02/11/2013 10:16 am ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

Blasphemy! The Un-Churched in America Are Democrats

Democrats don't talk about it, but they have become the party of the unchurched in America. It's right there in the 2012 exit poll. Asked, "Are you Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, other Christian, Jewish, Muslim, other or none?" Twelve percent of the voters last year called themselves "None." They voted 70 percent for Barack Obama.

The unchurched were about equal in number to African-American voters (13 percent), larger than Latinos (10 percent) and much larger than either Mormons or Jews (each 2 percent).

The reason why Democrats don't talk about the unchurched is obvious. They don't want to advertise themselves as "the godless party." The United States is still a country where religion is a major force in both public and private life. That makes the U.S. unique among advanced industrial countries.

In October, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that 58 percent of Americans claim that religion is very important in their lives -- far higher than in Britain (17 percent), France (13 percent), Germany (21 percent) or even Spain, once the land of the Holy Inquisition (22 percent). More Americans believe in God, heaven, hell, angels, Satan and the inerrant authority of the Bible than citizens of any other modern country.

That's because the United States was first settled by people seeking religious freedom, like the Puritans. They did not want to live under the authority of an Established Church that was not their own. The United States is not the only majority Protestant country in the world, but it is the only country where the dominant churches are dissenting churches. Many groups came to this country for religious reasons, and they have devoted themselves to preserving and advancing their religious heritage.

That's why the emergence of the unchurched is both surprising and little noted. It was noted by the Pew Forum, however, which came out with a report last year called "'Nones' on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have no Religious Affiliation." One in five! To be precise, the Pew poll conducted last summer found 19.6 percent of Americans who described themselves as atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular." That number has been slowly creeping up. It was 15.3 percent in 2007, 16.8 percent in 2009 and 18.6 percent in 2011.

Wait a minute. If the unchurched were 20 percent of all adults last year, why were they only 12 percent of the voters? Because the unchurched are disproportionately young and unmarried, characteristics associated with lower voter registration and turnout. But at 12 percent of the voters, they are no longer an insignificant constituency.

Do the unchurched become churchier as they get older and marry? Surprisingly, no. According to the Pew study, "Americans do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle from young adulthood through marriage, parenting, middle age and retirement."

Like the exit poll, the Pew survey found the unchurched to be strongly Democratic (63 percent) and liberal. (Liberals outnumbered conservatives among the unchurched by nearly two to one, which is the reverse of the ratio among all voters.) One quarter of Democrats are unchurched, making them a larger Democratic constituency than Roman Catholics.

The emergence of the unchurched as a Democratic constituency is a response to the most important trend in American politics since 1980: the mobilization of religious voters by the Republican Party.

A personal story:

In the early 1990s, I held a post as visiting professor of American politics at a leading Jesuit university.

One of the perks of that position was an invitation to tea with the cardinal. After we exchanged pleasantries, the cardinal asked, "Is there anything happening in American politics that I should be aware of?"

"As a matter of fact, your eminence, there is," I answered. "Since 1980, religious Americans of all faiths -- fundamentalist Protestants, observant Catholics, even Orthodox Jews -- have been moving toward the Republican Party. At the same time, secular Americans have found a home in the Democratic Party.

"This is something new in American politics," I explained. "We have never had a religious party." Then I went a fateful step further, adding, "I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea of a religious party in this country."

The cardinal pounced. "Well, I'm a little uncomfortable with an irreligious party in this country," he said.

My response: "I think I'll have more tea."

The consequences of this division were apparent in the recent showdown between President Obama and the nation's Catholic bishops over coverage of contraceptives under the new health insurance law. The bishops were outraged that the original law, passed in 2010, required employers to pay for free contraceptives for female employees as part of their insurance coverage. Only churches and explicitly religious organizations were exempted. "Increased access to birth control is a huge win for women," the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America told the Washington Post. The bishops demanded exemptions for Catholic schools and charitable organizations that serve and employ persons outside the faith.

Last month, President Obama offered a complex compromise that enables employees of such organizations to obtain contraception coverage through separate policies paid for by insurance companies. The bishops have rejected that compromise offer, claiming that self-insured religious institutions would still be forced to pay for contraceptive coverage. The bishops are also demanding exemptions for private employers who, for their own religious reasons, do not wish to pay for contraceptive coverage. The issue appears headed to the Supreme Court, where six of the nine justices are Roman Catholics.

Are the unchurched represented in Congress? Yes -- barely. Eleven members of the current House and Senate list their religious affiliation as "none" or "unspecified." That's two percent, not 20 or even 12 percent. But it's more than twice as many members with no religion than in the 2009-2010 Congress. In 1979-1980, there were none.

And by the way, every one of the members of Congress who profess no religion is a Democrat.