Religion and Politics

Jeff Alworth

Religion and politics have always mingled in American life, generally uneasily.  Periodically, populist ferment fuels a Christian revival and a re-entry into the political realm before burning itself out on its own inflexibility.  As a response to the Gilded Age, prairie populists led by William Jennings Bryan used the language of Christ to stand up to corporate power and usher in the progressive era.  Said Jennings famously at his 1896 presidential nomination:  "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Christians have lately been animating the other team, the wire-rimmed accountants from an earlier era banished from the party.  But as with the 20th-Century's Bible-fueled populists, the current crop may have run up against a ceiling of support as they push their inflexible agenda relentlessly forward.  Bryan's sometimes brilliant career ended ignobly,on the losing side of the Scopes "Monkey" trial.  Since Bush's re-election, Christian fundamentalists have found themselves defending creationism, Terri Schiavo, and absolutist views on abortion.  But is the tide really turning?

According to findings released yesterday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the answer may be yes.

The most blunt measures don't show much of a change: 67% of respondents consider this a "Christian nation" (up from 60% a decade ago, but down form 71% last year), and slightly more people think religion's influence on government is shrinking (45%) than growing (42%).  Perhaps most strangely, fewer people today think the GOP is friendly to religion (47%) than last year (55%).

But drill down into the numbers and a pattern emerges: the heretofore cohesive Christian voting bloc is now fracturing into three groups--evangelical Protestants*, mainstream Protestants, and Catholics.  The slip in support for the GOP is happening among Catholics and evangelicals (both down 14%), but not among mainstream Christians (down just a single percent).  While Pew hazards no guess as to why support is slipping, it doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest that evangelicals are feeling dejected after failures by the all-Republican government to repeal Roe, add intelligent design to school curriculums, and so on. 

Further evidence of this fracturing coalition appears in a fascinating series of questions Pew asked about science. Only 28% of evangelical Protestants believe in evolution as compared with majorities of Catholics (59%) and mainline Protestants (62%).  A large majority of Americans believe global warming is happening (79%), but evangelicals are the most skeptical that it is caused by humans--just over a third as compared with mainline Protestants (48%), Catholics (52%), and "seculars" (62%).  Hard to say where Buddhists, like me, fit in--not to mention Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and so on--but I think I get the picture.  (Statistical insignificance is an apt description of just about all the groups I belong to.)

It's still early in the game.  Pew looked for evidence of an emerging "religious left," but couldn't find many people who identified themselves this way (7%).  Part of the problem seems to be that while the "conservative" in "conservative Christian" might modify either one's theological or political orientation equally well, there's less coherence among "liberal" Christians.  Some are poltically liberal but theologically conservative and vice versa.

Whether a religious left is emerging as an identifiable group or not, this study may be documenting the first stages of the fracturing of the religious right.  Already Republicans have begun rolling out the usual religiously-divisive wedge issues.  We'll see in November whether those newly-disenfranchised evangelicals turn out again to vote against gay marriage.

*Pew links and uses interchangeably "Biblical literalists" (those who believe the Bible is the actual word of God) and evangelicals.  While there is strong overlap, not all self-described evangelicals are Biblical literalists.

  • Sandra (unverified)

    Even if there is a fracturing of the religious right, I still see them turning out in the polls in a strong way. Factions or no, they know which direction they won't be voting (as opposed to simply not voting for a Republican candidate they're unhappy with). At least, that's what I predict.

    As a radical-leaning thinker I groan to think about religion having a role in our politics whatsoever - which isn't to say I want to alienate people motivated by spiritual beliefs. I just think they're irrelevant to how we should decide to govern ourselves. Let the Republicans keep rolling out the "religiously-divisive wedge issues" and let us work on other matters.

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    In addition to the discouragement amongst evangelicals regarding Republican "betrayals", there is also an awakening by many evangelicals that there are issues other than gays and abortion that they should be concerned about. Specifically the environment and social justice issues are getting more attention and this is creating some dissonance with the Bush administration approach. I also believe that the war is making an impact as well, although I have no evidence of this. I am not claiming that the whole religious right movement has suddenly seen the light, pun intended, but there is a change in the air in some congregations.

    For people interested in the subject of religion and politics, consider participating in the Faith and American Values Summit on Sept. 16th in Portland. Topics will include -

    Caring for Creation: Environmental Stewardship Budgets as Moral Documents Loving Our Neighbors: Immigration and the Gospel Health Care is a Family Value

    You can learn more at The Oregon Center for Christian Values (

    Also Jim Wallis (God's Politics) will be back in Portland the night of Sept. 14th.

  • BlueNote (unverified)

    I read the linked article and it is frightening indeed. The idea that a substantial majority of "Christians" believe that the Bible should have a greater role in shaping US law than the will of the people is a throwback to an age which I thought was long gone. I am a practicing Catholic, but I would not want the Pope to be in charge of US law any more than I would want Mother Goose or the Mad Hatter (oops, I think we already have him as President).

    Thank God for the First Amendment!

  • LT (unverified)

    There have always been religious people who didn't agree with the Christian Coalition or Focus on the Family, but that didn't make a good news story. 2004 stories about "religious voters" on closer examination turned out to be about white evangelical Protestants (lots of religious people who don't fit into that group).

    There have been clergy turning their attention to other issues, but that hasn't gotten much attention. For example, I was sent a church bulletin from a relative's church which condemned "the war on Christmas" as violating not only "tis the season to be jolly" but the whole spirit of Jesus and Christmas. One line was "they will know we are Christians by the love in our hearts, not by the greeting of a Walmart Santa " (certainly contrary to the "religious right" view of the world).

    Check out Rev. Greg Boyd--think he has written a new book. Was on Charlie Rose recently. Preached a series of sermons on how Jesus saw the world differently than some religious-political leaders (of the pro-Bush variety) which made some parishoners so angry they left the church, but others thanked him.

    Think of how many political figures value polarization and ignore the Beatitude "Blessed are the peacemakers".

    Boyd talked about political power (which he called the sword) and the teachings of Jesus (which he called the cross) and said Christians were supposed to be carrying a cross "and you have to put down the sword to pick up the cross"---that political power is not what Jesus preached.

    Sounds like the sort of tide turning that the late 1980s was, only this time turning away from political power and toward religious beliefs that don't fit neatly into political power organizations.

  • GAC (unverified)

    One thing to remember is that a lot of support for anti-reproductive rights in the U.S. comes from people who might not identify themselves as the "religious right". Much of that support is by the U.S. Catholic Church and conservative Catholic church members. People identifying themselves as Catholic make up around 22% of the US population. I wonder how much of that 11% includes conservative Catholics?


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    You've all made astute points, but I think one thing to emphasize is that while there have always been a variety of different groups on the spectrum of "Christianity," they have in the past decade or so voted as a unified bloc for Republican candidates. It's this GOP hegemony over Christian voters that may be breaking up--or anyway, by my optimistic reading of these data.

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    You are falling into the trap of the religious right that claims to speak for Christians, but doesn't. Christians have not "voted as a bloc for Republican candidates". While people who attend church regularly have tended to vote Republican they did not vote as a bloc any more than voters in blue states vote as a bloc for Democrats. We also need to be careful in using religion as the sole reason for voting patterns. In many cases, regional, ethnic, or economic factors overlap religious preferences and may be more determinant in voting patterns. That is not to say that the religious right/anti-abortion crowd isn't a factor. It is, but it does not represent the majority of Christians.

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    While we're on this topic, has anyone read Jesus Rode a Donkey: Why Republicans Don't Have the Corner on Christ?

    I saw it at the bookstore the other day, and thought it looked interesting.

  • LT (unverified)

    they have in the past decade or so voted as a unified bloc for Republican candidates. It's this GOP hegemony over Christian voters that may be breaking up--or anyway, by my optimistic reading of these data.

    The way that the mainstream media reported that oversimplified (to be polite). The "church going voters supported Bush" storyline made it seem that pollsters could station staff outside random churches (or other houses of worship) anywhere in the US and ask the 10th (or whatever) person coming out "do you attend here regularly? why did you vote for Pres. Bush?" and never run into "No, I attend church regularly but no way would I support Bush". At best, it took numbers saying a significant fraction of white evangelical Protestants supported Bush as the default position, and made it sound like anyone who attends services every sabbath they are able to attend services doesn't think about politics and just automatically votes GOP.

    There were a number of objections to Bush, incl. that he broke his "uniter not a divider" promise and became a polarizer. People who live by "Blessed are the peacemakers" don't see polarization as a virtue, but if they attend church regularly they voted for Bush because some survey said so? Not my personal experience (as someone who attends church regularly and is related to a church musician).

    It is like that "people who attend church regularly oppose gay marriage" storyline when there are congregations split over the issue, and the anti-Measure 36 people who came to our house were church members. I know someone who voted for Bush and against Measure 36 because that is what her church teaches--to be accepting of everyone.

    But to know that requires conversations with actual people, polls don't always pick that up.

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    John, not all Christians vote GOP--nor do all union workers vote Dem. But they are similar blocs for their respective parties. In this survey, respondents overwhelmingly thought the GOP was "more friendly to religion" (47%-29%). Bush won 79% of evangelical votes and 52% of Catholics--and he was running against a practicing Catholic. He also won 59% of the entire Christian vote--almost identical to the figure Kerry carried of union voters (61%). Of course, there are a lot more Christians than union voters.

    Many Christian Churches now act as effective wings of the GOP (see here).
    Pew documented some of this in its study as well. Abortion is discussed from the pulpit in 59% of Christian churches; 52% discuss "laws regarding homosexuals." Anecdotally, folks like my politically liberal parents tell me that the atmosphere in churches they attend is enormously charged (and uniformly pro-GOP).

    No bloc of people ever vote uniformly for a candidate (13% of liberals voted Bush, 15% of conservatives Kerry). But that doesn't mean there aren't blocs. And for the GOP, Christian voters have been a reliable block for 20 years.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    Anyone else curious about Rick Warren, who has one of the largest mega-churches in the country? He seems to be an old-time religious populist and he's getting incredible press everywhere, not to mention having a mammoth best seller titled "The Purpose Driven Life" and spin-offs of that book.

    His base is in Orange County, Calif. Yet his message is all about ending poverty, curing AIDS and other diseases, education and literacy. The marketing is sometimes a bit cheesy, but I have a feeling Warren's heart is in the right place.

    Here is a really long article based on a talk he gave to the Pew Forum a while back:

  • Jim Holman (unverified)

    To the extent that the Republican party may be losing the support of some conservative Christians, I think you'll see those people going in three different directions. First, there is a group whose interests are much wider than abortion and gay marriage, who are concerned about a number of other issues such as the environment, Iraq, the economy, and so on. These people will probably end up becoming independents or Democrats. Their co-religionists would consider them "liberals."

    There is another group that is primarily interested in social issues, but that feels sold down the river by the Bush administration. They split with Bush over border security, and they are still pissed about Schiavo, abortion, and gay marriage, and they are outraged now about "Plan B." They may decide to sit out the next election, but might just suck it up and vote Republican.

    Then there is a third group that are the traditional Conservatives, or "paleo-Conservatives." These people are extremely upset about the administration's deficits, their neo-conservative thinking, the military adventure in Iraq, the policy focus on Israel, the fact that Middle Eastern Christians have been virtually ignored, and so on. These people will either sit out the next election, or vote for Constitution Party candidates, etc.

  • JHL (unverified)

    It's fitting to lead this story with Jenning's Cross of Gold speech.

    During that campaign, the progressive (small P) and Socialist blocs in the eastern US were deciding what to make of Jennings... do they embrace him as a fellow advocate of the working man? Or do they reject him as a yokel trying to bring old-world religion and ideas into a country that they were trying to modernize?

    They chose the latter... and that which could have been a great union between working-family votes and would have catapulted Jennings to the Presidency remained split between rural vs. urban.

    It's a good fable.

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    Part of the problem is that the supposed "evangelicals" and "church goers" that are often portrayed in these surveys are the Easter/Christmas Christians. They're the ones who go to Easter and Christmas service, and that's it. And besides mealtime prayers, they spend little if any time on their religion (other than to use it to attack others).

    I saw a survey a few years back that showed that a greater percentage of Dems were regular church goers in comparison to Republicans.

    Many, many Republicans will tell you they're devout Christians, regular church goers, etc., but in reality many spend their holy day watching football, running errands, doing chores, etc. and not spend any of that time on their religion. I came from a small town that was supposedly very devout to their relgiion (most of which were either Southern Baptists or Catholics). However, those same people who went on and on about their religion were nowhere to be found at the church on Sunday... but you could find them at the bars later.

    As a Southern Baptist, I get sick of all the hypocrites in church nowadays. I sit there and listen as they go on and on about how all gays do is think about themselves, and then in the next breath all they talk about is how gay marriage would hurt their own marriage. These churches say they're "New Testament" churches, but I find very little of Jesus' teachings in their words and actions.

    There was also a reason why Bush got a lot of Catholic votes-- his people strongly courted Hispanic/Latin American voters, who often times are Catholic. Hopefully they've learned by now that the Bush Administration and Republican Party only care about them on Election Day.

  • Danny Haszard (unverified)

    Jehovah's Witnesses are justifiably proud that the Watchtower Society (their headquarters organization) has probably done more to guarantee free speech than any other religion.

    They have won 37 of their 46 U.S. Supreme Court cases, assuring us all of freedom of speech and assembly and equal protection under the law. The sad irony is that the Watchtower Society daily abuses the human rights of thousands of its members. It denies current members the right of free speech by forbidding them to speak to former members, even close family members.

    And it denies former members their right of freedom of worship by refusing to allow them to leave the religion with dignity, should they come to disagree with Watchtower's practices or doctrines.

    The religion of Jehovah's Witnesses is a dangerous cult that controls every aspect of its member's lives.

    Danny Haszard


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