The Rise of the Non-Religious and Their Impact on Politics

5 mins read
Politics & Religion

Many things divide Americans politically, but there is now a demographic that previously had little impact: religious vs. non-religious.

Gallup began measuring religious membership in 1937. In that poll, membership in a religious congregation stood at 73%.But the 21st century saw rapid change. By 2018, 50% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque. This percentage continued dropping to 47%, and there is no indication that the downward trend will end.

The Gallup report shows two trends in the decline of religious membership: falling rates among people who have a religious membership and the rise of the “nones” (non-denominational), or people who do not identify with any religion. The following table outlines these findings. 

Percentage of Americans With No Religious Affiliation

Generation1998–20002008–20102018–2020
Traditionalists (born before 1946)77%73%66%
Baby boomers (born 1946-1964)67%63%58%
Generation X (born 1965-1980)62%57%50%
Millennials (born 1981-1996)51%36%

The data, aggregated into 3-year subgroups, shows declines in religious membership across all generations. A double-digit decline appears in most major demographic subgroups. As you can see in the following table, this decline over the two decades shows deep political divisions. 

Political PartyDecline in Religious Affiliation
Republican12%
Democrat25%
Independent18%

Gallup further gives respondents the chance to self-identify their political ideology, not just party identification, and these findings are even worse for Republicans. While only 14% of conservatives reported a decline in their religious affiliation, 21% of both liberals and moderates saw a decline. All this adds up to the fact that most Americans today do not belong to an organized religion, which will have implications in future elections. 

The primary cause of the decline is the rise in the number of people who self-identify as having no religious affiliation. The latest report on religious affiliation from the National Public Opinion Reference Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2020 shows that 65% of Americans indicated that they were Christians, 6% were other faiths, and 28% claimed that they were atheists, agnostics, or followed “nothing in particular”; the unaffiliated were up from about 8% in 1988, making them the only cohort showing growth. We are rapidly becoming a more secular nation, much to the chagrin of the Republican Party.

Although some “nones” did vote for Donald Trump in 2016, their support slipped in the last election. Exit poll data shows that Hillary Clinton received 68% of the votes of people with no religious affiliation, while according to AP VoteCast, Joe Biden received 72%. Most of the nones are Democrats — since 2004 the Democratic nominee has never won less than 67% of their vote — and this number seems likely to continue to rise. Adding to the problems faced by Republicans is the decline of white evangelicals, who overwhelmingly voted for Trump (about 80%). Their numbers account for only 16% of Americans today. A big part of the Republican base is shrinking.

Politically, the evangelicals are more theocratic and reactionary than the American public. They and many elected Republicans hold strict, extreme views that are out of touch with the moral views shared by most Americans. A Gallup survey from 2017 found that on 10 of its 19 “moral” issues, American opinion has become much more liberal while there was no increase in the conservative direction. For example, in 2014 the Supreme Court narrowly ruled, on religious grounds, in favor of Hobby Lobby, which allowed employers to block their employees’ access to birth control. Evangelicals and Republicans cheered this ruling. But 91% of adults favor easy access to birth control. Also, 70% of Americans in 2020 supported same-sex marriage, but the 2020 Republican platform opposed same-sex marriage.

As Eric Levitz states in Intelligencer: “The GOP is caught between the median voter and the moral minority… It will be increasingly difficult for the GOP to win national elections without distancing itself from moral traditionalism.”


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