The religiously unaffiliated have become one of the most reliably Democratic constituencies in recent elections. According to national exit polls, 61% of the unaffiliated voted for Al Gore over George W. Bush in 2000. In 2004, John Kerry’s share of the unaffiliated vote increased to 67%. And in 2008, Barack Obama captured fully three-quarters of the vote among the religiously unaffiliated, while 23% voted for John McCain.
The partisan and ideological leanings of the unaffiliated follow the same pattern. Compared with the general public, the religiously unaffiliated are more Democratic in their partisanship and more liberal in their political ideology. And, given their growing share among U.S. adults, the unaffiliated constitute a larger share of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters in 2012 than they did five years ago.
While the views of the unaffiliated on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality are distinctive from those of other religious groups, their preferences about the role of government mirror the general public’s.
The unaffiliated, and especially those who are atheist or agnostic, tend to diverge from the general public when it comes to attitudes about the role of religion in politics. The unaffiliated are more strongly opposed to the idea of church involvement in political matters and to the notion of churches endorsing political candidates than is the public as a whole. They are less likely than the general public to think it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs, and they are more uncomfortable with political candidates discussing their faith or religious commitment.
The Democratic presidential candidate has captured the lion’s share of the religiously unaffiliated vote in the past three election cycles. In the 2000 election, the religiously unaffiliated voted for Gore over Bush by a margin of two-to-one (61% to 30%). In 2008, 75% of the unaffiliated voted for Obama, while 23% voted for McCain, a 52-point gap.
The 2012 presidential race is following the same pattern to date. As of mid-September, roughly two-thirds of the unaffiliated say they would vote for Obama (65%) over Republican candidate Mitt Romney (27%) if the election was held today. Obama’s advantage among the religiously unaffiliated has been largely steady throughout 2012.
Partisanship and Ideology
Registered voters in the general public tend to identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by a margin of 48% to 43%. Religiously unaffiliated voters tilt strongly toward the Democrats over the Republicans, however. About six-in-ten unaffiliated voters (63%) say they are Democrats or lean toward the Democrats, while a quarter (26%) identify with or lean toward the GOP. This pattern is especially pronounced among atheists and agnostics.
In contrast with the unaffiliated, voters who are affiliated with a religious group are more likely to identify with or lean toward the Republicans (48%) than the Democrats (45%).
Voters who are unaffiliated with a religion also are more likely than the general public to describe themselves as liberal (38% to 21%), and less likely to identify as conservative (20% to 39%).
Within the unaffiliated, about half of those who call themselves atheist or agnostic identify as liberal (51%), compared with 13% who identify as conservative. The margin is narrower among those who identify their religion as ”nothing in particular,” with 31% of that group calling themselves liberal and 23% conservative.
Compared with the unaffiliated, voters who are affiliated with a particular religion are more than 20 points more likely to be conservative (44% vs. 20% among the unaffiliated) and about half as likely to identify as liberal (17% vs. 38% among the unaffiliated). In fact, each affiliated religious group is significantly more conservative than they are liberal – a direct contrast with the unaffiliated.
Two-thirds of the unaffiliated are registered to vote (67%), which is slightly less than the 72% of the general population and 73% of those with a religious affiliation who are registered to vote. However, among younger adults (ages 18 to 29) there is no difference between the affiliated (50%) and unaffiliated (51%) in likelihood of being registered to vote.
Views on Social Issues
Overall, the religiously unaffiliated are significantly more likely than the general public to say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases. About seven-in-ten of the unaffiliated (72%) hold this view, compared with about half of the general public (53%). Among atheists and agnostics, fully 84% say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while just 14% say it should be mostly or entirely illegal.
By contrast, the margin among those who are affiliated with a religion is narrower – 49% say abortion should be legal in most cases, and 46% say it should be illegal. White evangelical Protestants lean heavily toward saying abortion should be illegal (64%), while white mainline Protestants lean toward saying it should be legal (64%). Catholics as a whole are more evenly split (50% legal, 45% illegal), but 54% of white, non-Hispanic Catholics say abortion should be legal (vs. 41% who say illegal).
Similarly, the unaffiliated stand out from the general public in their views about homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The unaffiliated are more likely than those with a religious affiliation to say that homosexuality should be accepted by society (76% vs. 52% among the affiliated).
The same pattern occurs on views about same-sex marriage; the religiously unaffiliated stand out among religious groups for their support of it. Nearly three-quarters of the unaffiliated (73%) favor same-sex marriage, while 20% oppose it. Among those who identify as atheist or agnostic, support for same-sex marriage is even higher (89%). Two-thirds of those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” (67%) also favor same-sex marriage.
By contrast, among those who are affiliated with a religious group, fully half (50%) say that they oppose same-sex marriage, while four-in-ten (41%) favor it.
Role of Government
The unaffiliated closely mirror the general public in their views about the role of government. Half of the unaffiliated say they would rather have a smaller government with fewer services, while 42% would rather have a bigger government providing more services. The views of those with a religious affiliation are roughly the same: 52% of this group prefers a smaller government with fewer services, while 38% would rather have a larger, more activist government.
Religion in Politics
About one-third of the unaffiliated (32%) say it is important for the president to have strong religious beliefs, while 65% say it is not important. Among those who identify as atheist or agnostic, the split is even greater. Only one-in-ten (11%) agree that a president should have strong religious beliefs, compared with 86% who disagree.
Among the general public, that opinion is reversed. About two-thirds of the general public say having strong religious beliefs is important for the president (67%), compared with less than one-third (29%) who disagree.
A slim majority of the general public says that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters. This point of view is even more common among the religiously unaffiliated (66%) than among the public as a whole (54%).
When it comes to endorsing political candidates, there is somewhat greater consensus between the affiliated and the unaffiliated. Fully three-quarters of the unaffiliated are opposed to churches endorsing political candidates. Similarly, two-thirds of the general public is opposed to churches and other houses of worship coming out in favor of political candidates. Majorities of most religious groups hold the same position, with white Catholics and white mainline Protestants most strongly opposed to churches endorsing political candidates (74% and 73%, respectively). White evangelicals and black Protestants are more divided over this issue, with 56% of white evangelicals and 52% of black Protestants saying that churches should not come out in favor of political candidates.
The unaffiliated also tend to be less comfortable than others in the general public when political leaders talk about religion. About half of the unaffiliated (54%) are uncomfortable when politicians talk about their religious commitment. Among those with a religious affiliation, 41% say the same. Atheists and agnostics are particularly likely to say such talk makes them uncomfortable (67%). Similarly, half of the unaffiliated say they are uncomfortable when political leaders discuss their faith and beliefs. By comparison, fewer in the general public (38%) are uncomfortable with this.