Who Are the Nones and Why Did They Vote for Obama?

FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2013 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Lansdowne,
FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2013 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Lansdowne, Va. For all of his liberal positions on the environment, taxes and health care, Obama is a hawk when it comes to the war on terror. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

By early summer of 2012, many of us Faith and Values pundits were nervously asking an important and troubling question: Why were the Obama and Romney campaigns spending so little time and effort discussing God and religion on the campaign trail? Why?

It was an important question because this election cycle contrasted so strikingly with what we saw in the 2008 presidential campaign. That was an era of over-the-top, wear-your-faith-on-your-sleeves, can-I-get-a-witness! faith-based pandering from both Democratic and Republican hopefuls. It was a troubling question because it left experts in religion and politics with nothing to comment on in 2012, other than the economy (which most of us were uniquely unqualified to discuss anyway).

The video above, featuring Daniel Cox, Director of Research for the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), goes a long way in helping us make sense of the Obama campaign's summer of scriptural silence. This past year was in many ways the coming-out party for the "nones." Social scientists have been aware of this group at least since the 1960s and began refocusing on them at the turn of the millennium (see the groundbreaking work of Mayer, Kosmin and Keysar).

By "nones," social scientists refer to the religiously unaffiliated. In PRRI's rendering, they are comprised of three groups, which Cox refers to as "atheists/agnostics," "secular" and "unattached believers." A youthful cohort, these "nones" are now roughly one-fifth of the American population (though, as our guest points out, their election day turnout is somewhat underwhelming). Most importantly, they gave 70 percent of their ballot to the incumbent this past Election Day.

Now, let us return to the Mystery of the Missing God Talk. Could it be that Team Obama had figured out early on that the religiously unaffiliated were going to make a difference in this election? Might the president's strategists have also figured out that this group loathes faith-based pandering from officials seeking elected office? Could the president's studied de-emphasis of religious issues be attributable to his handlers' desire to not antagonize this surging voting bloc?

As Cox points out, the issue palette of the GOP, with its black-and-white emphasis on God and gays and pro-life politics, is highly unamenable to the worldview of the religiously unaffiliated. In fact, one wonders if Republican strategists are concerned that a counterweight to the evangelical base is fast emerging in Democratic precincts.

In our interview, Mr. Cox alludes to a point that I have also made in my own research on American secularism. Whereas evangelicals know who they are, know what their issues are, know who their leaders are, the same cannot be said about the religiously unaffiliated. At present, they are are politically disorganized, lacking in a coherent platform or leadership class, and without any institutional infrastructure. Put in the parlance of social science, they are an aggregate, or a bunch of individuals who simply share a common characteristic (i.e. not being "churched" or linked with an institutional religion), but no more than that.

Why is that significant? In terms of liberal political activism, it is essential that the "nones" be mobilized into a self-conscious political movement, one capable of neutralizing the GOP's conservative Christian column. Whether the Democrats are up to the task remains to be seen. And whether the youthful, unpredictable, internally diverse "nones" want to be mobilized is also unknown.