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Non-religious voters wield influence and strongly skew Democrats

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

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

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

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

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

And they vote in large numbers. In 2022, some 22% of voters claimed no religious affiliation, according to AP VoteCast, a large survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide. They contributed to electoral coalitions that gave Democrats victories in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona.

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

Despite all the rhetoric about white evangelical Christians’ majority Republican vote in recent elections, the unaffiliated are making their presence felt.

Of all American adults, 29% are nons — those who identify as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular” — according to a 2021 report from the Pew Research Center. That’s a 10 percentage point increase from the previous decade, according to Pew. And the younger adults are, the more likely they are to be unaffiliated, according to a 2019 Pew analysis, further signaling the growing influence of unaffiliated.

“People talk about white evangelical engagement, but you don’t know half of it,” said Ryan Burge, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University who focuses on the interplay of religious behaviors and policies.

Atheists and agnostics are only a subset of no and outnumber evangelicals. But they are more likely than evangelicals to make a campaign donation, attend a political meeting or join a protest, Burge said, citing the Harvard-affiliated Cooperative Elections Study.

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

Nuns equaled Catholics at 22% of the electorate, although they were barely half the figure for Protestants and other Christians (43%), according to VoteCast. Other religious groups totaled 13%, including 3% Jews and 1% Muslims.

Separately, 30% of voters identified themselves as born-again Christians or evangelicals.

In several key races this year, secular voting has made its impact felt, according to AP VoteCast.

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

__Between two-thirds and three-quarters of none backed 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, as Democrats elected Pennsylvania’s new governor and senator, respectively.

While Shapiro is open about his Jewish values ​​motivating his public service, Fetterman has incorporated no 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 the right to abortion “sacred” — without reference to any 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 that is alienated from politics as well as religion, Burge said.

But atheists and agnostics, although only a third of the no, are above their weight given their heavy involvement in politics.

The twin trends of a growing secular cohort among Democrats and increased religiosity among Republicans are no coincidence.

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

This elicits a reaction from many secular voters, Burge said: “At least among white people, it has become clear that the Democratic Party has become the party of the non-religious.

Yet, it’s not just their party. The Democratic coalition draws heavily from religious groups – black Protestants, liberal Jews, Catholics of color. The black church tradition, in particular, has a very devout base for moderate and progressive politics.

“I think the 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 surfaced in 2019 when the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution praising those unaffiliated with religion in language that some saw as exaggerating their influence and denigrating religious values.

The differences between secular and religious Democrats emerged in VoteCast. The majority of Democratic voters of all religious affiliations say abortion should be legal at least most of the time, but 6 in 10 non-religious Democratic voters say it should always be legal, compared to about 4 Democratic voters out of 10 affiliated with Christian traditions. Overall, 69% of non-religious Democratic voters identify as liberal, compared to 46% of Christians who voted for the Democrats.

But the growth of the secular constituency doesn’t worry Bishop William Barber, a leader of one of the nation’s most prominent faith-based progressive movements.

“Jesus didn’t care, so why would I? said Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach, which calls for moral advocacy by 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 claiming they’re agnostics or atheists, and they’ll come to our rallies,” said Barber, who is also co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “They will say, ‘I don’t necessarily believe in God, but I believe in law. I believe in love. I believe in justice.’”

Brown, of Pennsylvania’s Secular Democrats, said he had no problem supporting Democratic candidates like Shapiro, who spoke openly about his Jewish values ​​on the campaign trail. His opponent, Republican Doug Mastriano, incorporated Christian nationalist themes and imagery into his campaign.

“While on the one hand I am frustrated that politicians feel the need to justify their righteous action by their religious affiliation, I also appreciate that this is a calculated decision to appeal to religious voters,” he said. Brown said. “I have no problem with that because I think 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 door-to-door for an ordained minister — Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Democrat in a runoff. And for the same reason – despite religious differences, he sees Warnock sharing many of the values ​​of secular voters.


AP polling director Emily Swanson contributed from Washington.


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

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