Slow Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated

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

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.