I’ve been paying attention here to the relationship between religion and the politics of the U.S. Presidential election. We now have some good polling numbers to work with, so now is a good time to take a deep dive into how religion is affecting the battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I plan to do this analysis in a few posts.
For the moment, Clinton enjoys about a 9% lead over Trump in the most recent polls. I’m relying here primarily on a June 2016 Pew Study poll, which shows Clinton with 51% support, compared to Trump’s 42% support. I’m looking at Pew, because Pew does the most complete job looking at the religious component of each candidate’s support. While the Pew poll is a bit old, it is comparable to more recent polls: the most recent NBC and Fox News polls also show Clinton with a nine-point lead. CNN’s “Poll of Polls” has Clinton with a ten-point lead. So I think Pew’s June numbers are probably reliable.
According to Pew, where is Clinton getting much of her edge, religion-wise? From the “nones,” the roughly 23% of Americans who are atheists, agnostics or otherwise unaffiliated with any religion. The “nones” support Clinton over Trump by a 44% margin, while the group I call the “somes” (Christians, Jews and members of other religions) as a whole narrowly break for Trump:
The “nones” support for Clinton is astonishing. I can find no other non-ethnic or non-racial grouping in the American electorate that so resoundingly supports Clinton and opposes Trump. As an example: we commonly pay close attention to the “gender gap,” the greater support that the Democratic Party receives from women compared to men. Recent polls show Clinton with a 23% lead among women (57% to 34%). Clinton also enjoys substantial support from those with the most education: her lead among voters with a post-graduate degree is 17% (51% to 34%). But Clinton’s 44% lead among the “nones” roughly doubles the margin she’s receiving from women and post-graduates.
This creates a remarkable situation. Let’s say you meet someone and would like to know how they’re voting for President … but you don’t want to ask them directly. You might try asking the person, “Do you believe in G-d?” If the answer is “yes,” you would not be able to reach any conclusions. But if the answer is “no,” chances are pretty good that the person is voting for Clinton.
Now, to emphasize, the “nones” are not all atheists and agnostics. “Nones” are those who indicate in surveys that they have no religion or do not belong to any particular religion. Most “nones” believe in G-d. Some “nones” attend church or synagogue, and consider religion to be important in their lives. “Nones” are not uniformly hostile towards religion and religious institutions. The defining characteristic of “nones” is that they’re religiously unaffiliated, and show little interest in looking for a religious affiliation.
Studies show that “nones” are demographically diverse. They are no more likely to be wealthy than poor, or well or less educated. There are more “nones” on a percentage basis in the U.S. West than in the U.S. South, and they are a bit more likely to be white males than non-white or female, but the percentage of “nones” is growing in the U.S. wherever you look. The most striking characteristic of the “nones” is that they skew young. Roughly one-third of all Millennials (those born after 1980) are nones, compared to less than 10% of those born before 1928.
But if what we care about is the connection between religion and politics, then there are two critical facts to keep in mind. First, the “nones” are growing quickly: from less than 10% in the early 1990s, to about 16% in 2007, to around 23% today. The “nones” are now arguably the largest religious group supporting the Democratic Party: larger than Catholics, larger than White Protestants and larger than Black Protestants (only if we combine White and Black Protestants can we form a larger religious block supporting the Democrats). Second, if we look at U.S. political party affiliation, the “nones” are becoming more Democratic and less Republican. In the 2000 Presidential election, the “nones” supported Gore over Bush by a 61% to 30% margin. By 2004, the Democratic Party margin among “nones” had grown to 67% to 31%, and in 2008 President Obama trounced Senator McCain among the “nones” by a margin of 75% to 23%! So, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see current “none” support for Trump at this same 23% margin. In fact, it’s possible that Clinton’s lead among the “nones” might grow larger by Election Day.
Given the importance of the “nones” to Clinton’s hope for election, you might ask what she and the other Democrats are doing to win “none” support. The answer, it seems to me, is very little. I see Clinton working to secure the Catholic vote (choosing Tim Kaine as her Vice President is one example of this), and even the tiny Jewish vote. But it’s hard to identify any effort Clinton has made to curry favor among those who are religiously unaffiliated. In her acceptance speech at the Democratic Party’s convention, Clinton did declare, “I believe in science.” Was that a nod to the “nones”?
It’s possible that any effort on Clinton’s part to court the “none” vote could backfire. I’ve already pointed out that most “nones” are not atheists, but it is nevertheless true that Americans tend to view atheism negatively and are unwilling to support an atheist candidate for President. In American politics, it’s generally a good thing to be religious (or at least “baby” religious). Then again, as the importance of the “none” vote grows in American politics, it seems possible that the two parties may work harder to gain their support. For the first time, this year’s Democratic National Convention featured a private event sponsored by the Secular Coalition for America for “atheist, agnostic, and otherwise non-religious” delegates to the convention. I expect to see more of this kind of effort going forward.
I’ll make one last point—and this is an important point to keep in mind as this series of posts unfolds. There is a difference between causation and correlation. What do I mean by this? We might be tempted to look at the “nones” support for Clinton, and conclude that it is driven by (a lack of) religion. The reasoning might go as follows: Americans (particularly young Americans) are growing less religious, and less religious people vote for Democrats; therefore, the trend towards increased secularization is pushing the U.S. towards the left. But at least some scholars argue just the opposite: Americans (particularly young Americans) tend to reject conservative “culture war” politics. They have grown up in an increasingly multicultural and diverse America, and have come to identify with this diversity. They’re largely (1) untroubled by same-sex marriage (and aren’t embracing traditional marriage in the same numbers as earlier generations), (2) showing no interest in a return to “traditional” gender roles, and (3) accepting the conclusions of science about evolution and climate change. And as they tend to see Christmas as more of a cultural than a religious holiday, they’re not likely to believe that a “war” is being waged against Christmas by liberal elites.
But as the American Religious Right has championed these kinds of culture wars, Americans (and in particular, young Americans) have increasingly come to identify culture war politics with the Religious Right, and with religion in general—and as a result are distancing themselves from religion and religious affiliation. In other words, it may be that a change in American political thinking is driving a move away from religion, and not the other way around.