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.