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Want to win an election? Court secular voters, not Christian conservatives

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Last night in Iowa, Donald Trump asked people in his audience to identify themselves along religious lines.

We have our Christian Conservatives for Trump in the room … Raise your hand, Christian conservatives, everybody. Raise your hand if you’re not a Christian conservative. I want to see this, right. Oh, there’s a couple people, that’s all right… I think we’ll keep them, right. Should we keep them in the room? Yes? I think so.

It sounds like Trump is joking here, a joke that may be in bad taste given some of the other things he and his family have said on similar issues. But the joke is based on the unsubstantiated truism in American politics that one has to pander to religion to win higher office. Both Hillary Clinton and Trump have participated in this ritual obsequiousness.

Partially, this is due to what I’ve called the “voter-imposed auto-da-fe.” Rather like a self-inflicted wound, American voters seem to crave professions of faith. This is changing, however. And it’s changing rapidly.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation conducted a survey of its membership—nearly 24,000 people—and found that 96% are registered to vote, significantly higher than the population at large. About 70% of members declined to affiliate themselves with one of the two major parties. Secular America is a large, untapped voting bloc—and we are turned off by religious pandering and alarmed by candidates seeking to literally divide the country along religious lines. Our voting bloc is only going to grow.


FFRF is working to fuel that growth with its “I’m Secular and I Vote” campaign, launched in February. The campaign is designed to engage millions of nonreligious voters and ensure the voices of the fastest-growing minority group in America are heard in the 2016 presidential election.

Every new study shows that America is becoming less and less religious. Some research suggests that, while the “nones” are growing, they might not be voting. That likely has something to do with the younger generations being the least religious and the least likely to vote. This means that the situation will change as those Americans age and engage in politics.

Some would be tempted to argue that as they age and engage, these Millennials (I myself am an “Older Millennial” according to Pew, will become more religious. But that trend does not hold true for older Millennials who “have not become substantially more likely to participate in small-group religious activities or say they rely on religion for guidance on questions of right and wrong.” And as Millennials age, the older generations, which are both more religious and more conservative, are dying. In other words, there is a demographic shift coming, and it’s not going to favor politicians that pander to religious votes.

While Trump may simply have been flippant, mixing religion and politics is serious. One reason the Constitution separates state and church is to avoid the division religion engenders. In one of the seminal state-church separation cases, Lemon v. Kurtzman, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote, “political division along religious lines was one of the principal evils against which the First Amendment was intended to protect.” In another such case, the court discussed why the Founding Fathers wanted religion out of government:

“The Framers and the citizens of their time intended to guard … against the civic divisiveness that follows when the government weighs in on one side of religious debate; nothing does a better job of roiling society….”

Trump, jokingly or otherwise, divided his audience on the basis of religion. Far better that we heed the words of John F. Kennedy and work toward an America “where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

JFK - I believe in an American where the separation of state and church is absolute2

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