Non-religious voters wield influence, heavily leaning Democrats

When members of the small Pennsylvania chapter of Secular Democrats of America log into their monthly meetings, they’re not there for a virtual happy hour.

“We don’t sit around in our meetings patting each other on the back for not believing in God together,” said David Brown, a founder of the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore.

The group, made up mostly of atheists and agnostics, mobilizes to knock on doors and make phone calls on behalf of Democratic candidates “who are pro-science, pro-democracy, whether or not they are self-identified secular people,” he said. . “We are trying to keep church and state separate. This includes LGBTQIA+, COVID science, bodily autonomy and reproductive rights.

Brown describes his group as “small but mighty,” yet they’re riding a big wave.

Voters with no religious affiliation supported Democratic candidates and abortion rights by staggering percentages in the 2022 midterm elections.

And they are voting in large numbers. In 2022, about 22 percent of voters said they did not belong to a religion, according to AP VoteCast, a large survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide. They have contributed to voting coalitions that have given Democrats victories in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona.

The unaffiliated — often dubbed the “grandparents” — voted for Democratic House candidates nationally over Republicans by a margin of more than 2 to 1 (65% to 31%), according to VoteCast. This echoes the 2020 presidential election, when Democrat Joe Biden took 72% of voters with no religious affiliation, while Republican Donald Trump took 25%, according to VoteCast.

For all the talk of overwhelmingly Republican voting by white evangelical Christians in the recent election, the unaffiliated are making their presence felt.

Among all U.S. adults, 29 percent are nobody — those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” — according to a 2021 report from the Pew Research Center. That’s a 10 percentage point increase from a decade earlier, according to Pew. And the younger the adults are, the more likely they are to be unaffiliated, according to a 2019 Pew analysis, which further signals the growing burden of the unaffiliated.

“People talk about how busy white evangelicals are, but you don’t know half of them,” said Ryan Burge, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University who focuses on the interplay between religious and political behavior.

Atheists and agnostics form only a subset of the non-and are less numerous than evangelicals. But they are more likely than evangelicals to make a campaign donation, attend a political meeting or participate in a protest, Burge said, citing the Harvard-affiliated Cooperative Election Study.

“When you look at how involved they are in political activity, you realize how important they are at the polls,” he said.

The did not equal Catholics at 22% of the electorate, although they were just half the figure of Protestants and other Christians (43%), according to VoteCast. Other religious groups accounted for 13%, of which 3% were Jewish and 1% Muslim.

Separately, 30% of voters identified as born again or evangelical Christians.

In several bellwether contests this year, lay voting has made its impact felt, according to the AP VoteCast.

__About four out of five people with no religious affiliation voted against abortion restrictions in referendums in Michigan and Kentucky.

__Between two-thirds and three-quarters of no one supported Democratic candidates in statewide races in Arizona and Wisconsin.

__About four out of five people with no religion voted for Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman, Democrats elected the new Pennsylvania governor and senator, respectively.

While Shapiro speaks openly about his Jewish values ​​that motivate his public service, Fetterman has not incorporated any discernible religious tradition into his public statements. He often frames issues in ethical terms—such as promoting criminal justice reform and raising the minimum wage, even calling abortion rights “sacred”—without referring to a religious tradition.

Fetterman’s campaign did not return a request for comment.

The secular population is a diverse group, Pew reported in 2021. Two-thirds identify as “nothing in particular” — a group alienated from politics and religion, Burge said.

But atheists and agnostics, even if only a third of non, weigh more than their weight, given their heavy involvement in politics.

The twin trends of a growing secular cohort among Democrats and an increase in Republican religiosity are not accidental.

Several prominent Republican candidates and their supporters have promoted Christian nationalism, which blends a sense of American and Christian identity, mission, and symbols.

That prompts a backlash from many secular voters, Burge said: “At least among whites, it’s become clear that the Democratic Party has become the party for non-religious people.”

Yet it’s not just their party. The Democratic coalition draws heavily on religious groups: black Protestants, liberal Jews, black Catholics. The black church tradition, in particular, has a very devout base in support of moderate and progressive policies.

“I think Democrats have the biggest problem in the world because they have to keep atheists and black Protestants happy at the same time,” Burge said.

Tensions arose in 2019, when the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution praising religiously unaffiliated language that some saw as exaggerating their power and disparaging religious values.

The differences between secular and religious Democrats came up in VoteCast. A majority of Democrat voters across all religious affiliations say abortion should be legal at least most of the time, but 6 in 10 Democrat voters unaffiliated with a religion say it should always be legal, compared with about 4 Democrat voters out of 10 affiliated with Christian traditions. Overall, 69% of unaffiliated Democrat voters identify as liberal, compared with 46% of Christians who voted for Democrats.

But the growing secular electorate does not worry Bishop William Barber, leader of one of the most important faith-based progressive movements in the nation.

“Jesus didn’t care, so why should I?” said Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach, who is calling for moral support from faith and other leaders on behalf of the poor, immigrants and other marginalized communities. “Jesus said whoever is not against me is for me”.

“We have a lot of people who say they are agnostic or atheist, and they will come to our rallies,” said Barber, who is also co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “They’ll say, ‘I don’t necessarily believe in God, but I believe in the right. I believe in love. I believe in justice.’”

Brown, of the Secular Democrats group in Pennsylvania, said he has no problem backing Democratic candidates like Shapiro, who has spoken openly about his Jewish values ​​while campaigning. His opponent, Republican Doug Mastriano, has incorporated Christian nationalist themes and imagery into his campaign.

“While I’m frustrated that politicians feel the need to justify their doing the right thing by religious affiliation, I also appreciate that this was a calculated decision to appeal to religious voters,” Brown said. “I have no problem with it because I feel it was in the service of defeating a Christian nationalist candidate on the other side.”

In fact, Brown even traveled to Georgia in late November to campaign door-to-door for an ordained minister: Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Democrat on a runoff. And by the same token, religious differences notwithstanding, he sees Warnock sharing many of the values ​​of secular voters.

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AP polls director Emily Swanson contributed from Washington.

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The Associated Press’ religious coverage is supported through the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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