'Religious Nones' Are Growing Quickly. Should Republicans Worry?

Jenny Schulz isn't religious.

Schulz is not alone. She is part of a growing group of American adults who do not identify with any religion. More than one-in-five American adults say so now, the highest in U.S. history. They are being identified as the religious "nones," so called for their lack of religious affiliation. As they grow in size, they are also gaining political power. 

Those "nones" consist of atheists, agnostics, and people who simply say they subscribe to no religion in particular. Altogether, they make up nearly 23 percent of the adult population, according to Pew.

That's more than than Catholics, and nearly as many as evangelicals, at 25.4 percent, according to the most recent Pew Religious Landscape Survey. Between just 2007 and 2014, the adult population of "nones" skyrocketed by 52 percent, to nearly 56 million. And that growth makes the "nones" one of the biggest, but least-noticed, stories in American politics, Smith said.

But even with all of the public displays of religion, you can already see politicians playing to a less religious electorate. Republicans, who fare poorly among the "nones," are subtly tailoring their messages for an increasingly secular nation.

"You're already seeing Republicans, in particular, take this into account, and you're seeing it with gay marriage," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist who worked for the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008, chair of CivicForumPAC, managing director of Civic Forum Strategies and author of Hail Mary: The 10-Step Playbook for Republican Recovery. "What you're starting to see is Republicans significantly changing their tone and rhetoric. ... For example, on gay marriage — they're couching it as 'religious liberty,' which sounds less divisive."

"The real question for the Republican Party is will this trend continue and will it continue at this rate?" O'Connell said. "I can see them changing their views on not so much abortion but other related issues [like same-sex marriage] by 2024."

Why 2024? Because that's when today's millennials will be entering middle age, replacing today's Gen-Xers and baby boomers. As millennials marry, settle down and have kids — things they're doing later than their parents — he thinks there's a possibility they will shift rightward. The GOP does better among married women than single women, he points out (though his logic assumes that marriage could make a person more conservative, not just that conservative women might be more likely to be married to begin with). And once people marry, he added, more-religious people might end up bringing their less-religious partners into the church.

Read more from Danielle Kurtzleben at NPR

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