In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed something about American politics that astonished him: A divide between religious and non-religious parties did not exist. In France, he wrote, everyone understood that religion and republicanism were political adversaries, and that one had to choose sides between them: “Among us … the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom almost always move in contrary directions.” In America, by contrast, the need for choice did not arise. “Americans so completely confuse Christianity and freedom in their minds,” Tocqueville explained, “that it is almost impossible to have them conceive of the one without the other.” For Americans, religion and republicanism were entirely compatible; in fact, they were mutually supportive. Religion, as such, did not have partisan implications.
To be sure, Americans had religious differences. “An innumerable number of sects” existed in the country. But no sect seriously challenged the broad consensus that religion was a good thing. A politician could criticize particular religions, and of course many politicians did attack Catholicism vociferously. But for a politician to attack religion in general would have been unthinkable. Everyone would “flee” from such a politician, and he would “remain alone.”
Like many of his observations, Tocqueville’s assessment of American politics has proved true over time. Americans have never had religious and non-religious parties in the way that many European countries have had. True, sectarian political divisions have existed. For most of the twentieth century, Catholics and Jews voted Democratic; Protestants (except in the South) voted Republican. But both parties, historically, endorsed the public influence of religion in general. Over time, American religious culture shifted from a generic “Christian” one to an even more generic “Judeo-Christian” one—one might call it a “Biblical” culture. But the political consensus Tocqueville identified survived.
That situation may now be changing. Last month, the Pew Research Center released a survey that reveals a striking new divide in American politics. For the first time, we may be seeing the formation of religious and non-religious parties. According to the report:
Republicans and Democrats have very different notions about God. Among Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP, seven-in-ten say they believe in God as described in the Bible. Democrats and those who lean Democratic, by contrast, are far less likely to believe in God as described in the Bible (45%), and are more likely than Republicans to believe in another kind of higher power (39% vs. 23%). Democrats also are more likely than Republicans to say they do not believe in any higher power or spiritual force in the universe (14% vs. 5%).
Now, people who do not believe in the God of the Bible may subscribe to non-Biblical religions. But that’s not what’s happening here. Democrats are not converting en masse to Hinduism or Buddhism. Most Democrats who reject the God of the Bible are Nones—that is, they do not adhere to any religion. A 2015 Pew report reveals that Nones are now the largest single “religious” group in the party, making up about 30 percent of Democrat and Democrat-leaning adults. Among younger Democrats, the percentage of Nones is higher, around 40 percent. Interestingly, significant racial and ethnic divisions exist: The majority of non-white Democrats, African-Americans and Hispanics, continue to believe in the God of the Bible.
Nones come in a variety of forms. A small percentage are atheists—that 14 percent figure among Democrats in the April Pew Report is quite eye-opening, since the percentage of atheists in the general public is much lower—but most believe in some sort of higher power or spiritual force. What most unites Nones is their rejection of formal, organized religion, which they see as spiritually and psychologically harmful. In particular, Nones reject the exclusive truth claims of traditional religions, which they see as arrogant and exclusionary, especially with regard to women and sexual minorities. It’s not fair to say that Nones are not spiritual; indeed, they often value spirituality a great deal. It is fair to say, though, that they generally reject traditional, Biblical religion.
In short, a new sort of divide appears to be opening up in American politics: Republicans are the religious party, and Democrats are the non-religious party. This new divide may not be stable, of course. The racial and ethnic divisions among Democrats, which closely track the divide between the religious and the non-religious, may cause fissures within the party. African-Americans and Hispanics may press white progressives to make more room for traditional believers. And over time, Nones may make headway in the Republican Party. If current trends continue, though, religion will become a marker of political difference in a way it never has been before.
The new religious divide seems likely to make American politics even more bitter than it already is, particularly with respect to religious liberty. People’s commitment to religious liberty depends on whether they think religion is, on balance, a good thing for individuals and society. If people come to see religion as an obstacle rather than an aid to human flourishing, they are unlikely to sympathize with calls for the free exercise of religion. By definition, Nones reject traditional, organized religion as harmful or, at least, unnecessary. Their growing dominance in the party suggests that arguments in favor of religious freedom will have less and less appeal for Democrats. The divide is likely to be self-reinforcing, as Democrats come to see religious freedom as something only the other party cares about—and therefore something to be resisted. If Tocqueville came back to visit America today, he might not be so surprised.
Mark L. Movsesian co-directs the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion and is a visiting fellow at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.
Photo by Tom Arthur and licensed under Creative Commons. Cropped from original.