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.”