11/21/2012 03:02 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2013

Thanks Be to Humanists


With the election over and Thanksgiving upon us, President Obama has a lot to be thankful for. He has been able to finally put his campaigning boots away and will be enjoying a delicious holiday meal this Thursday.

But before he slips in to a post-turkey food coma, I hope the president thinks about who he should be thankful to for his electoral victory. The remarkable base President Obama built for his campaign was made up of young professionals, women, minority communities, and a progressive religious coalition that was determined to preserve the gains the president made in his first term. But the largest group within that "religious" coalition includes Americans that usually reject religious labels. And there's solid evidence that it's no longer politically profitable for politicians to keep ignoring this lynchpin group.

Of course, the group in question is the "nones," people who, when asked, respond that they have no religious affiliation. The largest segment of President Obama's "religious" coalition (23 percent) was the nones, according to a new American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. But who exactly are these nones?

They are the more than 13 million atheists and agnostics and nearly 33 million other Americans who claim no particular religious affiliation. In fact, about 20 percent of U.S. adults now say they have no religious affiliation, which, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, is an increase from two decades ago when only about 8 percent of people were deemed "nones."

In addition, nationwide exit polls conducted after the election show that nones made up 12 percent of all voters, which is more than the combined number of all voters of non-Christian faiths -- including Jews, Muslims and many others. That same 12 percent is only slightly smaller than the combined number of Hispanic Catholics and Black Protestants. The nones also voted 70 percent Democratic in the 2012 election, which isn't really a surprise when you look at how they voted over the past 30 years.

According to the same American Values Survey, Gov. Mitt Romney's biggest block of religious voters were white evangelical Protestants, at 37 percent, followed by white mainline Protestants and white Catholics, each at 19 percent. When you compare the candidates' supporters, it's obvious that the more diverse religious and non-religious coalition that's favoring Obama tends to be younger and growing, which could make it easier for Democrats to win elections in the future -- as long as they don't ignore the nones, and as long as Republicans don't find ways to court this expanding group.

The new voting power of the nones provides different lessons for each of the major two political parties. For the Democrats, it's a sign that rejecting the extremism of the Religious Right wasn't just the right thing to do, it was a smart political decision. Non-religious Americans rewarded the Democrats for their defense of secularism with electoral victories. For the Republicans, the political rise of the non-religious American is a warning that things have to change. The party of Lincoln has unfortunately become seen as the party of the televangelist, and in doing so has lost the support of many non-religious Americans that might have joined their fight for smaller government and individualism. If they want to tap into this critical source of votes, Republicans have to stop dividing the country along lines of belief and remove their support from bills that favor religion or discriminate against non-religious Americans.

Regardless of party loyalties, non-religious voters can't be ignored anymore. This Thanksgiving politicians must closely examine the changing voter demographics in America, and start taking into account the interests of one of the fastest growing groups in the country. Those who champion secularism and protect church-state separation from the fundamentalism of the Religious Right stand to gain a great deal, as do we all.