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.