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As More Latinos Drop Religion, Should GOP Be Extra Worried?

A big deal has been made about the Republican Party's so-called Hispanic problem during recent U.S. election cycles. But there's another group — largely white and male — that has also struggled to increase the number of Latinos in its ranks: America's religiously unaffiliated. Until recently, that is.

The number of Hispanic American "nones" — those who say they have no particular religion or are atheist or agnostic — is growing at a clip that would make GOP operatives green with envy. According to the Pew Research Center's 2013 National Survey of Latinos and Religion, 18 percent of Hispanics are not affiliated with any religion.

Put differently, almost 1 in 5 Hispanics now says he has no religious affiliation, more than the approximately 1 in 6 who identifies as Republican (many of whom are Cuban-Americans).

And the ranks of the Hispanic nones are growing quickly — nearly doubling from 10 percent in 2010, with the most pronounced jump occurring among younger Latinos. A whopping 31 percent of those ages 18-29 say they are religiously unaffiliated, about two-thirds the number of those who say they are Catholic (45 percent).

Only a fraction of the Hispanic nones identify as atheist (68 percent of all nones believe in God), but the growth in the number of nones mirrors a larger national trend: According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 17.8 percent of all Americans said they were nonreligious.

The growth of the Hispanic nones represents a "catching up" to the broader U.S. trend, particularly among younger Hispanics, says Hector Avalos, a professor of religious studies at Iowa State University. "It used to be that Latino identity meant a Catholic identity," Avalos told Religion News Service. "That is no longer the case."

The trend also means that the number of Hispanic nones has now surpassed Hispanics who say they are born-again or evangelical Protestants (16 percent), which could have some significant political consequences, particularly for Republicans. For example, according to the 2013 Hispanic Values Survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 80 percent of religiously unaffiliated Hispanics favored same-sex marriage, while only 21 percent of Hispanic evangelical Protestants did. A similar gap exists when it comes to abortion (69 versus 25 percent) and other social issues.

So while Hispanics may not be lining up to buy the latest Richard Dawkins book, the growth of the left-leaning Latino nones suggests that the Republican Party's "Hispanic problem" may only get worse. And given broader trends, it may not be long before the real question facing the GOP is how to address its "nones problem."

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