After 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, Democrats are courting the votes of the decidedly unreligious. The Democratic National Committee passed a resolution at its annual summer meeting in late August celebrating the values of “religiously unaffiliated” Americans, praising nonbelievers for supporting “rational public policy based on sound science and universal humanistic values.”
But when it comes to religious voters, the resolution exposes a weakness for Democrats. To regain the ground the party lost in 2016, some Democratic presidential candidates are seeking to woo religious voters on the left by talking about their faith on the campaign trail and hiring faith outreach staff.
People who identify as atheists, agnostics, and “nothing in particular” made up about 35 percent of Democratic primary voters in 2016, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study. Out of the remaining 65 percent who reported having some kind of religious affiliation, 31 percent identified as white Christians, 22 percent as nonwhite Christians, and 12 percent said they were Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or “something else.”
“Democrats are in a really tough spot,” Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, told me. “Democrats are stuck between trying to appeal to the old Christian base but [with a] growing number of ‘nones.’”
The number of “nones,” or Americans with no religious affiliation, has grown from less than 1 in 10 in the 1970s to about a quarter of the population today, according to the Pew Research Center.
According to the Secular Coalition for America, no major political party has explicitly embraced nonbelievers until now. But the Democratic Party’s resolution seems to go a step further, taking a shot at religious conservatives. It says some religious demographics have used “misplaced claims of ‘religious liberty’ to justify public policy that has threatened the civil rights and liberties of many Americans, including but not limited to the LGBT community.”
Ken Blackwell, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, told me the effort shows “the DNC is continuing its longstanding effort to run God and faith out of the public square and to create new constitutional rights whole cloth.”
And the move could cost Democrats in the long run.
“If you’re a Democratic religious none … the fact you’re getting acknowledged is a good thing,” Burge said. “If you’re an old school Catholic or mainline Protestant, this might be the opposite for you. This actually might turn you off as another example of, ‘Oh these liberals don’t care about Christian values anymore but are catering to the fringe of the party.’”
Burge gave the example of Democratic front-runner Joe Biden rescinding his yearslong support for the Hyde Amendment, which prevents taxpayer dollars from going toward abortion, as a clear sign that Democrats are not trying to court the moderate Christian vote. Burge noted the shift could win over liberal primary voters but might end up hurting the party in the general election: “You can’t go back on it now … when you spent the last year trying to appeal to activists on your side.”