A record one in five American adults identifies with no particular religion, according to a new study. And while many still believe in God, the so-called "nones" are a rapidly growing constituency that overwhelmingly votes Democratic.
The study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
looks at a group that has confounded faith leaders and political strategists alike, as it has rapidly grown in number in this deeply religious nation.
The "nones" - who include atheists, agnostics and people reporting no particular faith - now total 46 million people, according to the study.
Lest anyone think America is following a European-style secularization process, Pew researcher Greg Smith emphasized that nones are by and large still spiritual people. Most told the survey they still believe in God, and 20 percent said they pray every day.
“These are folks who are not necessarily non-believers, they're just not associated with any particular religious tradition,” said Smith.
The trend is most pronounced among young adults, a third of whom identify themselves as nones. Smith said he does not expect them to find religion - or at least religious affiliation - when they become older.
“Young people today aren't just more likely to be nones than their elders. Young people today are also more likely to be nones when compared with previous generations when members of those generations were young adults,” said Smith.
Analysts said the political implications are profound. Three quarters of nones voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 election. And the study suggests they are now the biggest religious constituency in the Democratic party, outnumbering Catholics, and mainline and evangelical Protestants.
And most sustain liberal attitudes - supporting legal abortion and same-sex marriage.
Still, Mike McCurry, press secretary for former President Bill Clinton, said the Democratic Party would be wrong to appeal to the "nones" as secular voters.
"You would want to appeal to them on the fact that they are searching for something spiritual or religious or filling some gap in their life," he said.
Indeed, religion is a powerful force in American politics. At the Democratic National Convention last month, leaders quickly reinstated the word "God" in the party platform after harsh criticism from right-wing commentators.
Some analysts say the rise in non-affiliation, however, is a backlash against political preaching in churches.
Michael Cromartie directs the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center
research organization in Washington.
“I think the reason for decline in some of these places is again because they politicize the pulpit. And people don't go to church to get politics. They go for other, more important questions,” said Cromartie.
The Pew Forum conducted the study in partnership with an American public television show, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly
, which begins a three-part mini-series on the topic this Friday.