How the ‘nones’ vote might impact religious freedom

Written by William C. Duncan

November 17, 2020

The post-election period is the time for speculation about why voters voted as they did. It will take time for detailed analysis, but we do have some initial demographic information on voters. Analysis of that data suggests the future religious freedom protections may depend on persuading the non-religious of its merits.

Among religious groups, the strongest support for Donald Trump came from white Evangelical Christians, with 81% of the vote, similar to the 2016 election. Catholic voters divided pretty evenly between the two candidates. By contrast, Jewish voters were more likely to favor Biden, by 68% to 31% .

Political scientist Ryan Burge notes additional details and comparisons to the 2016 election. He found that among all Evangelicals, there was no shift in support for Donald Trump between 2016 and 2020, both 67%. Support for Trump among Mainline Christian voters declined from 52% to 47%. Catholic support increased from 49% to 51%. The decline in Mainline support is significant.

More significant, however, is the shift in nonreligious categories. Atheist support for Trump dropped from 14% in 2016 to 10% in 2020. Among agnostic voters, the decline was from 23% to 16% and among “nones,” referred to here as “nothing in particular,” from 38% to 33%.

Thus, while much of the religious vote stayed static, the support for Trump by the “nones” (including atheists and agnostics) declined significantly. Given the close election results, this decline could have had an impact. At any rate, it is clear that nonreligious voters are playing a more significant role in elections.

This data point has important implications for those who are concerned about protecting religious liberty in the law. Increasingly, they may not be able to assume that their fellow citizens – who are helping elect the policymakers that will develop and enforce rules impacting religious exercise – see a particular value in religious faith or practice.

That does not mean that voters unaffiliated with a religious faith will be hostile to religious exercise, only that there is a good chance that concern for religious freedom cannot be taken for granted among an important part of the electorate.

This suggests that a priority for advocates of religious freedom should be to help those with no particular religious belief understand how their rights and liberties are strengthened when religious belief and exercise are protected. That will likely mean demonstrating how people of faith and religious organizations both promote the freedom of all people and provide social contributions that cannot be provided by others.

Persuading people without an inherent investment in religion of the value of religion to themselves and society will not be a simple thing. But it is necessary in a nation increasingly defined by secularization rather than religiosity. If advocates for religious freedom can accomplish it, we will all be better off for their trouble.

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