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There Are Now As Many Nonreligious Americans As Evangelicals -- 6 Ways Politicians Can Court Their Vote

The nonreligious are proving to be a crucial voting bloc.

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In the aftermath of President Obama's electoral romp over Mitt Romney, the media and pundits have paid much attention to the demographics that propelled him to victory, especially women, Hispanics and young voters. But there's one more group that played an underappreciated yet crucial role in his reelection, and which only now is starting to get the recognition it deserves.

A growing segment of American society -- up to 20%, according to recent surveys, and higher than that in younger generations -- is what pollsters call the "nones," people who answer "None of the above" to questions about religious affiliation. This includes declared atheists and agnostics, as well as people who choose not to identify with any organized religion. In many swing states like Ohio, Florida and Virginia, President Obama lost both Protestants and Catholics by relatively small margins, but won nonreligious voters by huge margins, enough to put him over the top. In the country at large, there are now as many nonreligious people as there are evangelical Christians.

But the political loyalties of this group can't be taken for granted. For example, despite his dependency on unaffiliated voters, President Obama has broken a campaign promise by continuing to fund and promote George W. Bush's " faith-based initiative," which funnels federal money to religious charities that discriminate in hiring. In effect, nonbelieving taxpayers are being forced to subsidize jobs they could never be hired for.

In this cycle, the specter of a Romney presidency indebted to the religious right persuaded nonreligious voters to choose the lesser of two evils. But there's no guarantee that this will happen in every future election. If Democrats continue to antagonize atheists and other nones, they may just stay home, and that's a prospect politicians shouldn't take lightly. As the Republicans become increasingly ideologically purified, Democratic candidates will need, more than ever before, for their base to turn out in big numbers, and that includes the nonreligious. Anything that turns them off, that dampens their enthusiasm or discourages them from showing up, could mean the difference in a close race.

So, how do politicians motivate the nonreligious vote? How do they appeal to them and get them to come out and support them? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Be one yourself. Until the last election cycle, there was just one out-of-the-closet atheist in the entire U.S. Congress, California representative Pete Stark. But following the 2010 redistricting, Stark was forced into a runoff race against a fellow Democrat and lost. There was some initial excitement over reports that the new Arizona congresswoman-elect Kyrsten Sinema was an atheist, but her campaign later disavowed that label, saying merely that "she does not consider herself to be a member of any faith community" (although by definition this still makes her a "none"). Nonreligious Americans won't automatically vote for a nonreligious politician. Even if they have a (lack of) belief in common, they may still disagree on any number of other important issues. But at the very least, it's a good indicator that that politician has had the experience of being an outsider in a Christian-dominated political community, just as many people have, and has an incentive to cast votes for a more enlightened and tolerant politics on that basis.

2. Even if you're religious, don't gratuitously bash or exclude those who aren't. For the most part, the nonreligious are politically realistic. We know that in a society as religious as the United States, some amount of pandering is an electoral necessity. But just because you speak to churches doesn't mean you can't also speak to the unchurched. In March 2012, for example, the Reason Rally brought together tens of thousands of American nonbelievers on the National Mall in Washington, DC. One of the speakers at that event was Iowa senator Tom Harkin, and despite some grumbling over his support of non-evidence-based medicine, we recognized that it took political courage for him to address us. The next time he's in a tight race, it's very possible that a few Iowa nonbelievers will remember that, and will be willing to do just a little bit more to support him.

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