The religiously “unaffiliated”—atheists, agnostics, nonconformists, the unchurched and the uncertain—are underrepresented in Congress, notes Richard Blow today in The New York Times. Citing a recent Pew Forum poll, he notes that 16 percent of the nation refuses to identify with any particular faith, while only 1 percent of Congress claims no religious affiliation:
[. . . ] there are almost two-thirds as many unaffiliated people as there are Catholics in this country and nearly as many as there are Baptists. Their number is more than twice that of Methodists, and more than nine times the numbers of Jews or Mormons. Yet, no unaffiliated representation. Why?
In one sense, the answer is easy: Americans by and large want their representatives to be traditionally, unambiguously religious. As a previous survey by the Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found:
61% of Americans say it is important for members of Congress to have strong religious beliefs. This view is expressed by eight-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (83%); seven-in-ten black Protestants (71%); and at least six-in-ten white mainline Protestants (64%), white Catholics (66%) and Hispanic Catholics (61%). Even among self-identified atheists and agnostics, 15% say it is important for members of Congress to have strong religious beliefs.
But there is a deeper issue: How do you “represent” a religious group defined by their not belonging to any established religious group? As Blow writes:
[. . .] the unaffiliated are simply not unified. They have few advocacy groups or high-profile faces. They don’t congregate, organize or petition like members of organized religions. Politicians don’t feel the need to court them, let alone identify as one of them. Part of the problem is that the unaffiliated are a jumbled lot. Only about a fourth are atheists or agnostics. Many of the others feel strongly connected to religion, but choose not to participate. It’s like a protest vote.
One challenge for American politicians, Blow predicts, will be to learn a language that resonates with the unaffiliated—believers and nonbelievers—in all of their diversity:
Whether they are organized, cohesive or disgruntled, the unaffiliated are the fastest-growing religious category in America. Nonaffiliation is not un-American. Increasingly, it is America. Eventually, our politics will have to catch up.