If an Atheist Were to Get Elected, How Would That Happen?

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

In a previous post, I noted that despite the fact that the nones are now nearly a quarter of the population, they are not well represented in the United States Congress. In fact, just two members: Kyrsten Sinema, the new Senator from Arizona, and Jared Huffman, a House Democrat from California are the only two who one could reasonably conclude have no religious affiliation. That means that something like fifty million adults nones are being represented by two people. That seems like a failure of descriptive representation. I wanted to try and figure out how more nones could get elected to Congress and identify places where that seems the most likely to happen.

Unfortunately, it’s not a good idea to try to predict the outcome of something when it has only happened twice in the 2018 election. Instead I decided I would widen my definition of a religious none serving in Congress to include a group called the Congressional Freethought Caucus. This group was formed in 2018 as a means for members of Congress to protect the secular nature of the U.S. government and to oppose any legal discrimination against atheists, agnostics, etc. The launch of the caucus didn’t seem to grab a great deal of media coverage, but it has grown over time from its original four members to a total caucus of ten as of this writing. Only one of the members of this group (Jared Huffman) has openly declared that they are atheists, agnostics, humanists, or anything that would qualify them as a “none.” But, I think it’s fair to say that getting more people elected who would join this caucus would be a good thing for those who don’t have a religious affiliation.

I think it’s wise to start by looking at the home districts of Freethought caucus members. The map below indicates caucus members with the salmon color. When I showed this map to a few people they had the same reaction to my own: “this isn’t what I thought it would look like.” Obviously, there a few members of the caucus who are from California, and they are clustered around the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley. That fits the media narrative that young tech is overwhelmingly disaffiliated with religion. However, there are a few that are suprising. Note the caucus members from Tennessee, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia. However, it’s crucial to note that these districts are urban ones, with constituencies living in Memphis, Detroit, Madison, and Atlanta.

David Mayhew, one of the leading scholars of Congress, noted that members are singularly focused on reelection and that they increase their chances of keeping their seat by engaging in a number of activities including position taking. Using Mayhew’s framework would lead us to hypothesize that members who chose to join the Freethought caucus would do so because it would help (or at least not hurt) their chances at winning reelection. To investigate that I calculated the margin of victory for each member of the caucus in the 2018 midterm elections. That is displayed below.

The overwhelming conclusion here is that members of this caucus win their seats by very comfortable margins. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Madison, Wisconsin, actually ran unopposed in the general election in 2018. Many other members won by margins that could only be considered blowouts. For instance, the two founding members of the caucus, Hoffman and Raskin won their races by 54 and 38 points, respectively. As a matter of fact, the average margin of victory here is a staggering 54.3%. The only race that would be classified as competitive was Jerry McNerney’s 13 point win in the California 9th. Of all the members who joined the Freethought caucus, his seat is the only one that could be seen as less than safe.

Using the election of a member of the Freethought caucus as my dependent variable, I wanted to see if I could understand what factors would increase the likelihood of electing someone would would join this caucus. I used several independent variables in a logit regression analysis including the share of the district that is African-American or Hispanic, the percentage who had at least a bachelor’s degree, in addition to the portion of the state’s population that identified as a religious none. Note, that I left out the partisanship of the district as there are no members of the Freethought caucus who are Republicans, therefore there would be no variation in this regard. The results of that model are displayed below.

Using the race and education variables as controls, the graph visualizes the relationship between the percentage of the nones in a state on the x-axis and the likelihood that they will elect a Freethought caucus member on the y-axis. Note first that the results here are not statistically significant. Said another way – the data does not indicate that there is a relationship between the amount of nones in a state and the election of a member of the Freethought caucus. However, the line does show a positive, uphill slope. Statistical significance aside, the results indicate that a state that is 45% none is about 10% more likely to elect a Freethought member than a state with 25% nones.

What states fit this bill? The hexmap above visualizes the percent of each state that identifies as religious nones from the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. These results comport with what we know about religiosity in the United States: New England and the West Coast are ground zero for religious nones, while the Midwest and the South indicate much higher levels of religiosity. If I were to guess where more Freethought caucus members were going to emerge, it would seem likely they would come from smaller New England states like Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. In addition, some gains could be made in the Pacific Northwest, specifically Oregon and Washington. However, rural districts in any of these states should not be the targets, however.

Researching this post led me to two surprising findings. First, there is actually a Freethought caucus. In a forthcoming post, I find that the anti-atheism sentiments are strong in the American public, and therefore it just seems odd that ten members of the House would hitch their wagon to a group that is viewed pretty negatively by the general public. Second, I noted how idiosyncratic the decisions were to join the Freethought caucus are. It seems that a few factors bind these ten people together. They are Democrats, they represent safe districts, and the districts are urban and very liberal. If you are a religious none and live in an urban district that is solidly Democratic, you might want to reach out to your member of Congress and ask if they will join the Freethought caucus. Now that there are ten members, they would have much more political cover than they would have enjoyed twelve months ago. The growth of this caucus is something to watch and could be the opening that atheists need to get one of their own elected.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. The syntax for the post can be found in here.

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