Should Republicans Be Worried About the Accelerating Rise of Religious ‘Nones’?

People gather for the Reason Rally on the National Mall in 2012 in Washington, D.C. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
People gather for the Reason Rally on the National Mall in 2012 in Washington, D.C.

Jenny Schulz isn’t religious.

“I see religion as something really personal,” said Schulz, 26, who works at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. “So the fact that it is a requirement in politics always seems unusual to me.”

She said she “oscillates between atheist and agnostic,” but she knows it could be many years before she votes for a political figure who shares her (lack of) religious beliefs.

Schulz is not alone. She is part of a growing group of American adults who do not identify with any religion. More than one-in-five American adults say so now, the highest in U.S. history. They are being identified as the religious “nones,” so called for their lack of religious affiliation. As they grow in size, they are also gaining political power.

“I personally think that the characteristics, the profile, the potential influence of religious ‘nones,’ who say they have no religion, is an often overlooked part of the religion in politics story,” said Greg Smith, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center.

Those “nones” consist of atheists, agnostics, and people who simply say they subscribe to no religion in particular. Altogether, they make up nearly 23 percent of the adult population, according to Pew.

That’s more than than Catholics, and nearly as many as evangelicals, at 25.4 percent, according to the most recent Pew Religious Landscape Survey. Between just 2007 and 2014, the adult population of “nones” skyrocketed by 52 percent, to nearly 56 million. And that growth makes the “nones” one of the biggest, but least-noticed, stories in American politics, Smith said.

“When we think about religion in politics we often think about evangelicals,” Smith said. “We often think about the religious right. We think about conservative Christians — and those are important groups. But we also have this large and growing group in the U.S. that say they have no religion. And that group is a kind of a counterweight at the other end of the religious spectrum from evangelicals.”

He points to the 2012 election as an example. White evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Republican nominee Mitt Romney, 79 to 20 percent. But people who claimed no religious affiliation voted overwhelmingly for President Obama — 70 percent to 26 percent.

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