Secular ‘Values Voters’ Are Becoming an Electoral Force in the US – Just Look Closely at 2020’s Results

Yves here. Maven Tom Ferguson, who for 20 years has complied the most extensive database on voters and engages in extensive analyses, is only now completing his compilations, so I would defer to his take. But in the meantime, this post posits that non-religious voters are becoming more influential in the US. While no doubt technically true, politics in the US revolves around the ability of narrow interest groups to punch way above their weight. The NRA and AIPAC are classic examples.

In other words, it’s not evident that these secular voters self-identify as a voting group, much the less are en route to act like one.

By Phil Zuckerman, Professor of Sociology and Secular Studies, Pitzer College. Originally published at The Conversation

The voting patterns of religious groups in the U.S. have been scrutinized since the presidential election for evidence of shifting allegiances among the faithful. Many have wondered if a boost in Catholic support was behind Biden’s win or if a dip in support among evangelicals helped doom Trump.

But much less attention has been paid to one of the largest growing demographics among the U.S. electorate, one that has increased from around 5% of Americans to over 23% in the last 50 years: “Nones” – that is, the nonreligious.

I am a scholar of secularism in the U.S., and my focus is on the social and cultural presence of secular people – nonreligious people such as atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and those who simply don’t identify with any religion. They are an increasingly significant presence in American society, one which inevitably spills into the political arena.

In this last election, the emerging influence of secular voters was felt not only at the presidential level, but also on many down-ballot issues.

The New ‘Values Voters’

For years, both scholars and pundits have referred to the political impact of “values voters” in America. What that designation generally refers to are religious men and women whose scripturally based values coagulate around issues such as opposing marriage equality and women’s reproductive autonomy.

But dubbing such religious voters as “values voters” is a real semantic bamboozle. While it is true that many religious Americans maintain certain values that motivate their voting behavior, it is also very much the case that secular Americans also maintain their own strongly held values. My research suggests they vote on these values with just as much motivationas the religious.

Sex Education

This played out in November in a number of ballot initiatives that have flown under the national media radar.

Voters in Washington state, for example, passed Referendum 90, which requires that students receive sex education in all public schools. This was the first time that such a measure was ever on a state ballot, and it passed with ease – thanks, in part, to the significant number of nonreligious voters in the Pacific Northwest.

The fact is, Washington is one of the least religious states in the union. Well over a third of all Washingtonians do not affiliate with any religion, more than a third never pray and almost 40% never attend religious services.

The referendum’s passing was helped by the fact that nonreligious adults tend to value comprehensive sex education. Numerous studies have found that secular Americans are significantly more likely to support comprehensive sex education in school. In his research, sociologist Mark Regnerus found that secular parents were generally much more comfortable – and more likely – to have open and frank conversations with their children about safe sex than religious parents.

Drugs Policy

Meanwhile, voters in Oregon – another Pacific Northwestern state that contains one of the most secular populations in the country – passed Measure 110, the first ever statewide law to decriminalize the possession and personal use of drugs.

This aligns with research showing that nonreligious Americans are much more likely to support the decriminalization of drugs than their religious peers. For instance, a 2016 study from Christian polling firm Barna found that 66% of evangelicals believe that all drugs should be illegal as did 43% of other Christians, but only 17% of Americans with no religious faith held such a view.

Science at the Ballot Box

Secular people are generally more trusting of scientific empiricism, and various studies have shown that the nonreligious are more likely to accept the evidence behind human-generated climate change. This translates to support for politicians and policies that take climate change seriously.

It may also have factored in to the success of a November ballot measure in Denver, Colorado, to fund programs that eliminate greenhouse gases, fight air pollution and actively adapt to climate change. The ballot passed with over 62% of the vote – and it is of note that Denver is one of the most secular cities in the nation.

Meanwhile voters in California – another area of relative secularity – passed Proposition 14 supporting the funding of stem cell research, the state being one of only a handful that has a publicly funded program. Pew studies have repeatedly found that secular Americans are far more likely than religious Americans to support stem cell research.

Values Versus Values

On issues that the religious right has held some sway in recent years, there is evidence of a counterbalance among secular “value voters.”

For example, while the religious have been more likely to oppose same-sex marriage, secular Americans are more likely to support it, and by significant margins. A recent Pew study found that 79% of secular Americans are supportive, compared to 66% of white mainline Protestants, 61% of Catholics, 44% of Black Protestants and 29% of white evangelicals.

There are many additional values that are prominent among secular Americans. For example, the U.S. Secular Survey of 2020 – the largest survey of nonreligious Americans ever conducted, with nearly 34,000 participants – found strong support for safeguarding the separation of church and state.

Other studies have found that secular Americans strongly support women’s reproductive rights, women working in the paid labor force, the DACA program, death with dignity and opposition to the death penalty.

Secular Surge

According to Eastern Illinois University professor Ryan Burge’s data analysis, around 80% of atheists and agnostics and 70% of those who described their religion as “nothing in particular” voted for Biden.

This may have been decisive. As Professor Burge argues, “it’s completely fair to say that these shifts generated a two percentage-point swing for Biden nationwide. There were five states where the gap between the candidates was less than two percentage points (Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina). Four of those five went for the Biden – and the nones were between 28% and 37% of the population in those key states.”

As this past election has shown, secular values are not only alive and well, but they are more pronounced than ever. It is also noteworthy that more openly nonreligious candidates were elected to public office than ever before. According to an analysisby the atheist author and activist Hemant Mehta, not only did every member of the secular Congressional Freethought Caucuswin reelection, but 10 state senators who are openly secular – that is, they have made it publicly known that they are nonreligious – were voted into office, up from seven two years ago. There is now an all-time high of 45 openly secular state representatives nationwide, according to Mehta’s analysis. Every one of them is a Democrat.

Religious voters will certainly continue to vote their values – and for politicians that express similar views. But so, I argue, will secular voters.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Shiloh1

    Makes sense. More and more environmentally-conscience people who are prioritizing climate change moving from all places including California and Chicago to Denver. Hopefully this trend continues. It is higher ground than the Jersey Shore.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I don’t understand the meaning of the language of this comment. Is this comment telling us that people are physically fleeing from all places including California and Chicago and physically moving to Denver?

  2. TheCatSaid

    If our election systems were such that results could be relied upon (eliminating the worst frauds on all sides), analyses such as this one would have more value.

    Analysis of clearly bogus “results” is not useful. (E.g. presidential level in 2020 is most apparent despite MSM claiming otherwise. Courts so far seem to be trying to avoid dealing with factual evidence. This is a typical feature of election litigation, regardless of the specific case.)

    It’s great that this article addressed some ballot initiatives.

    However, NC readers can keep in mind that even ballot initiatives (and indeed down-ballot races) can be tampered with. The fact this *has* happened in the past has been amply demonstrated, for example in the Fraction Magic videos (showing election tampering that affected 100% of judges’ races in Memphis area), and in Ohio election (Republican-originated fraud shown by Richard Hayes Philips after he was finally given access to the original physical ballots–years after the election, thus no remedy possible–a typical outcome).

    Bev Harris told me a couple years ago that one of the best ways of looking at and discussing election fraud was in relation to local elections. Billions of dollars of contracts are at stake, so there are many agendas at work. This can impact ballot initiatives as well.

    Hopefully sometime in the future there will be meaningful election reform.

    In the meantime, we need more reminders in “analyses” of this type that reliable, accurate data is lacking, thus reducing or eliminating the value of “analyses” based on unreliable data.

    The problems are not partisan. There is evidence of election tampering going back decades. Yet we collectively pretend that we have a working democracy/republic. The truth is sometimes painful, but continuing the pretense is not helpful.

  3. Susan the other

    Religion practices a politics of exclusion. They profess No No, we want everyone in our congregation… but there’s a little problem with this proclamation: If you don’t embrace their religious dogma you are not embraced by them. You are at best tolerated. It is not people caring for each other – it is people coming together at a local level to form a coalition that can achieve certain ends. It’s control politics. Which always seems like a perversion of spirituality to me. Interesting there is a Congressional Free Thought Caucus. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Fighting fire with fire. Which leads directly to another question: What is the position of this “Caucus” on money? On meaningful equality? If they are democrats I suspect their sincerity. If they are republicans at least I know where they will stand on the money issue – their religious consciousness was set in stone by Calvin. If there is any free thought in congress it should be used to free financial slaves and slavery from poverty and deprivation. The rest is evasive nonsense. Lipstick.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    This sort of change can have all sorts of unintended consequences. For one thing, secular voters seem more likely to be white urbanites, so a more powerful secular bloc could result in even a full IDPol Democrat party losing a big chunk of religious white and Hispanic voters and becoming even whiter than the Republicans.

    The same process – secular voters becoming a much bigger part of the electorate – happened in Ireland in the 1990’s and early 00’s – but it didn’t work out as most political analysts expected. The Irish Labour Party, the main centre left force, went all out for that vote (abandoning the traditional working class while doing it), as did various smaller left wing splinters. They focused on issues like reproductive rights, feminism, and gay marriage as the cornerstone of their appeal. Repeated studies showed that the typical voter likely to be won by this would be late 20’s to 40’s, female, reasonably well educated, and living within the commuter zone of Dublin. Under the Irish electoral system, winning that vote would be enough to pretty much guarantee at least a share of political power in perpetuity by becoming the no.3 ‘swing’ party, able to pick and choose which of the larger parties it could partner with in every election.

    The problem for the Irish Labour Party was that every other party had exactly the same demographic and polling data, and simply undercut them by adapting a slightly gentler form of the same policies. The centre right parties (traditionally both quite catholic in character), knew their traditional voters had nowhere to go, so they had nothing to lose by supporting more liberal divorce laws, abortion, and gay marriage. Sinn Fein, on the left, but more nationalist/economic in its focus (and with a core support among many devout working class catholics), likewise embraced the policies without making them central to their appeal – in other words, they took on more secular policies, but not in such a heavy handed way that they would lose their more traditional minded voters.

    The result was that the most ‘secular’ of the major parties was pretty much wiped out as an electoral force at the same time as the electorate became far more secular. Sinn Fein has entirely replaced it as the main force on the left, and the centre right parties were not damaged by their stance. So, the increased secularisation of the electorate actually strengthened the more traditionally religious oriented parties by allowing them to shift stance and widen their overall appeal.

  5. Carla

    Here’s a list of the 14 House members who have join the Congressional Freethought Caucus:

    All but four have signed on to co-sponsor HJR-48, calling for a constitutional amendment restricting constitutional rights to human persons and ending the doctrine of money as speech.

    The four who have NOT signed on to HJR-48 are Casten, Kildee, Wild and Cohen.

    All but ONE are co-sponsors of H.R. 1384, the Medicare for All Act of 2019.

    The one who does not support M4A is Casten.

    Pramila Jayapal is the lead sponsor of both measures.

    1. a different chris

      Fourteen. Yea. I feel so represented.

      There are probably more furries in Congress than that.

    2. Shiloh1

      Casten represents a very comfortable economic district in the western Chicago ‘burbs where M4A is not a priority..

      What’s the tip off?

      3 months ago the front lawn signs for Casten also had We Love Our Teachers! signs, too. They have theirs.

  6. Darius

    Traditional values is just code for obedience to authority and strict observance of hierarchy. Unless they develop a class-based politics, I’m afraid secular voters will be channeled into pointless and toxic liberal virtue signaling. I suppose you could make a class-based argument for sex education.

  7. KD

    In a Malthusian world, communities that maintain positive total fertility rates will choke out communities more interested in expanding “consciousness” and exploring a panoply of nonprocreative “lifestyles”. “Secular” people, in general, are folks who have “liberated” themselves from being participants in an on-going, growing community with a rich cultural heritage. In the long term, they will come to nothing, because the future belongs to the groups with positive total fertility rates, which seems to have a strong empirical correlation to the degree of fundamentalism in those groups, that is, traditional gender roles, sex for procreation only, etc. You know, all the bad stuff that sucks for the individuals that have to follow it but which allows the group to survive over time, God’s version of military conscription. You could even say its the kind of stuff that would make up any rational moral code that provides for group survival.

    Ultimately, I suppose it doesn’t matter, its just the ebb and flow of civilizational drift, but at the end of the day, would you rather be a member of the group that believes in Darwinism but doesn’t practice it, or a member of the group that disavows Darwinism but practices it assiduously. The only apparent immortality in this life is the continuation of a community you were born into, and which can continue after your death, which can only be something like maintaining (including demographically) a religious and/or national identity. To those who choose death over the only immortality this life offers, what can you say to persuade them otherwise? But politically, what possible good could come from governance based on the political preferences of members of a demographic suicide cult?

    I think we have to embrace the nihilism of the status quo, amor fati, but only because it is necessary to accept what is before it can be overcome.

    1. Frankie

      ‘liberated” themselves from being participants in an on-going, growing community with a rich cultural heritage.’ Amen Bro,’ or Sis.

      Hereabouts we have legions of soon old women with the obligatory tuft of hair dyed pink, blue or green, if they are really rad, living in their Honda Civics while they seek the perfect backyard cottage, even accepting a storage shed! With Trump departing, their main topic of conversation will be extinguished. They get all the multiculturalism they want in the food lines. Soon they and their ‘values’ will be wormfood.

      Happy families, children gamboling about, ignore them.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Unless the group in question so totally outbreeds their food and water source that they all starve to death and parch to death.

      They’ll all die together when they die.

  8. Dave_in_Austin

    The agnostic values voter is usually an unchurched mainline protestant voter. The rise of one (the agnostic voter.) is mirrored by the fall of the other (the mainline Protestant voter). Since the 1970s the two groups have been roughly 32% of the population.

    For whatever reason, agnostic Catholics like me still consider themselves “cultural Catholics” or “fallen away Catholics”; the Catholic schools here in Austin are filled with the children of people like me. But many are shifting over time into the agnostic column and keeping the total at 32%. At the same time family-oriented Hispanics and east Asians are filling up the pews. Biden is Catholic. So are the grand-kids of his first marriage, who look and sound like the 1950s Catholic kids I grew up with. His second wife appears to be less involved with religion. They appear to have one child who is the usual, modern social justice warrior- unmarried with no kids. The Bidens are blonde. She is darker and rarely mentioned in press reports.

    The mainline Protestant churches have gone down the female priest/ social advocacy vs personal redemption road. They provide little of the comfort people want. So we have beautiful building filled with concerts (which I go to)… and an aging and slowly vanishing congregation. In Orange county south of LA the huge “Crystal Cathedral” built by Schuler in the 1960s is now a Catholic church. The old white parishioners have passed on and their children have left the county and often the state… and the church of their parents.

Comments are closed.