What rising secularism means for America’s political future

A new book on religious ‘nones’ offers a look at how rising disaffiliation will affect the Democratic and Republican parties

For years, faith leaders, secular activists and scholars have been saying that America’s growing group of religiously unaffiliated adults will disrupt politics as we know it.

However, they haven’t agreed on how.

Committed atheists have claimed religious “nones” will embrace secularism and help elect nonreligious candidates. People of faith, on the other hand, have often said the unaffiliated will become less liberal over time and eventually come back to the fold.

Now, a new book on the nones has arrived to help separate the signal from the noise.

Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics” uses surveys, experiments and in-depth analysis to sort out exactly what kinds of religion-related conflict the Republican and Democratic parties should prepare for.

Authors David E. Campbell, Geoffrey C. Layman and John C. Green, who are all political scientists, outline battle lines that will be drawn both within and between the parties — lines that are already starting to take shape.

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Who are the ‘nones?’

To understand the authors’ conclusions, it’s important to remember that not all “nones” are the same. Some religiously unaffiliated adults believe in God and express support for organized religion. Others champion purely secular ideals.

“There are distinctions within the secular population,” Campbell said during a May 27 American Enterprise Institute event on the book. He added that to ignore those distinctions would be as problematic as acting as if all religious believers behave the same.

By analyzing responses to survey questions about both religion and secularism, he and his co-authors split up Americans into four distinct groups: religionists, non-religionists, secularists and religious secularists.

During the webinar, Campbell defined each group by offering examples of what members would likely be doing on a Sunday morning. Religionists, he said, would be in church. Secularists, who are the most committed to a liberal, secular worldview, might be with friends at brunch debating philosophy or literature.

Non-religionists and religious secularists are a little trickier to understand, Campbell said. He suggested thinking of the former group as unattached from but not opposed to religious institutions. They might spend Sunday mornings watching football or otherwise relaxing alone at home. Religious secularists, by comparison, are likelier to be at church. But, unlike other churchgoers, they have a predominately secular worldview.

Importantly, members of all four groups can be found in both parties, but not in equal numbers. Most secularists are Democrats and most religionists are Republicans.

That finding helps explain why the two parties already talk about faith in different ways. It also tells us that partisan conflict over what role religion should play in American politics will become more common in the coming years, Layman said during the AEI event.

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Intraparty battles

In addition to noting the overall faith gap between Republicans and Democrats, “Secular Surge” identifies a major secularist-religionist divide within the Democratic Party.

The party’s very liberal, progressive wing — mostly comprised of young, college-educated whites — is predominately secular, the authors noted. Its more moderate members, including minority people of faith, are religionists.

“Secularists are an ascendant group in Democratic politics at all levels,” Layman said. But religionists, as well as non-religionists, still represent a “substantial portion” of the party.

Pleasing all of these voters at the same time will be an almost impossible task, he added. Although members of both groups have similar ideas about society’s problems, secularists typically advocate for more sweeping policy actions, like offering universal health care, forgiving student loan debt and expanding abortion rights.

“To win elections, Democrats have to walk a tightrope across the secular-religious divide,” Layman said.

Since the Republican Party is still predominately religious, leaders won’t have to walk that same tightrope. However, they’ll have some faith-related problems of their own.

The biggest fault line within the Republican Party separates religionists from non-religionists, Layman noted. Members of both groups generally respond well to faith-related messaging, but they have different ideas about their party’s most influential member: former President Donald Trump.

Data from January 2016 shows that, although religionists and non-religionists both favored Trump over other potential Republican presidential nominees, there was a pretty striking difference in their levels of support, Layman said, noting that “the non-religionists were considerably more likely than religionists to prefer Trump as the party’s nominee.”

If Trump chooses to run in 2024, tension between Republican religionists and non-religionists will likely continue to grow, he added.