Ryan Burge day: Political tensions rise as secularism grows (yet faith numbers stay strong)

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Anyone who has followed GetReligion for nearly two decades knows that we have — over, and over, and over — stressed that the safe middle ground in American life seems to be vanishing.

This is true in religion and it is certainly true in politics.

Now, journalists and news consumers can prepare to dig into two books related to these trends — both linked to the work of names that will be familiar to GetReligion readers.

The first, by GetReligion contributor Ryan Burge, is entitled, “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.” It will hit the market March 9th. We will come back to Burge in a moment, with links to some of his omnipresent charts and commentary.

The second book is entitled, “Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics,” and it was written by David Campbell, Geoffrey C. Layman and (here’s the familiar name to most GetReligion readers) John C. Green.

Yes, that John C. Green, the man from the 2007 seminar at the Washington Journalism Center who told a circle of journalists from around the world about emerging research about “religiously unaffiliated” Americans and how this would impact politics and, in particular, the shape of the Democratic Party. The line-graph he sketched on our write-on-wall that day was a foretaste of the stunning 2012 Pew study on the rapid rise of the “nones.”

The key was that the “nones” were the natural political partners of secular voters and believers in the shrinking world of the Religious Left. At some point, however, he said there would be tensions with moderate and even conservative Democrats in the Black church and in Hispanic pews, both Catholic, evangelical and Pentecostal. As I wrote in an On Religion column:

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the “Nones” skew heavily Democratic as voters — with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

“It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. “If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties.”

The key is that this coalition of religious liberals and nones — both true secularists and “spiritual but not religious” believers — was growing on the cultural left, while traditional forms of religion are remaining strong, for the most part, on the right. What is vanishing is the vague “mushy middle” that, in the early ‘90s, I started calling “Oprah America.”

This brings us to a Burge piece at Religion in Public stressing that nones played a pivotal role in putting Joe Biden in the White House. This was written right after the election. Burge said:

I did a number of media appearances in the days after election day where I pointed to the switch in the votes of white Catholics being decisive for Joe Biden this time around. That was based on two things. My own analysis of tracking poll data from Data for Progress, but also some exit polling I had seen from AP’s Votecast.

But, I have to admit – the more I looked at exit polls, the muddier the picture became. What really began to shift my thinking is when Brian Schaeffner was kind enough to give us all a sneak peak of the 2020 CCES data concerning religion. And, in that data the white Catholic vote was right in line with their support of Trump four years earlier. However, there were some other shifts that quickly jumped out to me: the nones.

I was asked to talk about this with the American Atheists for their webinar on November 18th and wanted to write just a bit about some key things that I am seeing in the data and why I think that Joe Biden should thank the nones for being the president-elect right now.

The key is that how nones view the political world has been evolving — with the Trump era emerging as a turning point.

Screen Shot 2020-12-03 at 11.56.53 AM.png

Burge is blunt:

I am left with the impression that a lot of the gains for Joe Biden were not because of anything that the Democratic candidate did. Instead, I think he garnered a larger share of the none’s votes because he was simply not Donald Trump.

But there has been a trend among the nones, one that may affect the political future for both major parties. Here is one more crucial Burge passage to consider the ground being covered in the two new books mentioned at the top of this post.

Nothing in particulars … see the Democrats as becoming slightly more liberal over time, and they also perceive the GOP as moving to the right of political space, though far less conservative than how atheists and agnostics view the GOP. When asked to place themselves, the nothing in particulars were fairly consistently just left of center from 2012 through 2016. But since the election of Donald Trump, they have been tracking more toward the Democratic Party, which seems key when thinking about the 2020 election. …

For nothing in particulars, they had been moving away from the Democratic nominee in significant numbers over the last three elections. Obama got 70% of this vote in 2008, but Clinton didn’t even win a majority of this bloc in 2016 (45.8%). However, according to preliminary analysis of the CCES 2020 data, Biden did 14 points better than Clinton and Trump did 14 points worse than he did in 2016. Consider the fact that over 20% of Americans identify as nothing in particular — that’s a huge swing in raw votes.

The bottom line that points to potential tensions in the future?

Burge stated the issue in a positive way: “Atheists, agnostics and nones. The new Trinity for Democrats (along with Black voters, of course).”

Read it all.

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