'Spiritual but Not Religious': A Rising, Misunderstood Voting Bloc

No, they're not just atheists.
An abandoned church in Port Norris, New Jersey. (Forsaken Fotos/Flickr)

Spirituality is a big story in politics. Maybe as big a story as religion. It’s been more than a decade since evangelicals helped George W. Bush win the White House, and we’ve gotten used to the idea of the “values voter,” of religion as a political force. But while the evangelical bloc seems to have frayed a bit and liberal mainline religion continues to lose influence, another major religious category is gathering force and deserves politician and pundit attention—the “spiritual but not religious” vote.

A fifth of Americans check “none” on surveys of religious preference. Among the young adults under 30 who helped propel Obama into office, a full third check “none.” Atheist pundits are quick to claim these gains for their own, but that is not the case—nearly 70 percent of “nones” report belief in God or a universal spirit, and 37 percent describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This may or may not be the story of the decline of “religion,” but it is clearly also the story of the ascent of “spirituality.”

Smart politicians and media observers will pay attention to this trend. There is the potential for spiritual voters to exert major influence this year and in 2016. Religiously unaffiliated voters are strongly Democratic in national elections, and a majority are socially progressive on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. But there is growth possibility for Democrats. While religious nonaffiliation has expanded rapidly in recent years, “nones” account for a flat 12 percent of voters in presidential contests since 2008. Over the same period, the percentage of “nones” identifying as Democrats fell slightly, while the percentage identifying as independents increased to half—good news for Republicans and third-party candidates. Republicans are unlikely to wring much from spiritual voters; but Democrats stand to gain significantly, or lose out, depending on their ability to inspire them.

The question is, will politicians study the category well enough to identify and appeal to broadly shared values and longings? Spiritual voters are a diverse cohort and do not come hand-delivered as a political bloc—but there are shared values and experiences that call out for political cultivation. Their support for progressive causes links up with a broader unease with religious, political, and financial institutions viewed as tainted by wrongheaded values and jaded self-interest.

But the other side of religious nonaffiliation, and what politicians often neglect, is that for spiritual voters the sacred strongly persists. Reading them narrowly as atheists or secularists misses out on the political rewards that come from constituents feeling seen and understood. This sacred is various, but it coheres for many in its resistance to religious enclosure and its support of certain progressive values. Politicians fire up religious blocs through careful attunement to religious values. Better attunement to spiritual values will help inspire spiritual voters.

Scholars may be of limited help with this effort, although we’re coming around. An influential tradition in sociology views religiously unaffiliated spirituality as flimsy egoism that turns away from community and nation, that is socially and politically corrosive. The late Robert Bellah, patron saint of this point of view, complained that his archetypal spiritual individualist “has made the inner trip and hasn’t come back out again.” Sociologists who study religion, with some notable exceptions, have commonly written off “spiritual but not religious” folks as lukewarm participants in political and civic life.

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Steven Barrie-Anthony is a research associate at the Social Science Research Council and a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he also writes at Reverberations and The Immanent Frame.

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