A recent report by PRRI and another study by the Pew Foundation confirms the growing number of “Nones” in the United States, that is, those who either do not believe or those that are religiously unaffiliated. The numbers are remarkable. In a short period of time, the religiously unaffiliated have increased among those with low, medium, and even high levels of religious commitment. At the same time, the percentage of those who have a “low level of religious commitment” has risen. According to the PRRI, the bottom line is that 25% of the American public is not religiously affiliated. Moveover, this increase in the Nones does not seem to have plateaued but rather is dramatically on the upswing.
If there were any doubt that this phenomenon has percolated into the public’s consciousness, read the lyrics of the new country music song, Saltwater Gospel, by the Eli Young Band.
Now, the Nones are not a unified group and are not seen as a voting bloc; indeed they seem about as interested in voting as they are in religious affiliation. But I think that is looking at only one half of the equation. They may not be a voting bloc, but they are in all likelihood reducing the effectiveness of other voting blocs, e.g., the religiously affiliated organizations. In the 1970s, the rise of the Moral Majority opened the gateway for conservative religious organizations and believers to demand control of the politics of the Republican Party. As I have discussed, that conservative movement led to the extreme religious liberty statutes like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, among other religiously-fueled agendas. The drive toward extreme religious liberty has slowed down, as those harmed by religious entities in many spheres are stepping up, and it would appear in this election cycle the power of the religious entities to drive politics has been throttled back.
Since the 70s, politicians from both sides of the aisle have catered to religious organizations and their leaders, in the same way they pander to unions or corporations, in no small part to gain votes by the bloc. It’s understandable, because it is just a lot more efficient than gathering votes one by one. But that calculus is no longer as reliable as it once was, with 25% of United States voters declining to affiliate with a religious organization. To put it another way, when a minister appears on a legislators’ doorstep, he or she does not have the same influence over the same numbers as, say, a decade ago.
This may explain in part why this election cycle has not highlighted religion. In fact, the Republican candidates who led with faith—Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson—lost, which sends strong signals about the priorities of the Republican electorate. While both are believers, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton has made their own faith a centerpiece of their campaigns.
So should we abandon ship? Do we now face the downturn of American culture and a godless, ethically-challenged society? Definitely not. In fact, this development may be familiar to historians. There is strong precedent for a successful America not controlled by the religiously affiliated. There was another time of upheaval and rapid development in United States history when many doubted organized religion. The framing generation had a high number of Deists or Christian Deists, people who profess a belief in God but do not embrace one organized religion’s theology, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, and George Washington, among others.
What was the result of a strong Deist contingent at the time of the framing of the Constitution? It is not possible to draw a straight line of causation, but surely the following developments were related to the movement in the air at the time to refuse to cater to any one religious orthodoxy. First, the main body of the Constitution only references religion in the negative in that there can be no religious test oath required for public office. [Art. VI, cl. 3] The prohibition on making religious affiliation a prerequisite for public office is right in the spirit of the Nones, is it not?
Second, the Bill of Rights includes not only a free exercise clause but also a disestablishment clause, the latter of which is a provision that speaks to pushing back the power of an organized religion. [Am. I] That theme is also reflected in James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance in which he sings the praises of religious liberty but warns against organized religion, clerics, and the corruption that can result from unchecked power in a church. Indeed, his Memorial and Remonstrance may well be a rallying document for many of the Nones in this era whose values dovetail with his.
Third, at the time of the framing, there were a significant number of state establishments. The country shrugged off those establishments in relatively short order once the new governing constitution was in place, with its Bill of Rights. That left the governments of each state as governments of the people, not a singular religious denomination.
I think we can all agree that each and every one of these developments should make us proud, and they are precisely what the Nones at the time did for us. Thus, while organized religion has taken a backseat in the 2016 election, one should have faith that the United States can and will make strides forward nonetheless.