I heard about this guy who called himself “evangelical,” said he lived a “Bible-centered life,” had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ … and voted for Al Gore over George W. Bush.
A confused, lonely, iconoclast? Actually, in 2000, at least 10 million white “evangelical Christians” voted for Gore.
Many people, especially secular liberals, misunderstand the nature of religion in politics—which is, to be fair, ever shifting. To them, if it’s not about Jerry Falwell or Joe Lieberman, it’s kind of a blur. So, just in time for another religion-packed election, here is a guide to sorting through some common myths about God and American politics:
Myth 1: Evangelicals all vote Republican. People often confuse the words “fundamentalist” and “evangelical.” Fundamentalists are very conservative and almost entirely Republican because they view the deterioration of traditional morality as the primary public policy crisis. But fundamentalists are a subset of evangelicals, which is a more diverse group.
John Green, a professor at the University of Akron and the foremost scholar of evangelical voting behavior, spliced and diced data some time ago and managed to delineate a group of moderate evangelicals. I like to call them “freestyle evangelicals” because they are socially more liberal (they don’t vote strictly for pro-life candidates, for example) and politically “in play.” There are about 8 million to 10 million of them. This group went for Bill Clinton 55 percent to 45 percent over Dole in 1996 * and 55 percent to 45 percent for W. over Gore in 2000. That’s a swing of about a million votes.
And that qualifies them as a serious voting bloc in 2004.
Myth 2: The religious right flooded the polls for George W. Bush in 2000. Turnout among the members of the “religious right” (that’s the goofy way pollsters make people self-identify) was 56 percent, says Green, only slightly higher than the national average—and actually lower than that of devout Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Jews. The “religious right” gets a lot of attention because a) to liberals, they are verrrrrrry scarrrrrry and b) their turnout has been on the rise in the past few decades.
But Bush’s political folks view this as a huge target of opportunity. They were able to increase turnout among religious conservatives in the 2002 congressional elections through aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts. The 2004 election may turn in part on whether religious Christians behave more like they did in 2000 or 2002.
Myth 3: Bush’s religion talk has appealed to his base but has alienated moderate swing voters. Actually, 56 percent of independents think he mentions his religious faith just the right amount compared to 20 percent who say he does it too much, according to a Pew Religion Forum study. Even most Democrats agree. Attacking Bush’s religiosity will not be politically fruitful; alternatively, a Democratic candidate unable to discuss his own faith will place himself defiantly outside the mainstream.
Myth 4: In this era, no candidate would lose votes just based on his or her religion. The same Pew study tried to assess which religions carried the most electoral baggage. When they asked people if they would be less likely to vote for someone because of religion, the big losers were not Jews or Catholics. Rather, the groups with the most political baggage were atheists, evangelicals, and Muslims. (Interestingly, many even atheists didn’t like the idea of voting for an atheist.) We have become a much more tolerant country, but that doesn’t mean we don’t hold religious biases.
Myth 5: Most religious extremists are in the GOP. Defining “extremist” as someone on the far end of the religious spectrum, it is true that most fundamentalists are Republican. But what about the other end of the religious spectrum? Statistically speaking, secular people (atheists, agnostics, etc.) are extreme, too, in the sense that they are well outside the public opinion norm. They tend to be Democrats. According to one study 60 percent of first-time white delegates to the 1992 Democratic convention claimed no attachment to religion.
Myth 6: Hispanics are conservative. The perception of Hispanics as conservative is misshapen by the political behavior of Florida’s Cubans, who are indeed overwhelmingly Republican. But on the question of gay marriage, for instance, Hispanics were at the national average (54 percent opposed). Professor Green has found a big difference between Hispanic Catholics and Hispanic Protestants, with the latter group more conservative than the former. American Hispanic Catholics, it turns out, aren’t that religious. Professors Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio put voters into three groups according to religious intensity—”traditionalists,” “moderates,” and “secularists.” Only10 percent of Hispanics turned out to be traditionalists—this fraction in the African-American community was much larger. So, Republicans shouldn’t assume that issues like abortion will lure large numbers of Hispanic Catholics.
Myth 7: The key to the Catholic vote is abortion. It is true that in some ways Catholicism is in flux. John Kennedy beat Nixon among Catholics by 54 percentage points, and Hubert Humphrey beat Nixon by 26 points; but Reagan won them by 21 points, and from that day forward Catholics were “in play.” Clinton won them by 20 points in 1996, but Gore did by only 6 points. So, figuring out how to appeal to swing Catholics is important. While it’s true that many Catholics are pro-life and dislike the Democrats’ position on abortion, they tend also to be more interested in social issues, such as health care, and may be influenced by opposition to the Iraq war expressed by the pope and the bishops. For Bush, then, it’s important that he still tout “compassionate conservatism,” not so much to appeal to conservative evangelicals as to appeal to swing Catholics.
Some bits of conventional wisdom about religion are true. Republicans are also attempting to lure Jews, who are one of the few groups that vote “against” their own socio-demographic class. Based on their income and education levels, Jews ought to be voting Republican, and the GOP sees their strong support of Israel and the Iraq war as a way to make inroads.
So far Republicans have been far more sophisticated at understanding religious voting patterns than Democrats have. I suspect it’s because religion gives the willies to a lot of secular liberals, who just happen to be the folks who run political campaigns and cover them for the media. Perhaps the biggest religion question of the 2004 campaign will be whether the Democratic nominee can talk about his faith without gagging.
Correction, Oct. 10, 2003: The original version of this article said Bill Clinton garnered 55 percent of the evangelical vote over Bush Sr. in 1996. In fact, he won those votes over Bob Dole. (Return to the corrected sentence here.)