5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Overthink the New Pew Data’s Impact on Politics

Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 11.20.09 AMThere are two big takeaways in the Pew Research Center’s new Religious Landscape Survey, its first since 2007: the decline in the number of Americans identifying as Christians (down eight percent in seven years, to 70.6 percent), and the rise in the number of Americans identifying as atheist, agnostic, and otherwise religiously unaffiliated (up six points in seven years, to 22.8 percent).

Greg Smith, Associate Director of Research at the Pew Research Center, called the pace of the continued growth of the religiously unaffiliated “really remarkable.” The number of Americans identifying with no religion grew by 19 million from 2007 to 2014, and now the religiously unaffiliated are “more numerous,” said Smith, than either mainline Protestants or Catholics.

Much of the rise of the “nones” is attributable to religious switching, mainly from Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. One-fifth of Americans raised Christian are now unaffiliated, said Smith. Here, he said, “Catholicism really stands out. Fully 13 percent of the US adult population qualifies as being formerly Catholic.” For every convert to Catholicism, he said, there are six former Catholics. “There is no other religious group analyzed in the survey that has experienced anything close to that kind of ratio of losses to gains via religious switching,” Smith said.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, have seen their share of the adult population drop very slightly (less than a one percent drop, but still around a quarter of the U.S. adult population). But their overall numbers are up because they have experienced net gains from religious switching. Here “evangelical” includes the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church in America, and “0ther evangelical denominations and many nondenominational congregations.” Sixty-two million Americans fall into this demographic, two million more than in 2007, according to the Pew Survey.

The Pew report notes, though, that researchers sought to identify evangelicals still another way (other than denominationally). They asked, “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian, or not?” Thirty-five percent of all U.S. adults said yes to that question. That figure includes evangelical Protestants, black Protestants, mainline Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Orthodox Christians.

What are the potential effects of these changes politically? Before you do your secularist victory lap, here are five key considerations to keep in mind:

1. The first report on Pew’s data released today does not include its analysis of respondents’ religious intensity or orthodoxy, nor of the respondents’ political and social attitudes. That will come later this year in a separate, detailed report. Stay tuned!

2. A different Pew survey out last year found a “growing appetite” for mixing religion and politics, particularly among conservative religious respondents. As I wrote at the time, the poll found “those affiliated with a religion, particularly evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics, ‘have become significantly more supportive of churches and other houses of worship speaking out about political issues and political leaders talking more often about religion.'” Granted, the rise of the nones is partly a result of disaffection with mixing religion and politics, indicating a possible mitigating effect. That will likely drive divergent trends of mixing religion and politics among Republicans and Democrats.

3. Keep in mind that, politically speaking, evangelicals, and in particular white evangelicals, have been highly politically organized for decades. As the sociologist Lydia Bean documents in her book, The Politics of Evangelical Identity, through churches and parachurch organizations, evangelicals’ political views are shaped by a “narrative of Christian nationalism,” a “24/7 narrative” that “liberals basically destroyed America and conservatives have to take it back.”

4. By contrast, the unaffiliated lack such a cohesive political identity. As the sociologist Phil Zuckerman has observed, on weekends the “nones” go hiking and skiing; they don’t go to church. What’s more, while the political formation of evangelicals has driven them to political activism on the issues their leadership cares about, secularists remain comparatively disinterested in political issues that drive secularist political organizations, such as organized opposition to federal faith-based funding.

5. Turnout, turnout, turnout. While the percentage of white evangelicals who voted in the 2014 midterms outstripped their share of the population as a whole, as Pew noted in its post-election analysis, “despite the continued growth of religious ‘nones‘ within the population as a whole, the share of the electorate with no religious affiliation also is little changed compared with other recent midterms (12% in both 2010 and 2014).” Political organizing and turnout matter far more than numbers.

  • DKeane123

    After a certain time, this shifting towards the nones/atheists/agnostic will reach a tipping point. Would be cool to use turnout to try and figure out where that fulcrum is.

  • Jim Reed

    I think the tipping point depends on keeping these people in the closet. Once they reach the tipping point, they have strength in numbers and there is no longer any fear of being exposed, so they can talk about this position and start to influence others. I think they have already reached this tipping point.

  • gapaul

    I’d like to see the evidence for religious “switching” producing gains for evangelicals. I’m deeply skeptical that Roman Catholics and Mainline Protestants are becoming evangelicals in significant numbers. I suspect it has more to do with immigrants becoming a larger share of the church-going public, and affiliating with Pentecostal or ethnic evangelical churches. (While the Southern Baptists decline.)

  • seashell

    Is anyone else astonished by the recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, where 61% of Americans would be enthusiastic or comfortable with a gay or lesbian president, but only 52% would feel the same about an Evangelical president? I’m still trying to get my jaw to close.

  • Penny Davis

    The current survey does not address the Pew survey of actual attendance in church. This is where the rubber hits the road for those who are trying to maintain church buildings and traditional services. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/13/what-surveys-say-about-worship-attendance-and-why-some-stay-home/

  • Jim Reed

    We have experience with an evangelical president.

  • seashell

    True. Carter was president 40 years ago when partisan divides were still common within religions than between them like today. I can’t imagine a liberal Evangelical (in every sense of the word) running in 2016.

  • Jim Reed

    No, the conservative evangelicals are drawing all the interest.

  • cranefly

    ‘For every convert to Catholicism, he said, there are six former
    Catholics. “There is no other religious group analyzed in the survey
    that has experienced anything close to that kind of ratio of losses to
    gains via religious switching,” Smith said.’

    What ratio does it take for conservative Catholics to stop gloating over the myth that female/LGBT equality is emptying out mainline Protestantism?

  • cmbennett01

    That would have been very surprising only a few years ago. Momentum is an amazing thing.

  • cmbennett01

    I think the atheist in the closet thing is a little overblown. There have been vocal public atheist around throughout the entire history of the this country. It might have hurt you chances for public office but that’s about it. The reason you don’t see a lot of atheists is because there’s not a lot of them around. Though there’s quite a few more than there used to be.

  • Jim Reed

    When I was a kid, I think the nation had one atheist, Madeline Murray O’hair. As I recall, everyone thought she was crazy and headed for hell. We didn’t understand how anyone could seriously be that way.

  • cmbennett01

    Just because someone thinks your crazy doesn’t mean yo have to hide in the closet. Ingersoll is my favorite public atheist. He was never elected to office but many thousands of people forked over their hard earned money to hear him say what he thought.

  • Frank

    What emptying out mainline Protestantism is the clear rejection of Gods truth about sexuality and marriage. No surprise there.

  • Frank

    It is. Just like it will be when the momentum starts swinging the other way after this failed social experiment of redefining family and marriage.

  • Frank

    We still don’t.

  • cmbennett01

    You lose, get over it.

  • Frank

    You won’t be around when it happens, but count on it.

    The only losers here are humanity, but just for a time.

  • Jim Reed

    Once you start to understand Christianity it makes sense.

  • Frank

    It would only make sense if someone misunderstands Christianity.

  • Jim Reed

    You can’t understand it unless you can view it from the outside.

  • sabbath7

    My God! You think you’re God, don’t you? You are an arrogant little twit who will burn eternally in the place below for placing yourself above and judging the rest of us. Burn baby burn.

  • Fired, Aren’t I

    He’s a troll. Search this site and you’ll find him repeating the same lines over and over and over again in order to get the reaction you just gave him. Please don’t feed.