William Katz:  Urgent Agenda

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THE RELIGION GAP – AT 11:17 A.M. ET:  We learn more and more about the election as more and more research is done.  Some of the data may be meaningful, or maybe none of it is.  We can ask this question:  If Ronald Reagan were running instead of Mitt Romney, would we be politically depresssed today? 

I don't know the answer.  Maybe, in 2012, Obama would have beaten Reagan, but I don't think so.  America was ready for change, if they thought they had the right guy.

But learning more doesn't hurt us, and this key point, about religious affiliation, is something we're going to have to deal with in the future.  It's actually a well-done report from NPR, where well-done reports are fairly rare: 

The big demographic story out of the 2012 presidential election may have been President Obama's domination of the Hispanic vote, and rightfully so.

But as we close the book on the election, it bears noting that another less obvious bloc of key swing state voters helped the president win a second term.

They're the "nones" — that's the Pew Research Center's shorthand for the growing number of American voters who don't have a specific religious affiliation. Some are agnostic, some atheist, but more than half define themselves as either "religious" or "spiritual but not religious," Pew found in a recent survey.

They are typically younger, more socially liberal than their forebears, vote Democratic, and now make up nearly 20 percent of the country's population. Exit polls suggest that 12 percent of voters on Election Day were counted as "religiously unaffiliated."

"This really is a striking development in American politics," says Gregory Smith of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "There's no question that the religiously unaffiliated are a very important, politically consequential group."

The religiously unaffiliated voters are almost as strongly Democratic as white evangelicals are Republican, polls show.

Their overwhelming support of Obama proved crucial in a number of swing states where the president lost both the Catholic and Protestant vote by single and low-double digits, but won the "nones" by capturing 70-plus percent of their votes.

Election analysts have hashed over the gender gap and the marriage gap. They talked about Hispanic voters and gay voters. But it was the religiously unaffiliated voters, says Iowa-based pollster J Ann Selzer, who gave her one of the election season's big "aha" moments.

COMMENT:  I frankly think this requires further study before we draw political conclusions.  We can look at unaffiliated voters, but lack of religious affiliation may be only one aspect of their political lives, and maybe not the mot important.  Many young people don't affiliate because they find social contentment elsewhere, or are turned off by some aspects of organized religion.  I don't think that automatically means they'll vote against a more traditional candidate.  Depends on the candidate.

I do know, though, that the GOP must be careful about putting up in-your-face religious candidates who simply turn off large numbers of voters with their dogmatic attitudes.  Witness the GOP Senate losses this year in Missouri and Indiana, two decidedly conservative states that rejected Republican Senate candidates who made silly statements.  The same thing happened in 2010.  Americans are still, by and large, one of the most religious populations in the world, but we are also sensitive to the interplay between religion and politics, and cautious about it.  Religious freedom is, after all, one of the founding principles of the republic.  Be religious, Americans seem to say, but don't shove your beliefs in my face, even if I agree with you.

December 9, 2012