The rise of the irreligious Left, the reemergence of Republican religious neutrality (?)

Over at ScienceBlogs I have a post up where I explore the differences by state between the American Religious Identification Survey in 1990 and 2008. I then compare these data to the national election results in 1988 and 2008.

Here is a chart which shows the relationship between % “No Religion” and proportion of votes for George H. W. Bush in 1988:

And here is a chart which shows the relationship between % “No Religion” and proportion of votes for John McCain in 2008:

What you see here is that there is no correlation on the state by state level between those with “No Religion” and voting for Republicans or Democrats in 1988, but that by 2008 the proportion with “No Religion” can explain 20% of the variation by 1988. Some of this is just due to the rapid expansion of the proportion of the American population which avows “No Religion”. But the secularization process exhibits geographic patterns; Vermont now has a plural majority for those with “No Religoin,” and perhaps tellingly it is a state which has shifted much further to the Left than the national average since 1988 (it voted for Bush in ’88, but was a deep blue state by ’08). Secularization in fact has been most pronounced in northern New England, which has seen a shift toward the Left over the past generation.

What relevance does this have for current politics? 21% of political Independents have “No Religion,” as opposed to 16% of Democrats and 6% of Republicans. The role of Independents in Scott Brown’s recent victory, and in New England in general, is notable. There is no doubt that today the Republican party is defined by its white Protestant core, and this will be the basis for any future Republican majority. But I think Scott Brown’s election shows the importance of demographics outside of the core in creating a viable majority party. Though Brown himself is an Evangelical Calvinist, his campaign did not seem culturally colored in a way that the secular Center-Right might find off-putting. I think this is an important insight, and suggests further analogies between Scott Brown and Barack Obama.* Though Obama does not seem to be personally a particularly religiously devout individual, he managed to appeal to substantial numbers of religious voters through his mastery of rhetoric and presentation. Similarly, though Scott Brown’s personal beliefs are conventionally Christian, his tone and presentation was such as that voters otherwise skeptical of the Religious Right coloring of the modern Republican party found him acceptable.

* Because Scott Brown is pro-choice and is by necessity ideologically somewhat marginal with the party I am not suggesting here he could ever be a viable presidential candidate as a Republican. Unless he changes his views appropriately, at which point he would lose any shred of credible authenticity for pulling “a Romney.”

This entry was posted in data and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The rise of the irreligious Left, the reemergence of Republican religious neutrality (?)

  1. Susan says:

    Part of it’s the New England/Northeast personality, if that’s the word I want. Religious people, particularly Protestants, aren’t vocal about their beliefs. Faith is a much more private matter here than in parts of the south or the midwest. We just don’t care for people who go around blathering about the special relationship they have with God. (It’s sort of like sex and money: if you have them, you don’t talk about them.) I’ve heard that southerners, upon being introduced to a stranger, will ask that person where he or she goes to church. In New England, that’s a flagrant breach of etiquette.

    I have no idea if Scott Brown is genuinely devout or if he’s just affiliated with a religion because that’s a prerequisite for getting elected to office in this country. I DO know that he had the brains not to make an issue of it in a state where most of the electorate finds loudly promulgated fundamentalism as about appealing as dermatitis.

  2. David Hume says:

    susan, brown isn’t a member of the “pass-the-plate” type of denomination, so i think there’s sincerity of belief. point taken about cultural etiquette. the democrats and liberals *both* have issues with negative perceptions due to the dominance of particular social & regional folkways.

  3. Susan says:

    Thanks for the clarification about Brown’s beliefs, Razib. The interesting point to me is that I followed this election quite closely–and I didn’t know till very recently what denomination Brown is. Which demonstrates how little he played that card during the race, if he played it all.

    What I’m trying to figure out now is if any Democrat Protestants have ever run for office in Massachusetts in the past fifty or more years. I can’t think of any. The tribal allegiance between Catholics and Democrats is still very strong.

  4. David Hume says:

    john olver has “no religious affiliation.” but is olver an english name? so he could be culturally protestant.

  5. David Hume says:

    endicott peabody was episcopalian.

  6. The overall point is interesting but I’m not at all convinced by the argument concerning Brown’s election. A large reason that that he won was because Coakley was such an awful candidate at many different levels.

  7. Susan says:

    @David Hume

    Oh, my, I’d forgotten dear old Chub. His branch of the family was always a bit quixotic. He never actually got very far but for an abbreviated governorship. Thanks for setting the record straight.

    As for Olver, I don’t know. He represents the academic communities of western Mass.–he lives in Amherst, and his wife is a professor of Gender Studies at Amherst College–so he’s been assimilated into that milieu, whatever his origins were. Western Massachusetts is radically different from eastern Massachusetts. As I’ve mentioned before, one-third of the population is well-to-do refugees from New York and New Jersey wallowing in rural chic; another third consists of academics and bohemians, and the final third is on welfare. I’m not sure the white blue-collar ethnics of greater Boston would trust a guy like Olver. Married to a broad who teaches Gendah Studies, fa the love a God?

  8. reader says:

    For a related idea from Freeman Hunt see “The Big Tent”:

    There was a good discussion of Massachusetts electoral geography here:

    The map is really stark.

  9. Susan says:


    Those were both really interesting, particularly the discussion of the Berkshires. A lot of the New York/New Jersey people transplanted to the Berkshires and the Pioneer Valley have absolutely no knowledge of the state, principally, I think, because they regard it on some level as a northern suburb of NYC. I was once at a dinner party thrown by a Manhattan ad executive and his wife (both very left-wing politically) who’d retired to a sort of log Taj Mahal in the Berkshires about fifteen years previously. In the course of the conversation, it emerged that neither the husband nor wife had any idea that Boston is the capital of the state. They thought it was Springfield. They were a little reluctant to take my assurance that the capital is, indeed, Boston. This is a true story. It’s just one anecdote, and shouldn’t be taken as anything more. But it is an interesting illustration of a certain type of outlook.

    What it boils down to is that western Mass. Democrats are quite different people than eastern Mass. Democrats, excepting, of course, for places in eastern Mass. like Cambridge and Provincetown. They vote the same, but for radically different reasons.

  10. reader says:


    > A lot of the New York/New Jersey people

    I lived in Vermont for a while (though born and raised in Mass), and a sure field mark of the foreigners up there was their use of the phrase “the city” to refer to New York. Bernie Sanders, the state’s noted socialist senator, is a classic example; he may nominally be a senator from Vermont, but he’s really a senator from Brooklyn. The far western edge of Massachusetts is pretty much the same; I believe the Clark Art Museum ended up in Williamstown after WWII rather than NYC because the donor wanted the collection moved way up the Hudson Valley in case there was another war and NYC was destroyed.

    In a way I can’t blame them too much. I sometimes think that anything in the Hudson River drainage shouldn’t really be counted as part of New England.

  11. mnuez says:

    Totally OT!

    Okay, so here I am totally innocently signing onto an online dating site looking for a booty call with some hot young thing this weekend and what do I find but that some 70% of kids are “atheist and serious about”. Way cool! I’ll be fucking my betters!

    But wait, what’s this? Further on in their profiles there’s all this undulating to “mysticism” and “spirituality” and “tolerance for religions similar to mine like Wicca”.


    Since when did the noble terms Atheist and Agnostic allow their golden handles to be touched by the intellectually fetid, illiterate youth! [Yes, I notice the irony.]

    What a piss off.

    But I’m nothing if not a trooper and shall persevere.

  12. mnuez says:


    It may assuage Senior Hanson to know that these are college students but this fact horrifies me even more, how in hell could they be in college and still refer to New Age mumbo jumbo as Atheism? and, by GOD, what in heaven’s hell do they mean when they say that they’re “Agnostic and Serious About It” when reffering to Wicca?

    Gentlemen (and ladies who haven’t yet scampered from the room in horror), what term is left for us? Honestly, my brother’s generation views Atheism as A-Christianity or A-“Organized Religion”. How do we wrest these sacred terms back from their mouth-breathing zombie clasps??

  13. Susan says:

    Yup, “the city” is always New York, not Boston. Good one about the senator from Brooklyn!

  14. Susan says:

    @Joshua Zelinsky

    She did indeed run an abysmal campaign–a user’s guide to how to lose a supposedly shoo-in election. I know that her supporters are consoling themselves with this idea, and the notion that the Massachusetts electorate was too sexist to vote for her. (“If only Capuano had run,” they’re saying.) But…it’s hard to say if the crappy campaign was the determining factor. Brown did nationalize the election, very successfully, by running against the Obama agenda.

  15. cynthia.curran says:

    Well, California changed because Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego strongholds for the Republicans until 1988 has become alot less white and more hispanic,mainly due to Ronald Reagan law that legalized them and they still immirgated in large numbers. Illegal hispanics can afford to live in Ca because they have several families living together and quality for the free and reduce lunch programs for their kids- Los Angeles, Santa Ana and Anaheim cities with a lot of illegal immirgants about 80 percent of the kids quality for the programs. And whites tht supported the Republicians there moved out when aerospace and the housing bubble forced many of them out of the state.

  16. cynthia.curran says:

    Also, something also comes to mind, Southern evangelicals started votnig republican when their povery levels felled by the 1970’s. A century ago, evangelicals were pretty much on the left. Take William Jennings Bryant, that wanted to nationalzed the railroads and switch the currency to silver. Probably, the Republicians can get about another decade out of using the evangelicals. Also, many young Atheists or agnostics are unaware that some Republicans and of course many libetarians are not religous. One reason why Atheists and agnostics are attractive to the Democratic Party since the Republian Party got a lot of milegae out of Religous people to get George W Bush elected.

Comments are closed.