Progressive Revival

Progressive Revival

Economics is THE Religious Issue

Was religion an important issue in this election?  Or was Barack Obama’s election a matter of economics?  

Exit polls reveal that white Protestants voted in large numbers for John McCain for president–thus making them the primary religious group left in the old conservative coalition.

However, exit polls did not break down “white Protestants” into smaller constituencies of “evangelical Protestants” and “mainline Protestants.”  Evangelicals continued to deliver large numbers for Republicans.  But the numbers for mainline Protestants may be a different story when the final count comes in.  

Historically, mainline Protestants have been Republicans and have not in any modern election backed a Democratic candidate.  In 2000 and 2004, however, Democrats began to garner more votes from the mainline fold, moving in a more liberal direction.  John Kerry received more mainline votes (somewhere between 45-48%) than any other presidential candidate in history.  A late October ABC/Washington Post poll indicated that mainliners were trending toward Barack Obama by a 53%-46% margin.  This may not have been the final tally, but if Obama even achieved a 50/50 split, it would mark an historic change in the mainline Protestant community.  


This may seem minor, but for the fact that mainline Protestant churches are strongest in the “new battleground” states of the upper Midwest and the mid-Atlantic where even a small shift makes a big difference.  Economic issues–the dominant concern of this campaign–are tailor-made for mainline Protestants, for whom money is the faith-based issue.

Unlike evangelicals, mainline Protestants are accustomed to living with divided opinions regarding the “hot button” concerns like abortion and gay-marriage. Despite media hype, those issues do not motivate them spiritually to vote in any particular direction. But money is another matter. If you want to start a good fight in a mainline congregation, bring up the yearly stewardship campaign or the mission budget.


Mainline Protestants donate much money to charitable causes, are concerned with stewardship in paying their pastors, and struggle to responsibly grow their endowments in order to maintain their historic buildings and their ministries. They possess strong theological ideas about balanced budgets, responsible spending, and caring for the common good through fairness in our economic life.  Mainline Protestants, motivated by ideals of responsibility, charity, and stewardship, naturally identify economics as part of their moral framework. In this particular constituency, religion and economics are intimately connected.

In recent weeks, one mid-western mainline pastor told me that Republican leadership on economic issues was like “a bunch of drunken sailors on ship heading for hell.” His colleagues laughed in agreement.  Mainliners used to be Republicans because they trusted the GOP with their cash. If Democrats gain their trust on economic concerns, they will speak to the spiritual heart of these mainstream churches’ vision of faith.  And, as a result, the old mainline may yet find itself part of a new progressive religious coalition.

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Steven Ertelt

posted November 5, 2008 at 4:57 pm

The exit polls are clear — 80 percent made their decision based on economics. McCain led in the polls prior to the economic meltdown weeks ago. Without that, Obama is a mere footnote in history.
Now he has to make good on his promise to reduce abortions. Can’t imagine that happening.

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posted November 5, 2008 at 5:39 pm

You are right on target in your analysis about economics being a value or religious issue… How silly to believe that faith voters focus on just 2 or 3 issues… Really, its a grave mistake to suggest such… People of faith, like everybody, sees, interprets and acts out in the world through the values and beliefs they hold… people of faith get their values and beleifs from their churches, from the Bible for Christians… are we to believe that Christians only apply their faith to 2 or 3 issues… I hope not. Economics is a religous issue and when making their Election Day choices people of faith saw the economy as a key factor, applied their values and most chose Senator Obama.

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posted November 5, 2008 at 7:30 pm

Hi. Authentic mainline protestant here.
I decided for Obama last March, before McCain was the GOP nominee, before he chose Palin, before the economic meltdown. Guess I’m one of those 20 percent. To say Obama would be a mere footnote in history without the economic problems…You’re entitled to your opinion, but the evidence shows otherwise. Following the nomination of La Palin, McCain’s numbers began sliding quickly. The economic meltdown just greased the skids. McCain’s best poll numbers were on 9/11, when he led Obama by 2 points in aggregate polling. On that day, the Dow was over 11000. On Sep 26, the dow was still over 11000, but McCain had dropped 4 points and was now trailing. As late as Oct 1, the dow was still at 10800, but Obama had extended his lead to 4.5 points. Coincidental movement doesn’t imply causation. The economy played a big part, sure–it doesn’t help when McCain says the fundamentals are strong while they are in free fall–but Obama’s strength as a candidate, McCain’s disastrous choice of Palin and his ugly campaign (who truly cares about Bill Ayers or Jeremiah Wright today? Or seriously thinks we’re on the road to communism?) sealed the deal.
As for reducing abortions, they’ve been on a steady decline for 20 years, and saw their steepest decline during the Clinton years. The decline continued during the Bush years, but not as steeply, probably because of the ineffective and asinine “abstinence only” policies.

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posted November 5, 2008 at 7:54 pm

Obama “a mere FOOTNOTE in history”–please, dear Steven, read some history–you might start with a “footnote” like Martin Luther King, Jr. or , perhaps, Abraham Lincoln. And then you might brush up on recent history and learn that indeed, abortions are on the decline, and the reduction in abortions is slowed only by policies like parental notification, absence of sex ed in schools, and those Bush and Christian Right sanctioned “abstinence-only” attempts.
Meanwhile, people of intelligence and good will are celebrating the triumph of hope over cynicism like yours.

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A Canadian view

posted November 8, 2008 at 1:47 pm

Many Canadians supported Obama most often as an anti Bush reaction. The media interviews after Obama’s election reflect a hope filled ideology that minorities will get their message in the forefront in a a way that meshes with the patriotic msg. that all who come to this country can succeed. Up to now the message has been there without the substance. Now we have an example of the substance as the message. My sense is that people seem to be swayed by particular issues without looking at the whole picture. The abortion issue is an example. Reducing abortions is about sex education. It’s about taking precautions in the first place. But if that isn’t working it is not about abandonment. It’s about after pregnancy care; it’s about not being ostracized in one’s society. We have a duty of care to society not a duty of condemnation. I can put a biblical spin on this and support the argument like Bush would have done but it shouldn’t be necessary. the overriding test is Love your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself. And as the gospel says loving neighbour is high on the priority list.
So move on with what needs to be done and do it in a way that fills the needs of the least among us to build what you envision for the future.

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