Guest Commentary

Young nones: The religiously unaffiliated could reshape our politics

The connection between faith and politics is unavoidable. From the freethinking deists that made up a good portion of our nation’s Constitutional Founders, to America’s periodic evangelical revivals, to the roles of Judaism, Catholicism and other faiths among the waves of immigrants that have transformed America — our history, politics and faith cannot be easily separated.

Kansas has often been right at the center, from the abolitionist movement and Bleeding Kansas to the 1991 anti-abortion Summer of Mercy, through the Brownback governorship to the present.

In recent times, the connection between religion and politics shows up in election returns. White, evangelical Christian voters backed President Trump by over 80%, while the religiously unaffiliated went overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. Recent Republican missives to Jewish voters regarding Israel do not appear to be working — Jewish Americans still go strongly for Democrats. Catholics are split, in large part by ethnicity, with those of European heritage going Republican, while Latin Americans favor Democrats. American Muslims — many of whom might seem predisposed to support Republicans due to shared, conservative cultural values — now see the Republican Party as unwelcoming and trend heavily Democratic, as do other small-but-significant groups like Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists. Mainline Protestants are declining dramatically, but some churches have found new life by embracing social justice and diversity. However, there is only one large group showing major growth: the “nones.”

A recent Pew Charitable Trust poll shows “nones” on the rise — now roughly equal to Catholics and Evangelicals (considered separately) as a percentage of the population, and decidedly younger. What will be their influence on our politics?

An unfortunate homonym for nuns, nones are people that answer “none” when asked about their faith traditions, for example, by opinion pollsters.

Right now, nones are defined primarily by what they are not. Nones are not evangelicals or conservative Catholics. When asked to elaborate on their views by the Pew pollsters, the most popular self-description was “question certain religious teachings.” This begs the question, which ones? In politics, this means that they generally reject those groups’ support for the Trump presidency. They do not seek to criminalize abortion, nor cite “religious freedom” as an excuse to discriminate against their friends who are LGBT, Muslims or immigrants. Yet, this tells us mostly what the nones oppose, not what they support. Perhaps they have not arrived at a final answer to this question.

Young nones will one day have to work out their approaches to religion and secularism in ways that go beyond pro- vs. anti-Trump. Will they be open to alternative faith traditions like Social Justice Christianity and Western Buddhism? Or will they stick with secularism? No matter their choices, our chosen faith (or non-faith) traditions have a profound impact on our state and nation’s cultural climates, past, and present, and the young nones just might hold the keys to our political future.

Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University
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