Cascadian “Nones” vs Conservative Christians in Washington

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  June 17, 2012 — 21 Comments

Over the years I’ve written a lot about individuals who don’t claim adherence to any religion, dubbed “nones” by journalists and researchers. This group has exploded to around 16% of the population in the United States, and defies easy categorization. What we do know is that their growth is most explosive among younger people, and that “nones” aren’t anti-religioun per se, simply against what they feel institutionalized religion has become (ie polarized and fixated on culture war issues). Now, thanks to a ballot initiative in Washington state on gay marriage, it looks like we might see the first skirmish between socially conservative Christian voters, and this diverse grouping of the non-religious.

Gov. Chris Gregoire signing same-sex marriage law. Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP

Gov. Chris Gregoire signing same-sex marriage law. Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP

According to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census, more than half of the state’s 6.8 million residents don’t belong to a religious group. Preserve Marriage Washington, the organization behind the gay marriage petition (Referendum 74), is a coalition of community and faith groups, including the Washington State Catholic Conference. “Almost 4.4 million people are unclaimed, so that’s the group, that if they vote, will decide this referendum,” said Patricia O’Connell Killen, editor of “Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone,” and academic vice president at Gonzaga University. “Any political issue, whether it passes or fails, depends by and large on how the vast majority of these unchurched are persuaded.”

In short, those who want to preserve the right for same-sex couples to marry in Washington need to reach out to Cascadian “nones” to win this ballot initiative. What are “nones” in the Pacific Northwest like? According to the authors of “Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia,” they are “eclectically, informally, often deeply ‘spiritual.’” Specifically, New Age and nature-oriented spirituality loom large among “nones” here.

“According to the just-published “Cascadia: the Elusive Utopia.” … a lot of these “nones” in the Pacific Northwest are actually very spiritual, walking a path of their own making, but not into organized religions and churches. Sociology professor Mark Shibley of Southern Oregon University wrote the lead essay called “The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia.” “This region is different. The people here are not as connected to religious institutions,” he says. The alternative spirituality here shows itself in two main ways, Shibley notes: “nature spirituality,” such as you see in the secular environmental movement, and the more well-known New Age spirituality, where the gaze is shifted inward.”

Normally, whenever same-sex marriage has gone to the ballot boxes, it works against supporters of marriage equality. It is so successful that it has become something of a tactic to boost voter turnout among social conservatives during important election cycles (though that assertion is being questioned). This year, Washington joins Maryland, Maine and Minnesota in putting this issue up for a vote. However, we may see a reversal of fortunes in Washington where a majority of voters believe same-sex couples should be able to get married, and where gay marriage rights have bipartisan support. With a 4 percentage point margin, the outcome will almost certainly rest on turnout, and who will be able to motivate their supporters better.

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

Conservative Christians are rightfully praised for their ability in getting out the vote among their supporters. It is how the Religious Right, the Moral Majority, and other permutations of this bloc have been able to wield so much influence in the Republican party, and in politics in general. Washington in 2012 may see the beginning of a challenge to that legendary ground-game, but only if supporters of same-sex marriage know how to reach out to their “nones.” For once, Pagan organizations, New Age institutions, Unitarian-Universalist churches, alternative health outlets, and other touch-points for the non-religious demographic in Washington could be vital in mobilizing groups that are traditionally distrustful or apathetic about the political process. Because if Cascadian nones are truly the New Age, nature religion, do-it-yourselfers that researchers assert, then this could be a preview for what a truly post-Christian pluralistic political struggle will look like.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Obsidia

    “Cascadia” sounds like an interesting book!  That area of the world has its own unique and powerful natural energies.  I had a good friend who lived there for a while and it changed her….she become a tree worshipper! ;-) 

    Actually, “nones” are being courted by political parties, too…but they call them Independents.  Yes, there are all kinds of Independents.  That’s the point! 

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    It’s a technicality, but Unitarian Universalists are not “nones.” They’re UUs.

    But you’re right that Washington State UUs belong in this fight. The UUA program “Standing on the Side of Love,” which now covers immigration and other issues, started with this one.

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      I know they aren’t “nones,” but they are a touchpoint for those who are. Hence, they are uniquely positioned for outreach to them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charles-Cosimano/613012064 Charles Cosimano

    On the other hand if SSM loses by another landslide…

  • http://twitter.com/ChristineLeigh1 Christine Leigh

    You’re leaving another group out of this fight: Liberal Christians. I can only speak as a resident of Seattle on this one, I’m not familiar with the whole state, but I go by an awful lot of mainline protestant churches with “We support gay marriage” or something similar in their signs, even if their sponsor organization (such as the United Methodists) don’t.

  • http://twitter.com/Red_Rabbit2 Red_Rabbit

    I’m a second-generation atheist and Cascadian None.   This book looks interesting, I’ll have to pick it up.  BTW, I fully support gay rights and will vote in favor of gay marriage here in Washington State. 

  • Northern_Light_27

    I talk about voting and the need to vote all the time, and Pagans usually tell me both sides are equally bad and some version of “poly”=”many”, “tics”=”blood sucking insects”. It’ll be a long time before our community has anything like the level of organization and discipline when it comes to voting turnout that the religious right has– particularly for small state & local elections.

    Hell, it seems to be considered crass to even *talk* about politics when Pagans gather. I’m not talking about ritual, I’m talking about simple bar meetups.

    • Anon_Mahna

      I think it’s a desire to not let the Capitol Hill Gong Show invade our life anymore than it already does.. but your mileage may vary

      • Northern_Light_27

         Anyone who honestly believes both sides are equally bad is drastically ill-informed, and that kind of ill-informedness is directly hurting people. IMO not voting and not participating in the political system is just as bad as participating and voting for people who back oppressive policies, because the low turnout of people who would oppose such things if they gave enough of a shit to inform themselves allow the latter to take control.

        False equivalence and feeling superior because you’re not part of the process annoys me in any year, but with the degree of radicalism (particularly against women) this year, I find it especially egregious.

        • LeohtSceadusawol

            How do you combat apathy?

          Also, some do not participate in (extant) political systems because they disagree with the entire system, rather than just one (or more) of the parties within those systems.

          • Northern_Light_27

             You can disagree with the system and work to change it while still participating in it. If you don’t participate, you cede your place to those who do– and some of the things those people who do show up put in place might be awful, and might be oppressive. People who would vote against that if they participated are still responsible for those awful and oppressive things, because they wouldn’t happen if people who care would get off their sofas.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

            Working within the system gives tacit approval of its basic structure.

            Changes (from within) are essentially cosmetic.

            The more important question is still how to combat apathy, though.

            I’m in Britain and we have really low voter turn out (exactly because it makes so little difference). People genuinely do not care. How do you make them care? (Seriously, I see this as a major problem in many issues, but have no idea how to combat apathy.)

          • Northern_Light_27

             @LeohtSceadusawol:disqus I think we may have different issues– here people don’t care but voting makes an *enormous* difference. I think the problem we have in the US is that people don’t understand how the system works, they don’t really understand how their input shapes policy/don’t understand how their vote affects their daily life, and don’t understand what it would take to change the system. (For instance, if US progressives started following the religious right model when it comes to block turnout and putting forth a progressive candidate for every office, the difference could be incredibly stark. If progressives were a voting block that is perceived to be influential, there might be a chance at actual progressive policies rather than old Republican ideas dressed up as “centrist” or “liberal”, like we’ve got with President Obama right now. Is that a wholesale change in system, like some may want? No. Will it make an enormous difference in the quality of life of the poor, elderly, and disabled? Yes, it will.)

            Everything that matters in politics started with a group of people putting their desires forward and backing it with votes and money. The lack of money is an issue, but the difference it would make if every apathetic socially liberal person stepped forward and started demanding to be heard by the party closest to their values is greatly underestimated. I think people look at the money pouring into US politics and feel helpless. I don’t blame them, I feel that way myself sometimes, but I still think you have to keep plugging at it and keep showing up because if you don’t, you’re giving the people who would hold you down that much more power. The wealthy are a statistical minority. The religious right is a statistical minority. If people understood how few people are actually swaying elections in this country and what that means, maybe they’d wake up some. I have to be an optimist on this, the day I stop being that is the day I’ve given up on my country.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             The changes you talk about are still cosmetic. The system would still remain.

            The US ‘left wing’ is still largely more right wing than most of the British ‘right wing’.

    • kenneth

      We’ll never be able to replicate the sort of organization that the religious right employs because we have a radically different idea about how religion interacts with conscience. They turn out a unified voting block because their religion tells them what to think, not how to think. Their entire religious/political group identity is welded together by fear and anger. We will never, I hope, be able to define, much less enforce, a “pagan agenda” for the ballot box. What we can do however, is to foster values which encourage all of us to stay involved by voting and other means.  We are interconnected and we are of this world as much as in this world. THOSE, I would argue, are pagan values, as is the idea that a person should live and act with intention and awareness. 

      • Northern_Light_27

         Their basic strategy isn’t based on fear and anger, though, but old-fashioned organization and footwork. Showing up at every election. Showing up for every bond issue. Phone trees, busing volunteers when necessary. Putting a candidate forward for every office, no matter how small. I hate their values, but I can’t deny the effectiveness of the way they entered politics.

        We won’t agree on all the issues. We do agree on some of them– basic religious freedom, for one. Basic human rights is something *many* of us agree on. It’s just frustrating when, as a political volunteer, I go to other Pagans and say “hey, I know you agree with this candidate’s basic values, come phonebank for a few hours” and get back “aw, I don’t have time” or “I hate phones”– it just seems like there’s always an excuse. And the same people complain about how awful politics is, it’s just… if you hate it, come work on changing it. The Republicans kowtow to the religious right because those people are *always* there. They’ll turn out in a hurricane. Need volunteers? You’ll have a hundred as soon as a bus can get them there. I’m not expecting Pagans to match that level of participation because we don’t have the numbers and we don’t have the money. But if “nones” are going to matter as much as Jason thinks they are, they’re going to have to want it. And the question asked above, “how do you combat apathy?”, is why I question the place of “nones” and Pagans. They  have to combat their own, individual, apathy because no volunteer, no matter how ardent, is going to convince them.

        • kenneth

          The tools they use are time tested and very effective methods, but the reasons they stick with it so diligently is mostly fear. A lot of conservative Christians really do have apocalyptic beliefs that their way of life is under threat if “they” (queers, liberals, what have you), win. I used to think this was just hyperbole they used to spice up their propaganda, but most of them really believe it now. They see their political involvement as nothing less than an existential struggle. 

  • Westernwhitewolf

    This Washingtonian Pagan will be voting for equality when the time comes. 

  • Daniel SnowKestral

    When Washington State finally passed the Gay Marriage Law, which was supposed to take effect in June.  However, enough signatures were gathered to kybosh the activation of Governor Gregoire and the Legislation.  I was so happy and filled with heartfelt joy when it passed, only to once again have my hopes of getting married someday dashed.  I still hold out much hope, however.

    This Indigenous Gay/Two-Spirit Pagan will be voting in favor of Gay Marriage when it comes on the ballot!  As a life-long resident of Eastern Washington, I look forward to Gay Marriage being a reality, here.  Eastern Washington is pretty conservative (so is North Idaho) compared to Seattle and the West Side, but it is slowly becoming more balanced. 

    Here’s for hoping the Handfastings could be considered a part of the process in order to give visilility toward Pagan Paths having legal standing to perform GLBT unions with all the legal protections of marriage!  As for the book, I will have to check that out!  Perhaps, even the Two-Spirit Community can be involved in the plethora of voices in favor of Gay Marriage.

    • Daniel SnowKestral

      Argh! Can’t edit the first sentence. -_-

  • http://twitter.com/cascadianspore mycelium

    While trying to limit how someone lives and loves in their own home is seen as a valuable expenditure of energy for Conservative Christians, the rest of us Cascadians are far more interested in limiting corporate control over our resources here in Cascadia. If you feel strongly about companies like Nestle taking over Bull Run (Portland’s fresh water source) to bottle and sell it back to us, then visit Cascadianow.org 

    We are organizing. We are united. And we’ve got a big struggle ahead of us. Marriage ideas might divide us but fresh water, clean air, non-toxic land, and healthy forests are some things we can ALL get behind. Viva Cascadia!