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Targeting the Doubting Thomas Vote

The least pious among us are the fastest growing group in the country.

12:00 AM, Jun 4, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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When pundits talk about religion and politics they usually include obligatory references to Republican ties to the "religious right." Based on recent history, there's some justification for the connection. John McCain won "born again" white voters 74%-24% in 2008, and George W. Bush prevailed with this group by similar margins in 2000 and 2004.

But another motive fuels the near-obsessive emphasis on Republican success with people of faith--particularly among commentators on the political left. Closely linking the GOP to the religiously observant potentially drives away those whose faith plays a less central role in their lives. Republicans are so tight with Jesus -- detractors say -- that doubting Thomases need not apply.

It could be a smart strategy. According to Gallup, 57% of Americans say they attend church at least once a month, about the same as 15 years ago. But it turns out the least pious among us are the fastest growing group in the country. Newsweek touched on this trend recently with an apocalyptically titled story "The End of Christian America." Clearly a bit of journalistic hyperbole, but religion in America is evolving and causing a wake of political repercussions.

The first piece of evidence comes from a new report called the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). This large study tracked changes in the religious loyalties of the U.S. adult population from 1990 to 2008. The research team, led by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, conducted three major surveys in 1990, 2001 and 2008 to gauge movement in religious beliefs, behavior and belonging.

The study highlights growth in the number of Americans who claim no religious preference. The "Nones" (no stated religious preference, or atheist or agnostic) nearly doubled--from 8.2% in 1990 to 15.0% in 2008--a trend consistent with other major studies conducted over the past two decades. (The study also notes most of this growth occurred during the 1990s, and may have leveled off in recent years).

This national average also masks some important regional differences. For example, ARIS data shows the two areas of the country where the percent of "Nones" has topped 20%--New England and the West Coast--are also regions where Democrats have made substantial political gains in the past two decades.

Republicans can take heart that a lot more of the electorate still attends church weekly or more (39% according to exit polls) and 55% of those voted for John McCain. But a secular minority is growing in the midst of a shrinking nation of believers. And it's this bloc of "Nones" the left is trying to lock in to the Democratic Party.

John Kerry won 62% in 2004 among those who say they never attend church, and Barack Obama increased that to 67% four years later. But Democrats have not always over-performed with secular voters. In fact, Republican presidential candidates carried this group in each of the five presidential elections between 1972 and 1988, according to the American National Election Study (ANES). However, Republican candidates lost among these same secular voters in the last five presidential contests. Interestingly, GOP performance among the "seculars" was identical to the overall population in the 1972-1988 period, but considerably worse than the overall population over the past five presidential contests, according to the ANES data.

These results raise an important question. Has the constant drumbeat in the media talking about "culture wars" and GOP links to conservative Christians since the early 1990s moved less-religious voters away from Republicans?

Diarist Dana Houle, writing at Daily Kos, exemplifies the left's line of attack, suggesting anyone who might even consider associating with Republicans is one step below the Geico caveman in the evolutionary chain: "Because of the rise of the religious right, the GOP increasingly accepted and eventually embraced social intolerance and a view of the world that in numerous ways--especially in regards to science, reason, faith and tolerance of individual differences--rejected the Enlightenment."

Wow! And maybe John McCain lost track of how many votes he needed to win because his abacus broke? Some on the left may be thoroughly modern, but their subtlety requires a reboot.