Divining the Electorate

Is there a religious vote?

Is there a religious vote? The answer is complex and ambiguous. First of all, politicians think there is a religious vote and that, in close elections, they must cater to it. Second, each party is currently in the process of abandoning the extremes-for Republicans the "culture wars," for Democrats, permissiveness-that appeal to some religious or irreligious groups and repel others. Third, voter data suggest that faith-based voting occurs only at the margins of American elections. However, faith-based voting is central for some religious groups: African American Christians since the sixties and white Evangelical Protestants more recently. Finally, a creedal basis for voting is difficult to sustain in the United States where office-seekers use (and abuse) religious symbols, where civil religion remains the dominant form of political religion, where economic well-being, perhaps even greed, motivates voters more than their moral and religious beliefs, and where intergroup conflicts lie fallow only for short periods of time. It has never been easy to be a consistent Christian in American politics.

Some of the complexities of this issue can be seen in a brief look at the "Catholic vote" over the last four decades. And when we examine the voting preferences of African Americans, Evangelicals, and Mainstream Protestants, further complexities can be demonstrated.

We are told that 1980 was the fulcrum election, that people of faith, especially Catholics, were drawn to Ronald Reagan because of his promise to outlaw abortion, his staunch anticommunism, his family values, and his support for moral character. Yet, considering his flip-flop on abortion from prochoice as governor to prolife as a presidential candidate, the reality of his family(ies) life, his playfulness with truth, and his aversion to churchgoing, Reagan was a morally ambiguous figure. Contrast him to his opponent Jimmy Carter, a born-again Southern Baptist, a Sunday school teacher, and brother to a prominent faith healer. President Carter had fashioned a peace initiative at Camp David anchored in prayer, reading, and discussion of sacred Scriptures, and mutual respect for the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. By most objective standards, Carter was the more "religious" person. Reagan, however, could speak persuasively about religion-in-general. In the public mind, he had stood up to the infidels, the moral relativists, and traitors in Hollywood and Berkeley.

Reagan, in fact, did attract Catholic voters in 1980, although not as effectively as Richard Nixon had in 1972. Even more than Reagan, George Bush attracted Catholics in 1988, but lost them just as abruptly in 1992. Nixon, Reagan, and Bush also attracted Evangelical Protestants from the Democrats. And over the decades Evangelicals have replaced Mainline Protestants as the dominant religious tradition at the core of the Republican Party. All of this makes it sound as if we have witnessed in recent decades a religious influence in national electoral politics unparalleled in our history.

In fact, religion has probably been overrated as a factor before the 1990s. While religion did mobilize previous non-voters, and did rationalize the realignment of many Southern white Evangelicals and some Catholics, it was not as strong a factor as economics, race, or American patriotism. In fact, Republicans suffered backdoor losses as early as Goldwater when economic and cultural conservatives took over the party. As we shall see, Mainline Protestants and highly educated Republicans thought their party had abandoned its heritage of advancing opportunity for minorities and women and was catering too much to the Religious Right. That is why Governor George W. Bush has positioned himself at the moral center-in favor of religion-in-general, character, compassion, opportunity for all, and tolerance. And not surprisingly, Vice President Al Gore checkmated that strategy by selecting Senator Joseph Lieberman, a running mate who is not afraid to speak for religious values in the public square. Nor, for that matter, is Gore.

Each party has a different task during a national election. Throughout the post-New Deal period, Democrats, as the majority party, have had to encourage higher turnout, stressing economic and social insurance issues and trying to mute advantages the Republicans held on traditional moral-order issues (race, foreign relations, gender, etc.). Republicans, as the minority party, have had to shrink the size of the electorate or generate defections among Democrats. The post-New Deal period began with Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, and Jews in the core of the Democratic coalition, Mainline Protestants in the core of the Republican Party, and African American Christians split between the two parties (or not voting at all). A large part of the campaign strategies over the last forty years have involved appeals to these religious traditions in an effort either to draw them to the other party or get them to sit out the election. This year, for example, the Republicans formed a Catholic task force to court Catholic swing voters who are attracted to the party’s moral-restoration agenda, emphasizing issues such as opposition to gay rights, sex and violence in the media, and the decline of character in high office. Whether the Republicans will succeed in attracting Catholic voters for these reasons is uncertain. Let’s examine the last four decades group by group.

African Americans If they could vote at all, African Americans long voted Republican-the party of Abraham Lincoln. During the civil rights era, African American churches increasingly stressed the relationship of religious themes to social and economic justice. Throughout this period, no group matched the religious involvement of blacks. This was the first religious group to make a wholesale shift to one party, in this case, to the Democrats in 1964. The black churches stimulated political participation well beyond what a socioeconomic model would predict. With federal guarantees in place, they got out the vote. Recently, African Americans have resisted efforts of the Christian Coalition to tap into their cultural conservatism and bring them back to the Republican Party. Blacks have kept social-justice concerns paramount and remained loyal to the Democrats.

Evangelicals White Evangelical Protestants were the next group to make a wholesale shift. By every measure of moral restorationism-opposition to abortion, support for school prayer, opposition to civil rights for homosexuals, hesitance about women’s roles outside the home, etc.-Evangelicals are the most culturally conservative religious group in the electorate. Antipathy toward the Catholic Kennedy affected their vote in 1960, but only since 1968 have they gradually favored the Republican Party. Given Evangelicals’ cultural conservatism, we would expect the Republican appeal for moral restoration to explain their displeasure with Democrats and their shift to the Republican Party. But the facts are more ambiguous.

Although Senator Barry Goldwater made heavy use of moral restorationist themes in 1964, statistically significant shifts of Evangelicals to the Republican Party for these reasons do not occur until 1972. Why? White Evangelical opposition to federal civil-rights policies and negative feelings toward blacks outweighed their concerns over moral issues linked to gender, sexuality, or school prayer. In fact, from 1968 to 1988 almost the entire story of the white Evangelical shift from Democrats to Republicans is anchored in race and the role of the federal government in seeking to assure greater opportunity for minorities. After all, this was the basis of Nixon’s famous "Southern Strategy." "Big government" became a racially charged code word, as did phrases like "liberal," "tax and spend," "welfare," "crime," "law and order," "gun control," and "local control of schools." (It is important to remember, of course, that racial and class conflicts are hard to disentangle.)

While the moral restorationist factor is modestly evident in our analyses of voting behavior throughout the 1970s and the Reagan years, it does not replace race as the central factor until 1992 and 1996. Only in the 1990s can we say unequivocally that a religious vote concerned with state-encouraged morality in our daily lives has dominated the political outlooks and behavior of white Evangelicals. This religious tradition, heavily anchored in the South but spreading throughout the country, kept its century-old animus to the federal government and attached it to race and social spending. Ever since Nixon, Evangelicals have found the Republican Party more hospitable than the Democratic Party.

Mainline White Mainline Protestants-such as Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists-have always been at the core of the Republican Party, and traditionally have been civic-minded and reformist in their political impulses. Their modest movement toward the Democratic Party mirrors those factors that attracted white Evangelical Protestants to the Republicans. In 1964, Mainliners resented the takeover of the party by Goldwater conservatives. In fact, Republican defections over race and women were a far greater cause of Goldwater’s defeat than was fear of his strident anticommunism ("Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice"). In Nixon’s 1972 victory over George McGovern, there also is substantial defection to the Democrats by white Mainline Republicans who are committed to change on race and gender issues. Such defections to the Democrats over Republican racial policies continued until 1992. Many Mainliners reject their party’s use of code words to heighten racial differences. They are also the first religious group to take notice of the moral-restorationist themes deployed during the Reagan years. This becomes the dominant reason some vote Democratic from 1980 until 1996 (with the exception of 1988 when the use of the Willie Horton ad made race dominant again). Although white Mainline Protestants have remained Republican, they have become unreliable coalition partners. Bush’s use of themes about religion-in-general, inclusiveness, tolerance, and equal opportunity at the Philadelphia Republican convention were certainly addressed to Mainliners in the old core of the party.

Catholics Finally, let’s look at white (non-Hispanic) Catholics. There are two important things to remember about Catholics as a potential religious vote. First, Catholics are the largest single church body in the American electorate and have been a principal target for campaign themes from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush. Second, forty years ago Catholics had the highest church attendance levels of any religious tradition, but this has changed. Today Catholics over age fifty display the high level of attendance that characterizes Evangelicals. Catholics below fifty have the infrequent attendance patterns of Mainline Protestants. This means that younger Catholics are less often exposed to sacramental rites and social teachings. Younger men attend Mass less frequently and are predominantly Republican, economically conservative, and culturally liberal. Younger women attend Mass slightly more frequently than younger men and are predominantly Democratic; they are slightly more liberal, both economically and culturally. The largest gender gap of any religious group opened up in the 1990s among younger Catholics. Their elders continue to look a lot more like each other: they attend Mass quite regularly, are economically liberal and somewhat more conservative culturally. Given these differences and divisions, is there any basis for thinking that a "religious vote" exists among Catholics? Or that this year’s Republican effort to woo Catholics on moral and cultural issues will work?

It is not clear that moral-restorationist issues dramatically affect the way Catholics vote. Race, for example, has had a much stronger impact on voting patterns. From 1968 to 1992, racially charged issues were far and away the dominant reason why white Catholics left the Democratic Party. Catholics are generally more willing than other religious groups to use the government to resolve problems of equal opportunity. They also show more warmth toward minorities and the poor. Still, many of those Catholics who moved to the Republicans showed less receptiveness to government action and less warmth toward minorities and the poor. Only in 1996, after four years of the Clintons, does the cluster of issues and group feelings that constitute a moral restorationist program significantly push Catholics in a Republican direction. And here it is the generation of Mass-attending women over fifty.

Furthermore, when we examine a set of four characteristics that signal deeper identification with the Catholic community-frequent Mass attendance, the importance of religion in daily life, feeling close to other Catholics, and the interaction of the first two-we find a religious impact with some regularity on two issues: opposition to abortion and opposition to the death penalty. These are both human-life issues where the church has offered clear proscriptive teaching.

On the other hand, when prescriptive teachings about social justice, equal opportunity, and a preferential option for the poor are involved, those who have a deeper identification with the Catholic community show greater ambiguity. For the most part, being Catholic or even being a good Catholic predicts little about a person’s views about social justice and government programs. Finally, the depth of identification with the Catholic community also predicts very little about warmth toward minorities or the poor. The only exception is among older Catholic women. This is also the segment of the church that is slightly more favorable toward government involvement in social support and equal opportunity programs. Thus, this sector of Catholic voters is likely to feel cross-pressured in 2000.

The analysis of survey data about the role religion plays in voter behavior does not allow us to draw any simple lessons. Campaign rhetoric may articulate a principled theme and voters may embrace it. At the same time, voters also may respond to less principled subthemes voiced by politicians to take advantage of fears or of racial and gender stereotypes. "States’ rights" can mean democratic responsiveness from a unit of government closer to the people. But to some whites it also means that no federal court order "will force my child to attend a predominantly black school." To some, "local control of schools" and "school vouchers" are practical ways to reform education and provide an alternative for minorities trapped in terrible schools. To others it is assurance that teachers’ unions led by women, Jews, and blacks, or "alternate family advocates" "will not get their hands on my child." For many who felt that the growth of big government threatened America’s unique blend of democracy and republicanism, the reduction of taxes was the way to reduce that danger. However, as journalist Thomas Edsall has suggested, for many whites reducing taxes was a way to keep their hard earned dollars from being redistributed to indolent black hands. "Abolishing welfare as we know it" might be a principled way to reduce intergenerational dependence on government. However, for many Americans it was the way to remove a presumed financial incentive for black women to have babies out of wedlock. Do Catholics respond to principled appeals, or to stereotyping, or to a sense of relative deprivation? It is difficult to know. Certainly those white Catholics at the lower to middle rungs of the occupational ladder were in competition with African Americans for jobs, homes, and neighborhoods. Again, as with Evangelicals, it is important to remember that racial and class conflicts are hard to disentangle.

What we can conclude, however, is that historically racial symbols and code words were more powerful during the sixties, seventies, and eighties in drawing Catholics and Evangelicals to the Republican Party than appeals to patriotism or the moral restoration agenda. We can further conclude that the experiences of the 1980s and 1990s added fuel to partisan transitions. In the 1980s some Mainliners were already voting Democratic in reaction against the cultural themes Republican leaders were articulating. By the 1990s, Evangelicals had moved in droves to the Republicans because of their beliefs about the moral life. Very modest numbers of Catholics were moving to the Republicans because of these same issues.

We do not yet know whether the 1996 election will have initiated a religious-based political realignment that will see large number of Catholics follow Evangelicals into the Republican Party. Given the nature of the 2000 election campaign, it appears that the Republican nominee is aiming at Catholics and Mainline Protestants for whom religion is not a tight set of laws but a source of goodness. And it appears that the Democratic nominees are determined to contest that same terrain. Perhaps this is closer to what it means to be a good American than what it means to be a consistent Christian.

Published in the 2000-10-20 issue: 

David C. Leege is emeritus professor of political science, the University of Notre Dame.

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