In politics, sometimes it’s what you don’t talk about that matters.
Democrats and Republicans planning their political campaigns for 2014 and 2016 may be focusing on the Hispanic demographics in the United States, but perhaps they should turn their focus on another rising group: the “nones.”
The “nones” is a term used to describe religiously unaffiliated people. This group of people often get turned off when politicians mix religion into their policies, especially when it comes to women’s reproductive rights and same-sex marriage. Take note, Arizona.
One-fifth of the U.S. public is religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2012 Pew Research Study, and that number rises to a third when calculating adults under 30. While nones include atheists and agnostics, 68% of nones do believe in God.
“The nones tend to be younger, and they are not what I would call conventionally religious,” says Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “They are not necessarily Richard Dawkins.” She compares them to many people in Western Europe who believe without belonging to a church or being a member of an organized religion. She says the rise of the nones is “definitely something to watch.”
In the past, the nones have tended to vote Democrat. In the 2008 presidential election, Pew reports three-quarters of the religiously unaffiliated votes went to Barack Obama. They voted as heavily for Obama as white evangelical Protestants did for John McCain.
While they have skewed Democratic, that doesn’t mean the nones share the same political views. They believe that the political conversation should involve traditional political actions having to do with national security, the welfare state, and so on, explains Michael Hout, a professor of sociology at New York University. “They are not monotone views,” he says. “Some are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, some are fiscally and socially liberal.”
But if politicians want to appeal to the nones without alienating the more traditionally religious Americans, how do they do that? They use the magic word: values.Hout, along with Claude Fisher, released a study in 2002 about the increase in nones and its relation to a rejection of the Religious right. The found that many of the nones don’t reject religion; they reject organizations. For many, “church has come to stand … not for elements of creed, but elements of politics on who can get married and what happens when they’re pregnant,” says Hout. “They’ve been moving away from both Republicans and churches over their distaste for these issues.”
“The key unifying element between religious and secular outreach is the word values,” says Chris Hale, a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Hale helped lead Catholic outreach for President Obama’s 2012 campaign. “It definitely was in the understanding of the Democratic Party in 2012 that nones would play a big role in the election; however, there wasn’t really an infrastructure set up to respond to that.”
What Hale is referring to isn’t today’s equivalent of the 1980s term “family values,” which came to be closely affiliated with social conservatives; rather, it has a broader meaning. ”In the past two presidential elections, the Democratic Party has been successful in continually expanding the notion of values politics,” he says, and the question of values will expand to every major issue affecting the life of the nation. ”For example, how a politician chooses to address income inequality now must be considered a values question, not just an economic question.”
Hale predicts that the word will grow in influence as a way to approach both the nones and voters of all faith traditions in 2014 and 2016 elections. He stresses that voters want to bring values into politics, religious or not, but whenever religion is used as a weapon of division, young people turn away from both faith and politics. Hale says there is very little to differentiate between general youth outreach and targeted outreach to the young and secular. Because of this, he personally finds it “very unlikely” that a presidential candidate will hire someone specifically for outreach to nones.
It’s important to keep in mind that, as a whole, Americans are still more religious than those from other Western nations. But things are changing: Millennials today are more likely to be unaffiliated than their parents and grandparents, when they were the same age. If the rise of the nones continues, perhaps millennial voters will eventually force divisive religious topics out of the political conversation.
Is it tomorrow yet?
Why you should care
Millennials are increasingly turning their back on religious affiliations, and it seems like they may want their politicians to leave their religious beliefs out of politics. Dems and Repubs, are you listening?