It’s safe to say that the GOP is facing some challenges. Women gave twice as much money to Obama’s presidential campaign as to Romney’s. It looks like most Americans will blame the GOP if we sail over the fiscal cliff. And Republicans’ most noted political victory of the last few months has been clearing the field so John Kerry can be secretary of state. Things could be better.
And on top of all that, new data from Pew on the voting habits, and growing numbers, of the religiously unaffiliated doesn’t seem to bode particularly well for the party. The bad news is, well, pretty much what you’d expect. The good news is that if Republicans play their cards right (not likely, but one can hope), they might be able to make inroads into Democrats’ territory.
Pew’s report shows that about one-fifth of Americans have no religious affiliation. They are dubbed the “nones” (which makes them fun to talk about out loud, because of the homophone), and their numbers have grown by about 30 percent over the past five years. NPR reported that they’re “almost as strongly Democratic as white evangelicals are Republican” and that they made up 12 percent of voters this election. And they’re young. Of people under 30, 32 percent were religiously unaffiliated, a higher percentage for that age group than in previous generations.
Over the same time period, the percentage of Americans who self-identify as “white, born-again or evangelical Protestants” declined from 21 to 19. NPR pointed out that the president lost the Catholic and Protestant vote in Ohio by eleven and three points, respectively, but won among the unaffiliated by 47 points. Nones made up 12 percent of the Buckeye State’s electorate.
Just another thing for Reince Priebus to lose sleep over? Not necessarily. The GOP should be able to win support from the nones without alienating its base, which is overwhelmingly religious, because, according to Pew, nones “are not uniformly hostile toward religious institutions. . . . A majority of the religiously unaffiliated clearly think that religion can be a force for good in society, with three-quarters saying religious organizations bring people together and help strengthen community bonds (78%) and a similar number saying religious organizations play an important role in helping the poor and needy (77%).”
Nones are “far from uniformly secular.” Two-thirds believe in God. Most describe themselves as either religious or not religious but spiritual.
Even the substantial minority — 42 percent, according to Pew — who are neither religious nor spiritual have reason to consider the Republican party. Lauren Anderson Youngblood of the Secular Coalition of America tells me emphatically that the religiously unaffiliated are up for grabs. She says that though most nones are liberal on social issues, they’re evenly divided on fiscal policy.
“I think if the Democrats want to keep the nones, they’re going to have to continue to work for it, because we’re becoming more of an organized movement, and one that is a little tired of feeling ignored,” she says. “We’re Americans, we’re taxpayers, we’re citizens, we contribute to society, and we want the same thing that other groups want, which is to have a seat at the table.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, tells me she’s always argued that politicians on both sides of the aisle risk their clout by ignoring the non-religious.
“When are politicians going to wake up to the changing demographics and start wooing the secular vote?” she asks. “I said we are a swing vote, I said that we could swing elections, and I’m right.”
But for now, the unaffiliated have no strong suitors.
“I don’t see any politician wooing the secular vote, at this point,” Gaylor says. “They’re all happy to get our money, but our time has not come yet. But it will, because, I think: Ignore our numbers at your peril.”
Youngblood says part of nones’ skittishness could be the Republican party’s ties with the religious Right. “If the Republicans want to be competitive in this voting bloc, they’re going to need to change the way that they’re doing things as far as the amount of sway that the religious Right now has within the party.” Regardless of how much influence conservative evangelicals have on the GOP’s legislative agenda, the party’s leaders should work to show that it’s not a religiously homogeneous group.
Representative Ron Paul, a doctor, will always be more appealing to non-religious voters than will former pastor Mike Huckabee. Conservatives have numerous doctors and scientists in their ranks, including Representatives Tom Price and Diane Black. It wouldn’t hurt for Republicans to try to elevate more of them to leadership positions. These men and women should be encouraged to talk about the connection they see between good science and conservatism. Talk about God, sure. But talk about Ben Franklin, too.
Youngblood also mentioned that non-religious voters are often frustrated that Republicans in some states push for creationism to be taught in public-school classrooms. On top of that, Youngblood adds Republican support for abstinence-only sex ed in public schools as another problem for non-religious voters. Republican leaders need to think seriously about whether or not these issues are hills to die on. (Hint: They aren’t.)
Here’s the good news: The GOP’s outreach to other minority groups might have unexpected payoffs among the “nones.” Pew notes that the recent increase in the number of nones “has been concentrated in one group: whites.” But if racial and ethnic diversity are important to white nones, the GOP will make itself more congenial to them if it succeeds in drawing more black, Hispanic, Asian-American, and young female voters. No demographic is an island, as it were.
“Is the Democratic party welcoming of atheists? You know, I don’t know what the answer to that is,” says Gaylord. “Obviously when you turn on the conventions you see a lot more women, a lot more blacks, a lot more openness to diversity, and I think that minorities of any ilk might feel more welcome in that party, and they might think, Someone like myself might be at that convention.”
Members of the conservative establishment concur with Youngblood and Gaylor about the potential for the GOP to become more religiously diverse.
“I think there is room on the right for everyone who has a sober view of human nature,” says David Azerrad of the Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics. “Whether you get that from original sin because you’re a Christian or whether you get it simply by studying history and reading Plutarch and Thucydides and seeing human nature doesn’t really change; I think there’s room for you on the right, with or without God.”
He’s right, and Republicans could probably do a lot more to make that clear.
Andrew Walker, also from Heritage, argues that the Right needs to make a stronger non-religious case for social conservatism if it wants to stay electorally viable.
“Here’s the bottom line,” he says. “If the GOP wants to abandon Evangelicals or social-conservative values, they’re going to be losing a pretty large constituency. Right now they’re approaching a point with Christians where you can’t live with them, we’re told, but you can’t live without them.”
The GOP’s platform on social issues probably won’t change anytime soon. But the party has plenty of room for people like Ileana Ross-Lehtinen, Richard Tisei, and Mike Fleck, who don’t march in lockstep on social issues. (And for goodness’ sake, somebody get GOProud a booth at CPAC.) If the party makes its libertarian wing more visible, non-religious voters might realize there are plenty of reasons to vote Republican besides thinking it would be the end of the West for two men to get married.
At least for the next few decades, the GOP will continue to rely heavily on support from the devout. But that doesn’t mean Republicans should give up on balancing loyalty to their base with improving their prospects among the religiously unaffiliated. At the moment, the relationship between the GOP and the nones is ambiguous, but that’s never ground for despair — in fact, quite the opposite. Demographics don’t have to be the party’s damnation. And miracles happen.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.