As the election season proceeds apace, we can expect to see increasing attention to the influence of religious figures on the Republican leadership. It made the headlines when the chancellor of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school, endorsed Mitt Romney. Similarly, televangelist Pat Robertson’s endorsement of Rudy Giuliani was big news. Religious leaders are portrayed by the press as kingmakers in conservative politics.
In contrast, we rarely hear about the links between nonbelievers and political power. The assumption is that nonbelievers are disorganized and relatively politically weak. Indeed, this is the explicit lament of some high-profile atheists.
In a unguarded moment in a recent interview with Britain’s Guardian, Richard Dawkins, Oxford professor and bestselling author of the atheist polemic The God Delusion, regretted that atheists have, he believes, so little political influence in the U.S. — especially compared with the influence of one other religious group: Jews. According to Dawkins, American Jews “more or less monopolise American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence, the world would be a better place.”
Dawkins scores a trifecta for European intellectuals: His claim is anti-semitic, slanders religion, and asserts victimhood. Still, it raises what is actually an important empirical question: Do nonbelievers truly have so little political influence? It turns out that the data tell a different story. In American liberal politics, nonbelievers are a very powerful political force indeed.
It will surprise nobody to learn that the American left is much less religious than the rest of the U.S. population. The General Social Survey tells us that in 2004, liberals were less than half as likely as conservatives to attend a house of worship weekly, and nearly three times as likely as conservatives never to attend. Furthermore, the American left is becoming more secular still: While 27percent of American liberals attended church weekly in 1974, only 16percent did by 2004. In contrast, the percentage of church-attending conservatives rose over the same period from 38percent to 46percent.There are still some religious liberals left in America, but today they are outnumbered by religious conservatives by about four to one.
Secular liberals, and especially those who are explicitly nonbelievers, have become a major force on the political left. Researchers have found, for example, that delegates to the Democratic National Convention — the politically-active folks who nominate the Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency — are more than twice as likely to be completely secular as the population-at-large.
Further, secularists are by far the most politically active liberals at the grassroots level. In the 2005, the Maxwell Poll on Civic Engagement and Inequality revealed that those who never attend religious services are just 11 percent of the adult population in America. But they are 21 percent of self-described liberals, 27 percent of liberals who contribute money to political causes, and 33 percent of liberals who attend political rallies and events. The bottom line is that the Democratic party — at least at the national level — depends critically on nonbelievers. They have influence over American liberal politics that extends far beyond their actual numbers in the population.
In some cities in the United States, the secularist community has attained European proportions — and the politics in these places has followed suit. Take San Francisco, which the Bay Area Center for Voting Research ranks as the ninth most liberal city — out of 237 — in America, and where just 12 percent of voters are registered Republicans. The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey shows that in 2000, San Franciscans were more than three times as likely as the overall U.S. population to have “no religion.” Or consider Seattle, the sixteenth most liberal city. Seattleites are only about half as likely as the rest of the nation to attend worship services regularly.
The truth is that secularists have nothing to complain about when it comes to political power. Their representation in American liberal political activity is disproportionately high, it is increasing, and it utterly dominates the political scene in many places. What secularists might legitimately complain about is the fact that liberal political leaders rarely acknowledge their contribution. To my knowledge, for example, Senator Clinton has never thanked the atheist community for what will no doubt prove to be energetic support for her presidential candidacy. Why is this? Nonbelievers might justifiably ask Mrs. Clinton and other Democratic leaders for the credit they truly deserve.
– Arthur C. Brooks is a professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Affairs and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of Who Really Cares (Basic Books, 2006).