Democrats and the Secular Vote

Ross Douthat has an article in The Atlantic Monthly in which he sees the United States and Europe as becoming more like the other with regards to secularism versus religion. The United States has become more secular, and Douthat’s analysis provides a reason for Democrats to run on principle rather than pandering for the religious vote:

America’s secular turn actually began in the 1990s, though it wasn’t until 2002 that two Berkeley sociologists first noticed it. In a paper in the American Sociological Review, Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer announced the startling fact that the percentage of Americans who said they had “no religious preference” had doubled in less than 10 years, rising from 7 percent to 14 percent of the population. This unexpected spike wasn’t the result of growing atheism, Hout and Fischer argued; rather, more Americans were distancing themselves from organized religion as “a symbolic statement” against the religious right. If the association of religiosity with political conservatism continued to gain strength, the sociologists suggested, “then liberals’ alienation from organized religion [might] become, as it has in many other nations, institutionalized.”

Five years later, that institutionalization seems to be proceeding. It’s showing up in an increasingly secularized younger generation: A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 20 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds reported no religious affiliation, up from just 11 percent in the late 1980s. It’s visible on the best-seller lists, where books such as Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy make their pitches to liberal readers, and in the public comments of scientists who now seem eager to attack religion as a threat rather than dismiss it as a nuisance. And it’s found a home in the expanding world of the liberal blogosphere, which has provided a virtual parish for Americans united by their disdain for “godbags” and “fundies.” (A Pew study of Howard Dean activists, one of the first mass constituencies mobilized by “netroots” activism, found that 38 percent described themselves as “secular.”)

It’s even making a difference at the ballot box. Liberals have spent much of the past six years straining to cut into the GOP’s advantage among religious voters. But when the Democrats finally shattered the Republican majority in the 2006 midterms, it was their consolidation of the secular vote that helped put them over the top. Despite all their efforts to close the God gap, the Democrats managed barely any gains among frequent churchgoers last November—but their share of the vote among Americans who never attend church at all leaped to 67 percent, from 55 percent in 2002.

In other words, the Democratic Party might do better by standing for something as opposed to trying to fight a losing battle to get the votes of natural Republicans. When the Democrats try to pretend to be Republicans, it looks to many people that they stand for nothing at all. If the Democrats are winning by consolidating the secular vote, as opposed to picking up the religious conservative vote, they might as well stick to principles. The appearance of sticking to his principles is one factor which made Ronald Reagan so popular, even among many Democrats. Promoting secular ideas even carries the possibilities of winning some people over to their beliefs, and encouraging those who do not feel either party represents them when Democrats sound like Republicans to come out to vote.

Douthat also finds that Europe is becoming a little more like the United States:

Yet the Europe of tomorrow may look more like … the United States, with a politics that’s increasingly shaped by clashes between believers, or between belief and unbelief. Already, the Continent is experiencing a low-grade culture war, created by the collision between the religious zeal of Muslim immigrants and the secular culture that surrounds them. In flash points that range from the murder of the anti-Islamic filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in Holland, to the controversy over the supposedly blasphemous Danish cartoons, to the question of whether to admit Turkey to the EU, secular Europe has found itself in unfamiliar, God-haunted, almost American territory. Such disputes may subside as Islamic immigrants assimilate to European norms, but for now, at least, resistance to assimilation by Muslims suggests that they may succeed in changing those norms as much as they are changed by them.

While these trends are present, Douthat recognizes the nature or both the United States and Europe:

These trends shouldn’t be exaggerated. America remains a deeply religious nation and its secularists an embattled minority, while Europeans remain strongly invested in preventing faith from intruding into politics. But both continents may be drifting into a zone where religious belief is likely to be a persistent source of tension, rather than a commonplace or a curiosity.

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