There are seismic shifts occuring in the American religious landscape that could have profound effects on the way that faith intersects with public life, but you’d never know it from the language and behavior of the two presidential candidates. That’s both a great relief and a cause for despair.
The shifts were underscored by the results of the latest survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, released October 9, showing that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religious group continues to grow. Five years ago, 15% of the American public claimed no religious affiliation; now 20% claims none, the highest percentage ever in Pew Research Center polling, and since that includes one-third of adults under 30, this trend is likely to become even more pronounced.
With the rising numbers, Pew notes, the unaffiliated are an increasingly important part of the electorate. They lean liberal, and are more likely to identify as Democrats or vote that way. Solid majorities support abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
Meantime, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Protestants dropped to a record low of 48%, and that includes a small but steady decrease in white evangelicals, who now measure about 19% of the population. So consider this: The unaffiliated are about as numerous as white evangelicals, but you don’t hear candidates speaking to them.
This population shift is reflected in the nation’s highest institutions. There are no longer any Protestants on the U.S. Supreme Court. And the only Protestant running on a presidential ticket from either party is Barack Obama (even though an astonishing 17% of Americans continue to insist, contrary to all evidence, that he’s a Muslim).