Photo credit: Credit Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
By Susan Jacoby
The population of nonreligious Americans — including atheists, agnostics and those who call themselves “nothing in particular” — stands at an all-time high this election year. Americans who say religion is not important in their lives and who do not belong to a religious group, according to the Pew Research Center, have risen in numbers from an estimated 21 million in 2008 to more than 36 million now.
Despite the extraordinary swiftness and magnitude of this shift, our political campaigns are still conducted as if all potential voters were among the faithful. The presumption is that candidates have everything to gain and nothing to lose by continuing their obsequious attitude toward orthodox religion and ignoring the growing population of those who make up a more secular America.
Ted Cruz won in Iowa by expanding Republican voter turnout among the evangelical base. Donald J. Trump placed second after promising “to protect Christians” from enemies foreign and domestic. The third-place finisher Marco Rubio’s line “I don’t think you can go to church too often” might well have been the campaign mantra. Mr. Rubio was first christened a Roman Catholic, baptized again at the age of 8 into the Mormon Church, and now attends a Southern Baptist megachurch with his wife on Saturdays and Catholic Mass on Sundays.
Democrats are only a trifle more secular in their appeals. Hillary Clinton repeatedly refers to her Methodist upbringing, and even Bernie Sanders — a cultural Jew not known to belong to a synagogue — squirms when asked whether he believes in God. When Jimmy Kimmel posed the question, Mr. Sanders replied in a fog of words at odds with his usual blunt style: “I am who I am. And what I believe in and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.” He once referred to a “belief in God” that requires him to follow the Golden Rule — a quote his supporters seem to trot out whenever someone suggests he’s an atheist or agnostic.
The question is not why nonreligious Americans vote for these candidates — there is no one on the ballot who full-throatedly endorses nonreligious humanism — but why candidates themselves ignore the growing group of secular voters.
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