Will religion always matter to voters?
It may take awhile, but emergence of millennials could signal a shift.
Despite building part of his fortune from gambling, a documented history of social liberalism, and biblical knowledge that would raise the eyebrows of any Sunday school teacher, Donald Trump is a favorite among evangelical Republican voters.
It seems that just saying he’s Presbyterian was good enough, but we’ve recently seen the GOP frontrunner try to go further, albeit vaguely, to prove his cred— he declined to pick a favorite Bible verse even though he named it his favorite book, and said in July that he drinks his “little wine” and has his “little cracker,” effectively making Christianity’s most important sacrament sound like a disappointing happy hour.
More so than other GOP candidates, Trump’s God complex seems to be more of a strategic move than a spiritual awakening. Always the savvy businessman, Trump surely understands the importance of taking God on the campaign trail, even if He’s got a behind-the-scenes role. The Holy Ghost polls well with his party’s voters.
Still, demographic shifts that are just beginning to take effect raise the question: How long will political candidates’ religious views continue to matter to voters?
First, it’s important to note that in the year of our Lord two thousand and fifteen, religious affiliation does matter in politics. Christians make up 92 percent of our current Congress, and if you’re willing to accept what President Obama has told you time and time again (you should), the U.S. has never had a non-Christian president.
In fact, Trump’s denomination historically has been successful in its White House bids — Presbyterians represent the second largest religious affiliation of presidents behind Episcopalians. The closest thing we’ve had to religious diversity in the Oval Office was electing the Catholic JFK.
Those percentages aren’t exactly recent divine intervention. There is a noted “religion gap” that manifests itself in presidential elections in two ways: religious affiliation and frequency of attendance. The former has long been present in politics — evangelical Christians tend to vote Republican, where many Catholics and black protestants lean Democratic.
The latter has emerged in the last several decades or so, meaning that people who attend church at least once a week, regardless of particular denomination, skew Republican. Those who attend less than once a week tend to vote more Democrat. So for the Republican field in particular, Baptist potluck superstars are good to court.
But if there’s ever a wrench to be thrown into the existing order of things, it’s the millennials who will throw it.
Yup, the same age bloc that’s baffled political strategists is full of religious “nones,” the growing number of Americans who do not identify with any religion in particular. According to Pew Research data collected last year, 34 percent of “older millennials” (born between 1980-1989) are completely unaffiliated with a religious group, and 36 percent of “younger millennials” (born between 1990-1996) are considered “nones.”
And it isn’t the recklessness of youth that (completely) accounts for this religious rejection. Disavowal is up across the board, rising 4 percent for Generation Xers to 23 percent and 3 percent for Baby Boomers to 17 percent in less than a decade. The Silent Generation, those born between 1925 and 1945, is holding at 11 percent.
This shift from nuns to nones doesn’t include a sharp uptick in religions outside of Christianity, either. So even as other religions have remained relatively stable, between 6 percent and 8 percent of the population, more young people are losing their religion completely.
It also doesn’t look like the country will face some large-scale religious revival. According to Pew, for every “none” convert to Christianity in the U.S., there are four people who grew up in a religion and are now non-religious.
Millennials aren’t tearing society’s robes by themselves, but they’ll certainly be the ones that have to figure out what to do with the scraps. Even the youngest millennial has reached voting age, which means that the 2016 election will be the first time that the entire lot of ‘em can exercise civic responsibility.
Though it isn’t likely that we’ll see a bunch of younger millennials at the polls en masse right away, an electoral shift from aging (read: dying) Baby Boomers and Silents could bring about a significant change in the next 20 years.
As it stands now, nones are overwhelmingly Democratic voters. According to Pew, 65 percent of unaffiliated voters went for President Obama in 2012, with only 27 percent voting for Mitt Romney. If the trend toward disavowal continues, the narrative of Republican and Democratic candidates seems predestined to change with the electorate.
It’s doubtful that Trump felt a call from God that led him to suddenly come forth as religious. He probably recognized religion as strategy. But if voters are increasingly unreligious, there could come a day where candidates in either party won’t have to go through Bible drills to prove their salt as leaders of the free world.
But God only knows when we’ll get there.