The Smaller God Gap

Democrats make progress with religious voters but now have to reassess their approach to abortion.

BY: Steven Waldman

 

The religious coalition that Republicans had assembled -- evangelical Christians, regular churchgoers, and Catholics -- shrunk on Tuesday.

The "God Gap" -- One of the most important factors in recent years has been the development of a religiosity gap in which the most church-going Americans voted Republican and the least devout voted Democratic. This gap closed a bit in this election.

People who attended church weekly voted 58 percent to 41 percent for Bush in 2004. This year, they voted 51 percent for Republicans to 48 percentfor Democrats.

This seems to be particularly true in some of the key swing states. For instance, in Ohio the Democratic candidate for Senate, Sherrod Brown, got 44 percent of those attending worship services weekly or more. The Democratic Senate candidate in 2004, Eric Fingerhut, got only 27 percent and John Kerry got 35 percent of them.

It's unclear whether church-going voters turned to Democrats because they now viewed them as friendlier to faith or whether they were simply motivated by unhappiness with the war in Iraq


Catholics -- With all the attention on evangelicals, we shouldn't lose sight of another significant result: In this election, Democrats won back the Catholic vote. In 2004, President Bush beat John Kerry among Catholics 52 percent-47 percent. The exit polls for the House races show Catholics going 57 percent-42 percent for the Democrats. Democrats gained ground among white Catholics and Hispanics.

In all likelihood this has little to do with social issues but rather illustrates Catholic dissatisfaction with the Iraq war.


Evangelical Democrats – While it wasn't exactly an evangelical stampede, Democrats did make noticeable improvements among white evangelical Christians. In 2004, John Kerry got 21 percent of "white evangelical/born-again" Christians. This year, the Democrats got 29 percent.

In all likelihood, these were not conservative "religious right" voters but more moderate evangelical voters who had trended Republican in recent years but supported Democratic approaches to the environment and poverty.


Pro-Life Democrats – Several seats were snatched away from Republicans by pro-life Democrats. Several incumbent Republicans in the House and the Senate were unseated by pro-life Democrats. Robert Casey, Jr., who is anti-abortion, defeated Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania. Brad Ellsworth, who defeated Indiana incumbent Congressman John Hostettler, also opposes abortion, as does former pro-football quarterback Heath Shuler, who defeated North Carolina Republican Congressman Charles Taylor.

These Democrats are not shy about their anti-abortion views though they put a Democratic twist on them. For instance, on his website, Shuler says he is "a pro-life Democrat and I believe that all life is sacred." He adds that he also believes that "a commitment to life extends beyond the womb and means ensuring that all people have adequate health care, receive a strong education, and be given proper care in their later years."

To cement the gains with religious voters and Catholics, the Democrats will likely need to develop a more moderate position on abortion. These new pro-life Democrats will surely press the case; it's an open question how the pro-choice Democrats who will still dominate the party will react.

Thanks to the Iraq war, Democrats now have an opening to win over more religious voters. However, the Iraq war won’t dominate forever and Democrats will now need to prove themselves worthy of centrist religious voters by altering their views on some social issues and dispelling the image that they're hostile to faith.

P.S. -- Two Religious Milestones --  With the election of Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, Congress has its first Muslim representative.  Second, if the Democrats take control of the Senate, as now appears likely, they will likely elect a Mormon, Harry Reid of Nevada, as the leader.  Given that the Church of Latter Day Saints used to be viewed by many Christians as heretical, it's a sign of how far Mormons have come that Reid's faith appears to be a non-issue.

 

11/13/06 Postscript for political junkies:

 

A debate has broken out about whether or not evangelicals Christians actually shifted to the Democrats. My view is that yes, there was a slight but meaningful shift. 

 

Exit polls showed that 28% of white evangelicals who voted in House elections chose Democrats. As I wrote above, 21% of evangelicals voted for Kerry in 2004.   This 7% shift seemed significant to me. There was also a shift when it came to the percentage of weekly churchgoers. In 2004, 55% of weekly churchgoers voted Republican this year; 61% of them voted for Bush in 2004.

 

Others have argued that the better point of comparison is not to the 2004 Kerry vote but to the exit polls conducted for people who voted in House races. In those polls, the shift was smaller:  25% of evangelicals voted Democratic in 2004, rather than 21%, a 3% gap.

 

Kevin Drum  at the Washington Monthly   argues that the most natural comparison is House results to House results and there’s certainly a logic to that; after all, having a liberal Massachusetts Catholic at the head of the ticket could certainly have had a negative impact. But to me, that’s sort of the point. If you have someone at the top of the ticket who’s anti-Christ-like to many Christians, it will affect the vote. If you don’t, it wont. This year, the top of the ticket was a home-grown candidate, often with local look, feel and faith.

 

In at least some local races, the gap shrinkage was even more noticeable. For instance, in Ohio the Democratic candidate for Senate, Sherrod Brown, got 44 percent of those attending worship services weekly or more. The Democratic Senate candidate in 2004, Eric Fingerhut, got only 27 percent and John Kerry got 35 percent of them. 

 

We have further evidence of a shift in a Beliefnet survey. Yes, I confess: this is not a scientific, random sample poll. It’s an online survey in which we invited our 9 million email newsletter subscribers to take a survey. 2006 did and among those were 770 evangelicals. But the group came pretty close to representing random-sampling polls. 49 percent self described conservative, 37 percent moderate, 14 percent liberal. It's certainly a devout group: 76 percent go to church weekly or more)

       

And yet 60.7 percent said that in recent years their views about Republicans had become less positive. (51.5 percent said their views on Democrats had grown more negative). And 40.2 percent of the evangelicals surveyed favored the idea of Christians taking a "fast" from politics, compared to 30.7 percent who opposed the idea.

 

Keep in mind, this is not “religious right” voters who shifted. It’s moderate and liberal evangelicals who were concerned about the war and corruption. They’re also conservative on gay marriage and abortion but were more worried about these other issues.

(Super Arcane Polling Postscript: Kevin’s second argument is that such a change is meaningless because it wasn’t more than the general 5% general shift.   Chicken-and-egg alert: Given the size of church-going bloc, wouldn’t a shift among them help cause a general shift?) 

 

So for me, the bottom line is that there was indeed a meaningful shift among churchgoing Christians toward the Democrats and that there is a real dissatisfaction among many moderate evangelicals with the Republican Party. But because it was triggered by two issues – Iraq and corruption – that cant be counted on in 2008, the Democrats will have to take some fairly dramatic steps to solidify these temporary gains.

 

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