The most disturbing of the leaked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee is the one suggesting that Bernie Sanders’s supposed atheism could be used to Hillary Clinton’s advantage. “Does [Sanders] believe in a God,” a DNC executive asks. “He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps.”
The top staffer’s peeps aside, for the growing ranks of nonreligious voters in this country, the biggest question isn’t how the DNC could so clearly favor one candidate over another in the primaries. Instead, it’s “What’s so bad about being an atheist?”
While millions of people across the United States have left their faith traditions behind, our political displays still seem stuck in a time when people were afraid to confess that they don’t believe in God or go to church.
Every political candidate has to run the tired “How religious are you?” gantlet. Sanders, a non-practicing Jew who in the past has told reporters that he doesn’t care for organized religion, had to clarify his position once his presidential campaign gained traction, saying his faith was a “guiding principle” of his life and that he had “very strong religious and spiritual feelings.” Clinton is known to confirm her Methodist street cred, tossing out references to John Wesley to assure voters she’s a practicing Christian. Even Donald Trump has professed his religiosity, prompting evangelical leader James Dobson to dub him a “baby Christian.”
But such “come-to-Jesus” moments on the campaign trail have begun to feel pro forma, a vestige of presidential campaigns in which “owing it all to Jesus” (and it has always been Jesus, since we’ve never had president who wasn’t steeped in Christianity, regardless of whether or not he wholly embraced it) was one of the main requirements to gaining entry to the Oval Office. And yet, this time, Americans chose three primary candidates who don’t seem all that comfortable being outwardly religious, a sign of how the voters — if not their politicians — are beginning to move away from all that.
This makes perfect sense. Fewer and fewer Americans identify with a particular religion or vote with religion in mind. There’s an expanding group of “Nones” — a shorthand term for those who check the box that reads, essentially, “None of the Above” when asked their religious affiliation — and a big question this year is how many of them will turn out to vote. The group is made up of atheists, agnostics, lapsed Jews and Catholics, spiritual-but-not-religious types, and people who just don’t care. The Nones make up 23 percent of adults in this country, and with a whopping 35 percent of millennials, their ranks are likely to expand. They are an increasing share of both the Democratic and Republican parties — 28 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Some argue that it was the Nones’ support of Barack Obama that led him to victory twice, and yet their relatively low engagement in the political process means they haven’t yet lived up to their true voting potential.
One reason so many people have left religion is the mingling of church and state in the first place. Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and coauthor of American Grace, and others have explained that the widespread exodus from organized religion we’re now seeing across the country began with the introduction of politics into the pulpit — and vice versa. According to this theory, the counterculture of the 1960s, during which institutional mores were challenged, created a backlash in the form of the Moral Majority, which eventually gave rise to the religious right and today’s culture wars. It was then, when religion started to be more about conservative politics, that many began to flee the pews.
There are now 36.1 million of us Nones in the United States, and while most say they are Democrats, many are also disaffiliated from politics. Just as Nones are hesitant to participate in organized religion, they’re also less likely to participate in the political process. Take the disappointing turnout in the 2014 election, in which only 12 percent of voters were Nones, compared with 26 percent for white evangelicals, despite the fact that Nones and evangelicals make up about an equal share of the US population. (One reason for that low turnout may be because Nones are a relatively young group, and Bernie supporters aside, voters skew older. )
It may be that the true force of our country’s secular groundswell has yet to be felt, and that beneath the veneer of religiosity — including our candidates’ perfunctory demonstrations of it — is a more robust secularization process than can be seen with the naked eye. That’s the argument put forth by David Voas and Mark Chaves, two social scientists who study religious trends. In a recent paper, they assert that the United States may be secularizing through generational loss of religion in much the same way Europe has.
If these researchers are correct, political candidates should pay closer attention to the Nones now and in the future. Perhaps they can take a cue from President Obama. In his 2009 inaugural address, the famously astute campaigner put into words what the data incontrovertibly show: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.”
Katherine Ozment is the author of “Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age.” She will read from the book at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge on September 9 at 7 p.m.