This election could be a flashpoint in American history in which nonreligious voters finally eclipse major religious groups in terms of turnout and influence.
More than 26 million voters with no religion could turn out on Nov. 8, dwarfing the group’s previous electoral participations. And, for the first time, they could provide the power to sway the direction of the country, according to data on religious affiliation and voting by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the separation of church and state.
The ranks of atheists, agnostics and those with no religious affiliation — so-called nones — have increased by 19 million since President Barack Obama was first elected president, making them the fastest-growing religiously categorized group in America. In 2004, the nones comprised just 16 percent of all American adults. Since then, they’ve grown to represent a quarter of all adults and a third of millennials.
Despite their size, the nones have been underrepresented at the ballot box.
Religiously unaffiliated voters comprised just 12 percent of all voters in the last presidential election, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. But their voter participation is set to spike this year and far surpass their involvement in 2012, when 15 million voted.
About 30 percent of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s supporters are religiously unaffiliated, and 13 percent of Republican Donald Trump’s supporters meet that definition, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. That means Clinton could receive almost 19 million votes from the nones, as compared to 7 million for Trump, as projected by the candidates’ recent standing in the polls.
These secular voters could thus fill the margin between the two candidates twice over.
The next president will have the power to determine the direction of the Supreme Court for a generation, greatly impacting our secular society. Secular citizens care about issues such as climate change, reproductive rights and, of course, keeping religion out of government. They are very independent-minded, educated and politically active.
If candidates want to earn secular votes, they should acknowledge the presence of secular citizens in the American social fabric while committing to keep religion out of government.
Earlier this year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, to mobilize voters across the country, launched a campaign of national TV, billboard and bus campaign ads featuring young millennial voters. The group has also been enlisting students on college campuses and running a digital marketing campaign to reach voters online.
Secular voters are a strong voice. And in this election, they could be the determining factor.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of Freedom From Religion Foundation. She wrote this for Tribune News Service.