Progressive Revival

Do the hot-button culture war issues like abortion and gay marriage matter? If you read only blogs or the news coverage (such as this NYTimes story, “Abortion Issue Again Dividing Catholics”) you might get the impression that these are the central issues, and indeed the key to victory for McCain or Obama in November.

Think again. Religion research guru John Green of the University of Akron (and the Pew Forum) today released the results of his fifth national mid-summer survey of voters, taken every four years during June, July and August, and this year’s results show two things:

One is a remarkable stability in religious voting blocs, with the numbers preferring McCain and Obama at almost the same the ratios for Bush and Kerry in 2004. (Though Obama is somewhat ahead overall–or was in the summer. This was before the conventions, before the Palin pick, though Green echoes others who indicate Palin energized the base to a great degree, but may not have shifted many independents.)

The second and really dramatic shift is in voter priorities. Social issues (abortion, gay rights, stem cells, et al) are way down the list. In 2004, more than 19 percent of all voters listed social issues as the top priority, and 28 percent said they were “very important.” This year just 11.1 percent said they were the “top priority” and almost the same, 27.2 percent, said they were very important.

Conversely, in 2004, about 27 percent of voters put the economy as No. 1. Now that’s nearly doubled, at 51.3 percent. And this was a poll completed weeks before the current economic meltdown.

Even more remarkable is the shift among the most conservative believers. Green–knowing full well that any labels are insufficient–has three categories for each denomination, Traditionalist, Centrist, and Modernist, determined by 11 questions each respondent (4,017 in random nat’l sample with 1.5 percent margin of error) answers.

Among traditionalist Catholics, for example, 57 percent say the economy is the top priority, and just 18 percent (!) cite social issues. That’s almost the reverse of 2004, when 17. 4 percent of trad Catholics said the economy was tops, and 38 percent said it was social issues. The shift is pretty much across the board, though evangelicals of course remain more solidly GOP and are as likely to see social issues as important as the economy. Specific concerns on civil unions, same-sex marriage, and stem cells also dropped off considerably among all categories. (Another factor is that Catholics across the board are much more likely to support an active government role–in keeping with Catholicism’s social justice and communitarian traditions–than evangelicals.)

The upshot? For all his faith outreach efforts and God talk, Barack Obama has made little headway with evangelicals compared to 2004. “I was really quite surprised by that given the foment,” Green said. There have been some changes, with traditionalist Catholics significantly less supportive of McCain than of Bush (46 now to 55.3 percent then), but a bigger and perhaps more enduring shift of Latino Protestants from the GOP to the Dems.

Of course much has transpired since August, and Green noted that this year there are still more “persuadable” voters than in 2004. And the economy seems key, and it is the wild card in these last few weeks–the time when voters actually start paying attention.

Meanwhile, religious communities (especially Catholics) will be tearing themselves up over abortion and gay marriage and the like, while voters will be looking elsewhere. That is a strong argument to look for common ground to move ahead on these contested topics. “The differences between and within religious communities may be deep-seated, producing a close contest with a high level of religious polarization,” Green predicted. “Many of these religious divisions have developed over the last 20 years, so they have a certain momentum to them.”

Green also noted that “there is a great yearning for a resolution to these disputes (among voters), but we don’t seem able to find one.”


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