Non-religious voters in growing numbers strive to “keep church and state separate”

By PETER SMITH, The Associated Press

When members of the small Pennsylvania group the Secular Democrats of America register for their monthly meetings, they’re not there for a virtual happy hour.

“We don’t sit around in our meetings and pat each other on the back because we don’t believe in God together,” said David Brown, a founder from Ardmore, a suburb of Philadelphia.

The group, made up mostly of atheists and agnostics, is mobilizing to knock on doors and make phone calls on behalf of Democratic candidates “who are pro-science and pro-democracy, whether or not they actually identify as secular people,” said he . “We try to keep church and state separate. That includes LGBTQIA+, COVID science, physical autonomy and reproductive rights.”

Brown describes his group as “small but powerful,” yet they’re riding a big wave.

Non-religious voters backed Democratic candidates and abortion rights by astonishing percentages in the 2022 midterm elections.

And they vote in large numbers. In 2022, about 22% of voters said they had no religion, according to AP VoteCast, a comprehensive survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide. They contributed to voting coalitions that gave Democrats victories in contested states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona.

According to VoteCast, the nonpartisan — often referred to as “None” — voted more than 2-1 (65% vs. 31%) nationwide for the Democratic House of Representatives versus Republicans. That mirrors the 2020 presidential election, when Democrat Joe Biden received 72% of non-religious voters, according to VoteCast, while Republican Donald Trump received 25%.

For all the talk about the overwhelmingly Republican votes cast by white evangelical Christians in the last election, the independents made themselves felt.

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Of all US adults, 29% are none — those who identify as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing special,” according to a 2021 Pew Research Center report. That’s up 10 percentage points from a decade ago, according to Pew. And the younger the adults, the more likely they are to be unconnected, according to a 2019 Pew analysis, which is another signal of the growing influence of the nothing.

“People talk about how committed white evangelicals are, but you don’t know half of it,” said Ryan Burge, a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University who focuses on the interplay of religious and political behavior.

Atheists and agnostics form just a subgroup of nothing and are fewer in number than evangelicals. But they are more likely than evangelicals to make a campaign donation, attend a political meeting or join a protest, Burge said, citing the Harvard-affiliated Cooperative Election Study.

“When you consider how involved they are in political activities, you realize how important they are at the ballot box,” he said.

According to VoteCast, the Nothings matched Catholics with 22% of the voters, although they made up just under half as many as Protestants and other Christians (43%). Other religious groups accounted for a total of 13%, including 3% Jews and 1% Muslims.

Regardless, 30% of voters identified as Born Again or Evangelical Christians.