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.

Jason Pitzl-Waters