November 7, 2014

Why Are the Religiously Unaffiliated Less Likely to Vote?

4 U.S. Presidents. Former President Jimmy Cart...
4 U.S. Presidents. Former President Jimmy Carter (right), walks with, from left, George H.W. Bush (far left), George W. Bush (second from left) and Bill Clinton (center) during the dedication of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park in Little Rock, Arkansas, November 18, 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sarah Posner (Religion Dispatches) recently summarized data from a Pew poll conducted after the midterm election showing that White evangelicals made up 26% of those who voted as compared with the religiously unaffiliated (i.e., the "nones") who made up only 12%. So what? Aren't there far more of them than there are of us? Nope.

According to a piece for The Guardian Posner wrote in 2012, our numbers are roughly equivalent. By some reports, there may even be more of us. White evangelicals make up about 19% of the U.S. population, as do religiously unaffiliated persons. White evangelicals are over-represented among persons who vote; religiously unaffiliated persons are underrepresented among persons who vote. Why are the religiously unaffiliated less likely to vote, and what what can we do to change this behavior?

For this post, I'll set aside the question of what we might be able to do about increasing voting among the religiously unaffiliated and focus only on the first question. That is, why do we see such a sharp difference between White evangelicals and religiously unaffiliated persons in voter turnout?


Perhaps age has some relevance here. The religiously unaffiliated are not evenly distributed throughout the age range; they tend to be concentrated in younger age cohorts. So if people over 50 are more likely to vote than those between 18-29, for example, we'd expect to see fewer religiously unaffiliated voters. I'm not sure what voter turnout looks like across various age groups, so I'd have to consider this a tentative possibility at best. And if it turned out that 18-29 year olds were much more likely to vote than older cohorts, then we could dismiss the role of age.

Religious Dogma

What I suspect is a far more important difference concerns the role of religious dogma. White evangelicals are a powerful voting block, at least in part, because they share some religious dogma that translates into certain political viewpoints. While they have their differences (e.g., the evangelicals who elected Jimmy Carter were probably not the same ones who elected George W. Bush), they tend to have far more in common than the religiously unaffiliated do. For example, they tend to be more socially conservative than the general population. They tend to be convinced that their religious beliefs are correct and that all others are wrong. In fact, many believe that part of why they are here is to spread their religious beliefs to others. They tend to be more interested in issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and a host of other issues around which politicians have been effective in marshaling support. And finally, it seems to me that they often take a greater interest in how they can change the world in ways they see as desirable.

I am not claiming that evangelical Christianity is monolithic. It certainly isn't. I am only suggesting that evangelicals seem to have far more so than those who share only a lack of religious affiliation. When we talk about the "nones," we have to remember that the people we are talking about aren't necessarily atheists. Some are, but many others are religious believers who assemble their own idiosyncratic belief systems apart from identifiable religious groups or traditions. They certainly aren't atheists. And others are agnostics, humanists, skeptics, and freethinkers who do not care for the atheist label. Atheists are a diverse enough group; the religiously unaffiliated are far more diverse than atheists. And what should be obvious is that there is no dogma uniting them.

Religious Pandering

Besides age and the lack of the sort of dogma than might help to pull people together, I believe that widespread pandering by politicians to religious voters may be another factor. How so? I think it has turned off many religiously unaffiliated persons, leading them to view participating in the political the process as much less appealing. If you are religiously unaffiliated (particularly if you are serious about the separation of church and state), it is difficult to imagine you also being gung-ho to support a candidate who wears Jesus-belief on his or her sleeve. In the race to out-Jesus one another, many candidates running for office lead some of us to question whether they deserve our support. We have a difficult time seeing how they are interested in and even capable of representing us effectively. This makes voting for one of them a bitter pill to swallow.

I'll wrap up by acknowledging that I am unlikely to be the best person to offer insight into this important topic. I am an atheist who eschews dogma and is frequently disgusted by the candidates on my ballot, but I vote in every election. I see it as an important part of my civic duty, and I do it even when I'd rather not. I can speculate about why other religiously unaffiliated persons do not turn out to vote, but hearing directly from them would probably be more informative. If you are such a person, please feel free to add what I missed in the comments below.

Update: I wrote a follow-up post based on one of the comments here, When No Candidate Represents One's Positions.
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