Will religiously unaffiliated Americans increase support for liberal policies, in 2018 and beyond?

Christian crosses

Nearly one of every four people in the US is religiously unaffiliated.

David Mislin, Temple University

Last fall, the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute noted the growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans: Nearly one of every four people is unaffiliated – a threefold increase since the 1980s.

Often called “nones,” this group encompasses agnostics and atheists, as well as those who simply do not belong to a religious community.

The common linking of religion with conservatism in the U.S. has prompted speculation that a growth in the number of people without a religious affiliation would increase support for liberal policies. Indeed, there is analysis that shows that unaffiliated Americans are twice as likely to identify as liberal than as conservative.

However, some observers disagree. They argue it is impossible to know whether decreased religious affiliation will benefit political liberals.

As a historian of American religion, I have studied people who have disaffiliated from churches. History suggests caution about political generalizations.

Early religious landscape

During the late 19th century, unbelief and indifference to religion, especially the U.S.‘s dominant religion of Christianity, became more acceptable in public opinion. This was especially true among educated elites because of the combination of two phenomena. On the one hand, new scholarship called the origin and history of the Bible into question. On the other, evolution suggested that a divine being was not needed to explain the world’s development.

Scholars such as Christian Smith have shown that many noted Americans – such as the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., attorney Clarence Darrow and Cornell University founding president Andrew Dickson White – adopted a secular worldview.

But a shared rejection of religion did not lead to shared political views. This was demonstrated in the 19th century by two men who left Christianity: the lawyer and Republican Party power broker Robert Ingersoll and Yale University social scientist William Graham Sumner.

A shared path to disaffiliation

Robert Ingersoll.
Mathew Brady, via Wikimedia Commons

Ingersoll and Sumner had much in common. Both grew up in mid-Atlantic states before the Civil War. Both came from families that adhered to strict forms of Protestant Christianity. Indeed, Sumner briefly became a clergyman in the Episcopal Church. Both were early advocates for Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

Ultimately, both men abandoned religion.

Each became noted for his particular critique of religion. Ingersoll was the most famous agnostic of the day. He toured the country proclaiming his message of unbelief to large audiences. Sumner joined the faculty of Yale. He pioneered the field of academic sociology and led the effort to secularize higher education.

Despite their similar path to becoming unaffiliated, Sumner and Ingersoll had little in common politically. This was especially true on the major issue of their day: how society should care for the poor and working class.

America endured social upheaval as it underwent mass industrialization in the late 19th century. At the same time, the country experienced a long recession. The questions prompted by these developments dominated political debates: Should charities support the able-bodied unemployed? Should the government care for the poor? Should industry be subject to regulation?

These questions divided Ingersoll and Sumner.

The charitable agnostic

As his biographer Susan Jacoby notes, Ingersoll had a compassionate nature even as a young man. He preached generosity even as he rejected Christianity. For him, this life was all that mattered. There was no need for a religion focused on other worlds when people suffered in this one. “There are plenty needing help here,” Ingersoll wrote, exhorting people to “do each other good.”

Ingersoll urged charity toward the poor and needy. He also advocated a more active role for the state. Government institutions, he believed, could protect workers from exploitation and ensure Americans’ well-being.

The social Darwinist

William Graham Sumner.
Popular science monthly volume 35 via Wikimedia Commons

Sumner espoused very different views. Even before leaving the pulpit, he preached hard work and individual effort rather than compassion and mutual aid. Unlike Ingersoll, who accepted evolution as science but not as sociology, Sumner embraced social Darwinism. The maxim “survival of the fittest” shaped his political views. Sumner wrote that Americans must acknowledge that there were people who were simply “a dead-weight on the society.”

Sumner denounced charity as unfair redistribution of wealth. He wrote that charity took money from those who had earned it and gave it to “the man who has done nothing to raise himself above poverty.” Nor did he see any role for government in protecting citizens. In this way, Sumner championed many of the same values of modern conservatism. He proclaimed “the inadequacy of the State to regulative tasks.”

Ingersoll and Sumner left Christianity for similar reasons. But their beliefs led them to very different political opinions. They reflected the range of views held by the increasingly visible population of unaffiliated Americans of their day.

Not united in political beliefs

There is reason to believe a similar diversity of opinions exists today.

The Public Religion Research Institute’s study notes that the religiously unaffiliated are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. But more unaffiliated Americans identify as independents than as members of the two parties combined.

This breadth of political views aligns with data in a 2012 Pew study. That analysis found unaffiliated voters to be more liberal than the general public on abortion and gay rights. But on the broader issue of the size and scope of government, unaffiliated Americans differed little from their religious neighbors. Both religious and nonreligious respondents were nearly evenly split on the question of whether or not they desired smaller government, a longstanding conservative position. This suggests that while unaffiliated people hold more liberal views on some social issues, they are not united in their political beliefs.

The ConversationThese data confirm the lesson of history. It is not easy to generalize about the political views of Americans who reject religious institutions. Politicians and parties who predict their future based on declining religious affiliation do so at their peril.

David Mislin, Assistant Professor, Intellectual Heritage Program, Temple University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Geek Books!

This is neither Political Science or Science Fiction, but if you know the difference between a UI interface and an SQL server (as I know many of you do) then this post is for you.  Eric Ligman, a Microsoft minion, is giving away a bunch of free e-books.  The really...

A Star Trek documentary?

A Star Trek documentary?  Hasn't that been done to death?  Well, yes and no.  Sure their are plenty of Star Trek documentaries around, but this one is a little different.  It is being done by Adam Nimoy, Leonard Nimoy's son.  I wouldn't expect an unbiased view of...

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to speak at Stanford

As part of the observation of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be speaking at Stanford University June 25th at 3pm.  Of course this is because Stanford is such an excellent place (although I am biased since I work here)!...

Getting to know President Lincoln

The problem with history is that it is so far away.  Reading about a noble figure such as Abraham Lincoln so often leaves one feeling oddly detached from the very figure that we are trying to get to know.  Reading about his leadership during the Civil War, his great...

Read Edgar Allan Poe (for free)

Sure you could go to the library but what you really want is to stay home in your pajamas and still be entertained. So here is a link to the Poe Museum which has among other things many of Poe's writings available for free. Enjoy!

Science Fiction: Catalyst for Reality

If your going to be in Seattle on May 20th 2015 you might want to check out this get together at the Microsoft campus, Science Fiction: Catalyst for Reality.  With Greg Bear as a presenter and run in conjunction with MIT's Enterprise Forum Northwest it promises to be...

A Magna Carta Cartoon!

Most Americans tend to think that the ideas in the Declaration of Independence were original to Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries, but as they say, their is nothing new under the sun!  Take a minute to learn about the Magna Carta.  Courtesy of the British...

Privacy Tools: How to Block Online Tracking

Author Name, ProPublica. July 3, 2014, 9 a.m. Many sites (including ProPublica) track user behavior using a variety of invisible third-party software. This means any time you visit a web page, you're likely sharing data about your online habits, from clicks to views...

Poor Godzilla

I finally got to see Godzilla, an enjoyable but vapid experience. Rather then a real review here is a short list of the more outlandish physics problems: (minor spoilers included) When the damaged nuclear reactor core melts down the escaping steam expands at the same...

Donald Duck says, pay your taxes (to beat the Axis)

Do you want to get an Italian mad? Tell them how boring soccer, I mean football, is. That was a hell of a game last night wasn't it Adolfo, one to one, bet you've never seen that before! And lets not talk about the French and cheese. You want to get an American mad?...

See a Real Time Media Map

Data visualization is all the rage these days, usually these sites are an interesting exercise in rehashing someone else's data which is interesting to look at and think about for a moment and then quickly forgotten.  So it is good to see a site that brings something...

Science Fiction

Internet Speculative Fiction Database

Science Fiction Encyclopedia

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America

Science Fiction Spaceships

Science Fiction Studies

Speculative Fiction Tropes

Starship Dimenssions




Star Trek


Ex Astris Scientia


Daystrom Institute



Memory Alpha

Trek Today

Star Wars



Star Gate

Gate World

Stargate Command

Babylon 5

Lurkers Guide to Babylon 5


Issac Asimov

David Brin

Charlie’s Diary

Philip K. Dick

Kim Stanley Robinson


Politics and Political Science

Current Events

Key L=left   R=Right  M=moderate

S=Socialist   Libe=libertarian


alternet (L)

The American Prospect (L)

The American Spectator (R)

BHL (libe)

crooks and liars (L)

Dissent (L)

The Economist (M)

FiveThirtyEight (M)

The Hill (R)

Jacobin (S)

Jobs with Justice (L)

Maclean’s (M)

The Moderate Voice (M)

Mother Jones (L)

Monthly Review (S)

The Nation (L)

The National Review (R)

The New American (R)

The New Statesman (L)

The New Republic (L)

People for the American Way (L)

Politics1 (M)

Politico (M)

ProPublica (M)

reason (Libe)

ThinkProgress (L)

Tikkun (L)

The Weekly Standard (R)

The XX Committee (R)







National Popular Vote

On The Issues

Sunlight Foundation


Political Science


The Avalon Project

Brookins (L)

The Hamilton Project

Hoover Institution (R)

Political Science Rumors



Social Sciences


Washington Center for Equitable Growth


Ancient History Encyclopedia


The Atlantic






America’s Public Bible


Bible Hub

Pangea blog


Sacred Text Archive

Skeptic’s Annotated Bible



In the Middle


Literature and Media


New Books network

Overthinking It

Purdue Online Writing Lab


Physical Science and Technology

ars techmica

Big Picture Science

Centauri Dreams

future of life institute

ITPro Today



PC Mag

Preposterous Universe

Quanta magazine