After years of talk about the close ties between religious conservatives and the Republican Party coalition, an opposite factor is gaining wider notice: the Democrats' reliance upon non-religious voters.
"Seculars have become an increasing portion of the Democratic electoral coalition and especially of the party's activist base," says Geoffrey Layman of the University of Maryland, who dates the trend from 1972 and considered it obvious by 1992.
A religiously linked values clash is redefining U.S. politics, Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio of City University of New York say. If Republicans are labeled the party of religious traditionalists, they assert, "the Democrats with equal validity can be called the secularist party."
A spring University of Akron poll of 4,000 adults showed Americans without religious affiliation are 17 percent of self-identified Democrats, rivaling the party's traditional blocs of white Catholics (18 percent) and black Protestants (16 percent). Secularists favored John Kerry over George W. Bush by 57.4 percent to 27.2 percent, with the rest backing others or undecided. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 2 percentage points.
And a Pew Research Center poll of 1,512 adults, reported Tuesday, showed more Americans see the Republican Party as "generally friendly to religion" (52 percent) than the Democratic (40 percent).
Political scientists say polls correlating religious behavior or belief with party alignment indicate the "God gap" is more significant than most factors, including the gender gap.
Similarly, scholars' surveys of delegates to the parties' 2000 conventions found contrasts on weekly worship attendance (59 percent for Republican delegates, 35 percent for Democrats) and conservative beliefs about the Bible (54 percent for Republicans, 26 percent for Democrats).
Bolce says some voters aren't just non-religious but anti-religious. Surveys have shown hostility toward evangelicals and fundamentalists among a segment of Democrats, including more than half of 1992 convention delegates. Unlike anti-Catholic bias through the 1920s, "it's more a prejudice of the educated classes," he says.
America's secular ranks are growing, which might seem to help Democrats. In National Opinion Research Center surveys during 2002, 13.8 percent answered "none" when asked their current religion, compared with 6.3 percent in 1991.
But overt appeals to secularists could backfire, Layman says, because blacks are more devout than other Americans and Democrats need some support from churchgoing Catholics and white Protestants.
At a town hall meeting in Minnesota on Thursday, a woman asked Kerry if he was a Christian.
"Yes, I am a Christian. But that should not be what decides whether or not somebody votes for me in the United States of America," he said to loud applause.
Last year Amy Sullivan, a former aide to Sen. Tom Daschle, complained in Washington Monthly that Democratic leaders worried so much about "their core base of secularists and religious minorities" that they shunned religious appeals, thus undercutting future prospects.
Sullivan thinks the 2004 Democrats are finding "ways to acknowledge the importance of religion," luring religious moderates without alienating secularists.
Just before the party's Boston convention, chairman Terry McAuliffe named mainline Protestant clergywoman Brenda Bartella Peterson the Democratic National Committee's first religious outreach staffer within memory. McAuliffe said this showed Democrats' "commitment to reaching all people of faith."
Peterson resigned less than two weeks later, after the conservative Catholic League noted she joined a legal brief asking the Supreme Court to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. Peterson is now organizing religious opposition to Kentucky's proposed ban on gay marriages.
She says Akron-type polling overstates secularism's impact because many Americans are personally religious but "far more dedicated to acting out their faith" through politics than by church involvement.
That's precisely the problem for Democrats, says John C. Green, who runs the University of Akron surveys. Unlike Republicans networking in churches and other groups or listening to religious broadcasts, unchurched voters "are much harder to find and organize," he says. Worse, they're less likely to vote.
Bolce says the Democrats' religious rhetoric doesn't change the parties' markedly different stands on issues that divide secularists from religious traditionalists.
He and De Maio rated U.S. senators' votes the past decade from 0 to 10 on matters like abortion, homosexuality and aid for religious schools. The Republicans' average was 0.95, the Democrats' 8.9. John Kerry and John Edwards had a perfect "secularism" score. Democratic turncoat Zell Miller, the Republicans' convention keynoter, scored zero.