Forty years ago, Jimmy Carter's born-again faith transformed the American political landscape. Whereas John F. Kennedy's Catholicism had been a liability in the 1960 presidential campaign, Carter's evangelicalism in 1976 was a curiosity, and secular reporters trekked south to learn about the candidate's peculiar practices: He read Scripture. He prayed regularly. He taught Sunday school.
Even though many Americans — perhaps as much as one-quarter of the population — shared Carter's evangelical beliefs at the time, media and political elites seemed surprised that evangelicalism had survived the Aquarian Age. Time magazine dubbed 1976 "The Year of the Evangelical," and journalists scrambled to tell the story: Religion not only motivated the Democratic candidate, but also galvanized millions of voters.
Political reporters would go on to rediscover religion every four to eight years. Conservative Christians help elect Ronald Reagan! The Religious right stands by George H. W. Bush! Evangelicals back Bill Clinton! Values voters embrace George W. Bush!
After the 2000 election, journalists finally accepted religion's role in politics as a fait accompli. And religious people, candid and convicted in their beliefs, were happy to share their opinion that America is a moral mess. Their ongoing grievances, manifested in the decades-long culture wars, involved homosexuality, reproductive rights, gun laws, immigration, climate change, the absence of prayer in public life, and the erosion of the traditional nuclear family. For news cycles built around conflict, religion and politics is a godsend.
But that could soon change.
In 2014, twenty-three percent of adult Americans identified as what media and academics have come to refer to as religious "nones." Although the term covers a lot of territory — atheist, agnostic, unaffiliated, "nothing in particular," and "spiritual but not religious" — it does not include anyone who identifies with a particular faith tradition. The overall percentage of Americans who identify as nones is all the more striking because it has climbed seven points in seven years. And that percentage is even higher among Millennials; a full 36 percent are unaffiliated, compared with 11 percent of the silent generation — those who preceded Baby Boomers — and 17 percent of Boomers.
Should religion be part of politics? Watch 'The People Speak.'
The same Pew study found that those who identified as Catholics fell from 23.9 percent in 2007 to 20.8 percent in 2014, while mainline Protestants plunged from 18.1 percent to 14.7 percent. (Non-Christian faiths bumped up from 4.7 percent to 5.9 percent.) Evangelical Christians, meanwhile, dropped from 26.3 percent to 23.4 percent.
That means there are now as many nones as there are evangelicals in America.
The media is already speculating on what role nones will play in the 2016 election. Nones won't care whether Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee is the better Southern Baptist. Nor will they compare the faith-based positions of Roman Catholic candidates Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum. In fact, a CNN poll found 70 percent of Millennial voters do not want a presidential candidate to consider religion when making policy decisions.
And yet candidates still broadcast their religious bona fides on the campaign trail. Almost all the Republicans are gung-ho on God, while Hilary Clinton, who has switched up so much of her persona, still talks Bible when the time is right. Why? For one, Bible-believers have thus far proven to be more reliable voters than young people in general. In addition, many American voters say religion is an important quality for a candidate — even if the voters themselves are not religious. In fact, a sizable chunk of the unaffiliated — 30 percent according to a Pew poll — actually prefer politicians for whom religion is important.
With more than a year to go before the candidates are even officially chosen, it's too early to guess how religion will play in the 2016 election. Much depends on who ultimately secures the nominations, what the most influential issues prove to be, and where the mood of the country is. A politician orating with a Bible in hand could inspire nones who don't like candidates mixing policy and prayer to head to the polls. Meanwhile, a religiously moderate contender who addresses pressing social concerns — climate change and immigration, for example — could rally religiously conservative Catholics, Muslims, or even born-again Christians who care deeply about those issues.
In addition to affecting the 2016 election, America's changing religious demographics may nudge the public to rethink the now conventional connotations of the word religion. Since 1976, the terms religion and evangelicalism — specifically politically conservative evangelicalism — have largely been interchangeable in political discourse and, increasingly, everyday conversation. For many journalists, the "real" religious view is the one that espouses the most conservative social, cultural, or political positions. The Right, abetted by the news media, has hijacked the term religion, and those with alternate ideas about the role of faith in public (and private) life have been shut out of the discussion.
Notwithstanding fish-out-of-water stories about feminist evangelicals, progressive nuns, or tattooed rabbis, religion, according to the news and even entertainment media, is mostly a political sport practiced by conservative church-goers seeking to establish a Christian nation. And while that is a very real slice of American religious life, it's hardly the only one. So maybe 2016 will be the political year of the Jew or the Catholic or the Hindu.
Or, God forbid, the atheist.
Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She is also the publisher of Religion Dispatches. Follow her on Twitter: @dianewinston