Political Animal


October 09, 2012 10:43 AM Slow Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated

By Ed Kilgore

Well, the latest presidential horse-race poll isn’t the only notable new offering from the Pew public opinion empire. A big new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows a trend that should surprise no one paying attention: the percentage of Americans who are religiously “unaffiliated” continues to slowly but surely rise, with consequences not only for religious institutions but for the political parties as well.

Some who take a very dim view of organized religion may look at the generational data in this and similar polls and predict an irreligious America in the very near future, but that would be a bit premature: religious affiliation has generally been weaker in younger people for all kinds of obvious reasons, and moreover, any accelerating “disaffiliation” is at present almost entirely concentrated among white Americans, who are a declining share of the population. Moreover, the big trend that jumps off the page at me is that the percentage of people who don’t regularly attend religious services isn’t increasing nearly as fast as “disaffiliation,” which means that people who aren’t religiously observant are no longer bothering to identify themselves with a particular faith tradition. That’s consistent with a much longer trend towards a more “flexible” attachment to all sorts of inherited affiliations, religious and secular. As anyone who is religiously observant can tell you, there’s an unprecedented flux underneath all these numbers within and beyond the ranks of believers. In the two denominations with which I am personally most familiar, the Episcopal Church and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), converts now often outnumber people raised in the tradition. People come, people go, and the overall statistics disguise an enormous amount of ferment.

In any event, the finding of most interest to Political Animals is that the religious and political polarization of the country continue to operate on parallel paths, but again, the trends are slow and occasionally ambiguous. Pew makes a big deal out of the fact that the religiously unaffiliated are now the single largest group (24%) among Democrats, while white evangelical Protestants remains the largest single group (34%) among Republicans. But more than 20% of both parties’ voters are Catholic, and 20% of Republicans are still white mainline Protestants (you know, us folks who have, according to Rick Santorum, left the world of Christianity altogether). 11% of Republicans are “unaffiliated;” more than the 9% of Democrats who are white evangelical Protestants. And the African-American Protestants and Hispanics who represent about a fifth of Democrats show few signs of “disaffiliation.”

So there’s no vast, immediate change apparent in the data, and it’s important to remember that America remains far and away the most religiously oriented of advanced industrial democracies. But without question, the Democratic Party with its ever-strenghtening commitment to church-state separation and diversity is better equipped than a GOP in thrall to an ever-militant Christian Right to cope with the religious trends of the country as they appear today.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • K in VA on October 09, 2012 10:53 AM:

    Ah, but there are numbers of people and there are decibels from people. Politicians typically pay much, much more attention to the noisier people. That's why the religious right has so very, very much power in American politics.

  • c u n d gulag on October 09, 2012 11:00 AM:

    'Losing our religion' is the very best thing that could happen to this country - and the world.

    For lack of a better term, I'm an Agnostic, and I've told my family members, who are all pretty religious (with the exception of my late father), that while I might be able to believe in a God, I would never believe in a religion, or follow ones tenets.

    For all the good religion does, there was, and is, more evil committed in its name than anything else.
    After all, heretics don't torch themselves, and altar boys don't schtupp themselves.
    Hell, they're told masturbation is evil. And if masturbation is evil, then I should have horns and a pointy tail, and I'd be writing this on comment on an asbestos laptop!

  • CurtMinIn on October 09, 2012 11:44 AM:

    Good post but I've got to take issue with this:

    " But without question, the Democratic Party with its ever-strenghtening commitment to church-state separation"

    As an atheist I have a vested interest in church-state separation and don't see this strengthening committment at all. What I do see is an increasing amount of taxpayer money being thrown at established religion in the form of faith-based services. I see athletic facilities being built by churches using federal money. I see services performed by churches using taxpayer dollars. I see an increasing willingness by Democratic politicians to allow my taxes to be funneled to religion. What I don't see is a strengthening commitment to church-state separation. I wish I did.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 09, 2012 11:49 AM:

    I guess the bit about Americans being "the most religiously oriented of advanced industrial democracies" comes from that thing the likes of Santorum & Co love to hate called separation of church and state. For the militant religious folk that must be a bitter pill to swallow that the all-knowing Christian Fathers of the Nation effed up big time and put it dead smack in the 1st Amendment rather than burying further down in some obscure amendment that no one really knows about (perhaps the 9th?)...

    I think the pro-state religion folks fail to appreciate the level of legitimacy that the separation has conferred on what would have previously been considered heretics and crack pots. And we don't need much polling evidence to see that Americans are certainly taking advantage of the freedom to dissolve and create churches on the flimsiest of principles. (In my small hometown, there were churches on every corner, mostly because people were breaking from their churches based on personal rivalries between the deacon and the choir director, Aunt Gertrude and Cousin Joe, etc...)

  • T2 on October 09, 2012 12:07 PM:

    this is just another example of why the Conservatives will do and say and spend anything to get back in the White House. The clock is ticking them out of favor, and they know it. And it's driven them crazy (with God on their side, of course).

  • Anonymous on October 09, 2012 12:33 PM:

    As for attending church, I happily admit that I avoid church like the plague. Even though I don't care for the likelihood of whether there is a God or the theological distinctions of various denominations, I will claim a loose affiliation with Southern Free Will Baptist of the African American flavor, only because it's the only thing I know personally.

    I only mention this because if, heaven forbid, I manage to get dragged to a Sunday service, I have a strong preference to go to a church with a similar background. At least these churches know how to put on a very entertaining musical set. Seriously, the choir and band get busy and put their collective foot in it!!!! (If I'm going to kill a couple of hours in church, I at least ask to be entertained.)

    I had the misfortune of attending a Catholic funeral service, and I was really baffled as to 1)why there was no choir behind the pulpit and 2)why they were expecting the lay people in the pews to do all the damn singing. WTF? I didn't like the set up, and it made me uncomfortable. I spent my childhood dodging youth choir rehearsals and lip-syncing during Sunday service, so having a hymnal dropped on my lap and then be expected to sing all four verses of "Amazing Grace" (to which I only know the first two lines) did put me in a pissy mood. Just not how I was brought up--sangin' is for the choir...

    This is why I don't belong in church...

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 09, 2012 12:34 PM:

    Anonymous @ 12:33 is me

  • cwolf on October 09, 2012 1:54 PM:

    It's only Make-Believe.

  • Vicente Fox on October 09, 2012 3:36 PM:

    So 22% of Americans identify as Catholic, and 20% identify as "no religion".

    Why the hell are eight Supreme Court justices Catholic and none Atheist?

  • Dirty Davey on October 09, 2012 5:46 PM:

    Regarding race: the categories reported by Pew were non-Hispanic white, black, and Hispanic. I'm curious about the ten percent or so of the population that are Asian, multiple-race, or "other". It would not surprise me if the unaffiliateds were high in one or more of these groups, particularly Asian-Americans. I assume the numbers aren't reported because the subsamples are too small, but they're still big enough to matter.

    (The sum of Asian, multiple, and other represents more than 10% of the population.)

  • Mitch on October 09, 2012 5:57 PM:

    @Vicente Fox

    Another question to go with yours: Why has there been only one open atheist in Congress in its entire history (Pete Stark), which is far below the estimated percentage of atheists in the nation?

    Or perhaps it is all summed up by this question: Why do our politicians, media and populations disregard the Constitutional directive that there shall be no religious test for public office?

    The answer: Religious zealots are incapable of compromise or of valuing the opinions of those whose beliefs differ from their own. Also religious folk are somewhat more likely to trust people from other religions than they are to trust atheists. And while the majority of religious folk in America are not zealots, I would guess that no less than one third of our population fits that bill. So to secure victory during elections, one must be religious. Not only that, one must be as religious as possible.

  • Steve Suranie on October 10, 2012 8:18 AM:

    As someone who falls into that slightly under 20% (belief in a non-interventionist creator and refute all organized religions) please let me know when the politically connected decide to recognize us.

    I don't believe in religion and I vote.