WASHINGTON -- Pollsters who pry into matters of faith know they have to phrase their questions carefully. One big question goes something like this: "What is your religion?" As a rule, few dare to answer "none." But researchers at the City University of New York made a subtle change in 2001 when updating their portrait of U.S. religious identities. They asked: "What religion do you identify with, if any?"
A stunning 14 percent said, "no religion" -- nearly 30 million Americans. Another question asked if respondents were religious or secular and 16 percent chose "secular."
"Those two words -- 'if any' -- made a big difference," said Fred Edwords, editorial director of the American Humanist Association. "Those two little words signaled that it was acceptable for people to say that they didn't believe in God or at least didn't practice any particular religion."
Other recent surveys have brought secularists similar glad tidings.
According to the National Election Studies, the percentage of Americans who say they attend weekly religious services fell from 38 to 25 percent between 1972 and 2000. Meanwhile, those that never attend services rose from 11 to 33 percent.
Ordinarily these kinds of numbers would inspire chatter in Washington. A rising number of openly secular voters would have a major political impact -- especially for Democrats.
"We are in touch with lots of people who are certainly to the left of theism and it's no surprise they are on the political left and, thus, Democrats," said Tony Hileman, executive director of the American Humanist Association. "Also, it's no surprise that all the religious extremists -- the names John Ashcroft and George W. Bush come to mind-- are on the political right and, thus, they are Republicans.
"This is one of the biggest divisions in American life today and we shouldn't be afraid to talk about it."
This chasm is often seen in the fine details of daily politics.
In the 2000 White House race, Voter News Service found that 14 percent of the voters said they attended religious services more than once a week and 14 percent said they never attended. The former backed Bush by a 27-percent margin and the latter Al Gore by a 29-percent margin.
Some of President Bill Clinton's advisors spotted a similar trend in
1996, while seeking to learn which poll questions would most accurately predict a voter's choice. These five worked best: Is homosexuality morally wrong? Do you every look at pornography? Would you look down on a married person who had an affair? Is sex before marriage morally wrong? Is religion very important in your life?
If voters chose "liberal" answers on three out of five, reported
Atlantic Monthly, the odds where 2-1 they would pick Clinton. The odds soared if they leaned left on four out of five. Those giving "conservative" answers went Republican, by precisely the same odds.
Public debate on "lifestyle" issues of this kind is a relatively new phenomenon, noted Edwords. There was a time when Baptists, Pentecostals and other conservative Protestants tended to shun political activism altogether, in part because they believed "politics was too sinful."
Then American culture began to radically change in the 1960s and '70s and issues of faith and morality heated up on both sides of the political aisle. Today, leaders of the American Humanist Association and other openly secular groups believe the headquarters of the Religious Right is not in Virginia Beach or in Lynchburg -- it's in the White House.
This has created a stronger coalition of humanists, secularists and liberal Christians and Jews that is united in opposition to what it believes is a dangerous blend of fundamentalism and government. This represents both opportunity, and risk, for the political left.
"The Republican Party wants to be the party of God," said Edwords. "But it's just as clear that Democrats don't want to stand up and say they are the godless party. They have to keep using religious language, even though that may make some of us secularists uncomfortable. What Democrats have to say is that their religion is broader and more inclusive and more tolerant. ... "We know they have to do that. It just doesn't pay to do politics while wearing atheism on your sleeve."