'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.

This is questionable for many reasons, not the least of which is that the religiously unaffiliated have been an important Democratic stronghold in recent decades. And while some research does indicate that spiritual people participate less than religious people in civic and political life, the reason may have less to do with a social defect of individualized spirituality than with politicians, scholars, and journalists mishandling the opportunity to connect.

But in the last several years, sociologists and other religion scholars have begun to take spirituality more seriously, and to think more expansively about its social and civic manifestations. Some of us are finding that “spiritual but not religious” people usually do care, and deeply, about community and civic participation. The difficult part for them is finding communities and ways of engaging civically that jibe with their spiritual approaches. This requires a careful jujitsu. They are often uncomfortable with narrow religious affiliation (Muslim, Christian, Jew) that would welcome them into traditional religious communities, and traditional religious communities have historically been major routes into civic participation. On the other hand, new “spiritual but not religious” communities are difficult to establish: What will hold parishioners together aside from what they are not? And if they find common ground and the community holds, do they not eventually become their own “religion”?

This is not an impassable dilemma. With a third of young adults checking the “no religion” box, we can’t afford to let it be. For politicians, it may be a major opportunity, and for more than empty posturing. If the social project for spiritual people is to identify forms of community and civic participation with which they feel at home, then politicians have the opportunity to be partners from the inside, to help to shape these community and civic forms.

This includes, first and foremost, strategies of listening—polling, interviewing, researching—to understand not just how spiritual people vote but also the ways in which their relationships with the sacred open out into their civil involvements and political decisions. (Journalists and scholars need to become better listeners, too.) It includes strategies of speaking—of shaping political language inclusive of “spiritual but not religious” people rather than lumping them in with non-believers. Obama was the first U.S. president to acknowledge non-believers in his inaugural address—America, Obama said, is a “patchwork” of “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” That was a step in the right direction, but the truth is that “non-believers” describes only a fraction of Americans who don’t identify with a religion. And it includes strategies of action—of setting policy agendas that emerge from this conversation. Such policy may look much like what pollsters already tell us the “nones” prefer. But in the context of intentional listening and speaking it will seem less jaded, more apt to come to fruition, and more inspiring of spiritual voters to show up at the polls.

Religion is far easier to track and poll. But spirituality, ephemeral and maddening though it may be, could be the kingmaker this time around.