Evangelicals will Decide the 2012 Election

So says Marcia Pally, who teaches at New York University and Fordham University. Her most recent book is "The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good"

We are now past the half-mark in the Republican primaries, and it seems that evangelicals are following tradition—or stereotype--as the religious voting-bloc outlier. Yet a look at the numbers suggests that evangelicals are not voting as a bloc, laminated together by a bright film of values that make their votes mostly the same, for conservative Rich Santorum, everywhere. They have been voting variously--motivated by a mix of concerns influenced by faith but also by income, education, and local socio-political culture. Indeed, evangelicals have often been divided in worldly matters. Slavery, for instance, was castigated in the ante-bellum North and supported by Scripture in the South. How is this so? First, a glance at the voting and then at this question.

Evangelicals supported Romney in New Hampshire, Maine, Virginia, and Nevada, as did majorities in those states.[1] They tied Romney with Gingrich in Florida, Romney with Santorum in Arizona. They preferred Gingrich in southern Georgia and South Carolina but in southern Mississippi and Alabama, they split between Santorum and Newt Gingrich; Romney came in just 2-3 points behind. Were evangelicals voting on only one set of religious concerns, the vote would be more consistent. Statistically, this is not narrow-issue bloc-voting.

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Commenting on the evangelical vote this year, Gary Bauer, president of the conservative American Values, noted, “These voters do not vote in lock step.” Rather than bunching together, they span the Republican range from populist to business interests. And then there are those who vote Democrat.

Staying with Republican evangelicals for a moment, they have been drawn to the party’s core small-government-ism by doctrine and history. The doctrinal emphasis on the individual will (in choosing Jesus, in pursuing the moral life), their persecution at the hands of Europe’s states and state churches, and the American history of rough frontier living made for a trinity of government-wary self-reliance. The First Great Awakening (the evangelical revival of the 1730s and 40s), was a festival of anti-authoritarian spiritual movements and iconoclastic preachers. The 19th century saw a quite radical evangelical populism, often anti-government, anti-banker, anti-landlord and pro-squatter. At the turn of the twentieth century, the evangelical Social Gospel gave America one of its earliest critiques of big-business capitalism. Three times, evangelicals voted for populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (1896, 1900 and 1908).

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By Marcia Pally
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