The “nones” are on the march in America. These are the people who, when asked to name their religious preference, reply “none.”
A new survey shows that “nones” now account for 23.1 percent of the population. That makes them roughly equal to the number of self-identified evangelicals in America (22.5 percent) and Catholics (23 percent).
It’s interesting demographic data that points to a changing America. But what does it mean for politics, culture and the separation of religion and government?
For starters, it means we’re seeing the potential for some significant political changes and perhaps the beginnings of a movement that could blunt the power of the Religious Right – but it all depends on who shows up to vote.
Ryan P. Burge, an instructor in the Political Science Department at Eastern Illinois University who analyzed the survey data, told Religion News Service that evangelicals have out-sized influence at the ballot box simply because they are committed voters.
“Evangelicals punch way above their weight,” Burge said. “They turn out a bunch at the ballot box. That’s largely a function of the fact that they’re white and they’re old.”
Nones, by contrast, tend to be younger and lean toward progressive politics. But – and this is a big catch – they aren’t as politically engaged as evangelicals. Too many of them don’t turn up on Election Day; thus, they’re underrepresented at the polls. If that starts to change, politics will as well. We might even see the emergence of candidates who openly court secular voters, just as many do now with religious voters.
On a cultural level, the changing face of America’s religious landscape means that we’re going to need separation of church and state more than ever. As the country becomes more diverse, it simply won’t make sense for the government to play favorites when it comes to religion. In time, we might even start a serious conversation about the country’s attachment to “civil religion” as manifested by “In God We Trust” signs in government buildings and the use of a religious phrase as the national motto.
America’s growing religious diversity will provide another benefit by preventing any one group from getting too much political power. Some of our founders long ago saw the value in this. Addressing his fellow Virginians in 1788, James Madison observed, “Happily for the states, they enjoy the utmost freedom of religion. This freedom arises from that multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”
Finally, the rise of the nones is a powerful reminder of the value of religious freedom undergirded by the separation of church and state. Many of the people who adopt this label still consider themselves spiritual. They don’t see themselves as a good fit for existing houses of worship, so they’re forging their own spiritual path. (Others, of course, have dropped religion entirely.) Here they are walking in the footsteps of colonial-era religious liberty pioneer Roger Williams who was a spiritual seeker all of his life.
That right to dissent, to break away, to blend traditions, to craft your own spiritual brew, to question, to doubt and to change your mind is fostered and encouraged by the separation of church and state. No other system fully protects that right.
Members of the Religious Right undoubtedly look at America’s evolving religious landscape with dismay. They see people wandering off what they consider to be the one true spiritual path. The rest of us see things differently: Our freedom of conscience is precious – but you have to use it or lose it.
Thankfully, more and more Americans are opting to use it.