostly of atheists and agnostics, is mobilizing to knock on doors and make phone calls on behalf of Democratic candidates “who are pro-science and pro-democracy, whether or not they actually identify as secular people,” said he . “We try to keep church and state separate. That includes LGBTQIA+, COVID science, physical autonomy and reproductive rights.”

Brown describes his group as “small but powerful,” yet they’re riding a big wave.

Non-religious voters backed Democratic candidates and abortion rights by astonishing percentages in the 2022 midterm elections.

And they vote in large numbers. In 2022, about 22% of voters said they had no religion, according to AP VoteCast, a comprehensive poll of more than 94,000 voters nationwide. They contributed to voting coalitions that gave Democrats victories in contested states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona.

According to VoteCast, the nonpartisan — often referred to as “None” — voted more than 2-1 (65% vs. 31%) nationwide for the Democratic House of Representatives versus Republicans. That mirrors the 2020 presidential election, when Democrat Joe Biden received 72% of non-religious voters, according to VoteCast, while Republican Donald Trump received 25%.

For all the talk about the overwhelmingly Republican votes cast by white evangelical Christians in the last election, the independents made themselves felt.

According to a 2021 Pew Research Center report, 29% of all US adults are non-human — those who identify as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing special.” That’s up 10 percentage points from a decade ago, according to Pew. And the younger the adults, the more likely they are to be unconnected, according to a 2019 Pew analysis, which is another signal of the growing influence of the nothing.

“People talk about how committed white evangelicals are, but you don’t know half of it,” said Ryan Burge, a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University who focuses on the interplay of religious and political behavior.

Atheists and agnostics form just a subgroup of nothing and are fewer in number than evangelicals. But they are more likely than evangelicals to make a campaign donation, attend a political meeting or join a protest, Burge said, citing the Harvard-affiliated Cooperative Election Study.

“When you consider how involved they are in political activities, you realize how important they are at the ballot box,” he said.

According to VoteCast, the Nothings matched Catholics with 22% of the voters, although they made up just under half as many as Protestants and other Christians (43%). Other religious groups accounted for a total of 13%, including 3% Jews and 1% Muslims.

Regardless, 30% of voters identified as Born Again or Evangelical Christians.

According to AP VoteCast, the secular vote made itself felt at several crash barrier races this year.

  • About four in five people with no religious affiliation have voted against abortion restrictions in referendums in Michigan and Kentucky.
  • Between two-thirds and three-quarters of abstainers supported Democratic candidates in statewide races in Arizona and Wisconsin.
  • About four out of five non-religious people voted for Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman, the Democrats to choose Pennsylvania’s newest governor and senator, respectively.

While Shapiro is open about his Jewish values ​​that motivate his public service, Fetterman has not incorporated any discernible religious tradition into his public statements. He often frames issues in ethical terms — like promoting criminal justice reform and raising the minimum wage, even calling abortion rights “sacred” — without reference to any religious tradition.

Fetterman’s campaign did not return a request for comment.

The secular population is a diverse group, Pew reported in 2021. Two-thirds identify as “nothing special” — a group alienated from both politics and religion, Burge said.

But atheists and agnostics, though only a third of No’s, fight over their weight given their heavy involvement in politics.

The twin trends of a growing secular cohort among Democrats and increasing religiosity among Republicans are no coincidence.

Several prominent Republican candidates and their supporters have promoted Christian nationalism, which combines an American and Christian sense of identity, mission, and symbols.

That provoked a reaction from many secular voters, Burge said: “At least among whites, it has become clear that the Democratic Party has become the party of non-religious people.”

But it’s not her party alone. The Democratic coalition relies heavily on religious groups – Black Protestants, Liberal Jews, Catholics of color. The black church tradition in particular has a very pious base in support of moderate and progressive politics.

“I think the Democrats have the biggest problem in the world because they have to keep atheists and black Protestants happy at the same time,” Burge said.

Tensions surfaced in 2019 when the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution praising the religiously unaffiliated in language some saw as an exaggeration of their influence and a denigration of religious values.

Differences between secular and religious Democrats were evident in VoteCast. Majorities of Democratic voters of all religious affiliations say abortion should be legal at least most of the time, but 6 in 10 non-religious Democratic voters say it should always be legal, compared to about 4 in 10 Democratic voters belonging to Christian traditions . In general, 69% of non-religious Democratic voters identify as liberal, compared to 46% of Christians who voted Democrat.

But the growing secular electorate is not worrying Bishop William Barber, a leader in one of the country’s most prominent religious progressive movements.

“Jesus wasn’t concerned about this, so why should I?” said Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach, which calls for moral advocacy by faith and other leaders on behalf of the poor, immigrants and other marginalized communities. “Jesus said whoever is not against me is for me.”

“We have a lot of people who claim they are agnostic or atheist and they will come to our rallies,” said Barber, who is also co-chair of the Campaign for the Poor. “They’ll say, ‘I don’t necessarily believe in God, but I do believe in justice. i believe in love I believe in justice.’”

Brown of Pennsylvania’s Secular Democrats group said he had no problem supporting Democratic candidates like Shapiro, who was open about his Jewish values ​​during the campaign. His opponent, Republican Doug Mastriano, integrated Christian nationalist themes and imagery into his campaign.

“While I’m frustrated that politicians feel the need to justify their actions through religious affiliation, I also appreciate that this was a calculated decision to appeal to religious voters,” Brown said. “I have no problem with that because I feel it was used to defeat a Christian nationalist candidate on the other side.”

In fact, Brown even traveled to Georgia in late November to campaign door-to-door for an ordained minister — Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Democrat in a runoff election. And for the same reason – despite religious differences, he sees many of the values ​​of secular voters in Warnock.

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AP Chief of Operations Emily Swanson contributed from Washington.

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