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. 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.
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).
Until the mid-twentieth century, however, the self-reliant emphasis had not meant evangelical allegiance to the Republican party. Government-wary evangelicals often stayed outside politics altogether. Moreover, American southerners, including southern evangelicals, resented the Republicans, who had defeated them in the Civil War and humiliated them in the decades after. But in the 1960s, evangelicals, like many Americans, were alarmed by what they saw as "self-indulgent" hippies, “spineless” anti-Vietnam-war protestors and the "handouts" of the Civil Rights and anti-poverty programs implemented by the Democrats. For the first time, they joined hands with the Republicans to steer the country back to what they felt are its moral strengths.
That is, the Republican party, because of its coalition of business and populist interests, was able to attract evangelicals from both these demographics. They are united by faith in small government—one that
keeps the market mostly unregulated and moral self-responsibility sacrosanct. But they are also divided, with higher income and education tending towards the business interest, mid and lower, towards populism.
These differences divide the votes of Republicans, evangelical and otherwise. Where there is less populist tradition, in Maine, Nevada, and New Hampshire, evangelicals favored Romney. His supporters set up “Evangelicals for Mitt” (http://evangelicalsformitt.org/). Where they are divided populist/business, the vote is split. In Arizona, evangelicals voted 36% for Romney, 37% for Santorum. In Florida, 36% voted for Romney, 38% for Gingrich, who was there seen as the populist. Only 19% voted for Santorum, who there was the “religious” candidate.
Where there is significant populism, the candidate who has succeeded in positioning himself as the populist hero, has won. In Iowa, Santorum did and won among evangelicals, who preferred him (a Catholic) over co-religionists Rick Perry (14%) and Michelle Bachmann (6%). In South Carolina and Georgia, Newt Gingrich did—attacking Romney as a “vulture capitalist”--and he won among evangelicals as among all voters. The Santorum flurry in February in more rural states--traditional populist ground--is his reward for firming up his community-populist profile. In Michigan, currently fueled by rust-belt populism, Santorum positioned himself as the populist hero, attacking Romney for supporting the banking but not the auto-industry bailout that saved millions of jobs. He landed just three points short of Romney in Romney’s home state and won among evangelicals. In Mississippi and Alabama, where 80% of voters identify as evangelical/born-again Christian, both Santorum and Gingrich had populist profiles, yielding near-ties. But even here, other concerns were in play among evangelicals: Romney earned a close second place on his “electability” in the general election.