For the past two decades, there has been a rapid national shift away from identification with organized religion. And last year, according to the best available measurement of long-term trends in American religious identification, a new milestone was reached. More Americans between the ages of 18-30 now identify with no religion than identify as either Protestant or Catholic.
Here is the data, from the 2012 General Social Survey:
In a recent paper [PDF], political scientists Michael Hunt, Claude Fischer, and Mark Chaves described just how recent and rapid the shift away from organized religion has been:
The American religious landscape is changing rapidly. Among the biggest changes is the retreat from identification with organized religions. Once a central identity for adults, this kind of identification is far less prevalent than it was twenty or twenty-five years ago. The General Social Survey (GSS) has been tracking trends in religious preference since 1972. Everyone in a sample representative of the adult population of the United States is asked “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?” In 1972, just 5 percent answered “no religion”; by 1990, 8 percent did. The percentage preferring no religion has risen sharply since 1990. In the 2012 data (released March 7, 2013), 20 percent of Americans answered “no religion” —that is an increase of 12 percentage points in 22 years. We find no evidence of a slowdown. […]Hunt, Fishcer and Chavez produced a graph showing the rise of the "nones," that is, Americans who do not identify with an organized religion:
Since the early 1990s, the preference for no religion has risen at a nearly constant rate of 0.6 percentage points per year.
The political implications of this transformation are straightforward: Republicans and conservative are screwed, as those who do not identify with any religion vote for Democrats overwhelmingly.
Here is the vote breakdown by religion in the 2012 presidential election, according to exit polls:
One final note. Both halves of that spiral—the decline in Americans identifying with organized religion and the decline in non-Hispanic whites as a percentage of the population—share two important characteristics:
- Neither show any sign of slowing down;
- The rapidly rising, pro-Democratic demographic is turning out to vote at a lower rate than the rest of the nation. That is, while 20 percent of Americans do not identify with an organized religion, the "nones" makeup only 12 percent of voters. There is a similar gap between Latino and non-Latino voter turnout.
If and when the rising, pro-Democratic demographic groups start turning out at the same rate as other demographic groups, then the current incarnation of the Republican Party is well and truly finished. I mean, pundits gush over Democratic voter turnout programs, but it's be real for a moment here. Self-identified white Christians made up 57 percent of the electorate in 2012, even though that same year they only only made up a quickly shrinking 45 percent of the national population. Generally speaking, it was Republican, not Democratic, demographic groups that turned out at high rates in 2012.
It doesn't take a math whiz to see where this country is headed politically, or to figure why Republicans are so desperate to reduce the number of Americans who are able to vote. Our job is to make sure the right to vote is preserved, and then to get as many voters to the polls as possible.