By Thomas B. Edsall
March 25, 2020
A steady religious realignment has reshaped the white American electorate, turning religious conviction — or its absence — into a clear signal of where voters stand in the culture wars.
As mainstream Protestant denominations have declined over the past half century, there has been a hollowing out of the center among white Christians of all faiths. New generations of Americans have joined the ranks of evangelical churches, while others, in larger numbers, have forsaken religion altogether.
These two trends have transformed the strategic underpinnings of political campaigning.
The more religiously engaged a white voter is, the more likely he or she will be a Republican; the less religious the voter, the more likely to be a Democrat. But, as we shall see it’s not that simple: The deeper you go, the more complex it gets.
Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, has tracked religious trends for the past 30 years using data from the General Social Survey.
He reports that in 1988, 55.7 percent of Americans were members of traditional, mainstream denominations, 36.6 percent were members of evangelical and born-again denominations and 7.7 percent said they were not religious.
By 2018, membership in traditional denominations had fallen 20 points to 35.5 percent, born-again evangelical church membership had grown by 4.8 points to 41.4 percent, and the share of the nonreligious had tripled to 23.1 percent.
In an email, Burge warned that “in just a few years there will be no moderate Protestants left.”
This has been a windfall for the Republican Party.
As Burge writes: “Almost every predominantly white Protestant denomination — from Southern Baptists and United Methodists to Missouri Synod Lutherans and the Assemblies of God — is solidly Republican” This is apparent in the sea of red in the accompanying chart.
Among the 20 largest white Protestant denominations, “just two became less Republican in a statistically significant way in the last 10 years,” according to Burge, while “16 of these denominations have larger shares of Republicans today than they did when Barack Obama was elected in 2008.” Republicans have even made gains in relatively liberal denominations like the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and the American Baptist Churches.
While Republicans are picking up steam among the faithful, Democrats are making gains among those with little or no propensity for worship.
Take white working class Democrats. Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts, measures the intensity of religious commitment using responses to the question in the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, “How important is religion to you, very important, somewhat important, not very important or not at all important?”
Among whites without degrees — the polling definition of working class — 39 percent in 2018 said religion was very important, 25 percent said somewhat important, 15 percent not too important, and 20 percent not at all important.
In the 2018 midterm elections, Schaffner found that 76 percent, of those for whom religion is not at all important voted for Democratic House candidates in 2018. At the other end of the spectrum, nearly 4 out of five — 78 percent — of non-college whites who said religion was very important voted for a Republican House candidate. The accompanying chart shows the trends from 2008 to 2018.
There is, Schaffner explained in an email, “a 50 point plus gap (!) between how nonreligious white working class people voted in 2018 compared to how the most religious white working class people voted.”
Schaffner’s data shows an even larger religious gap among white college graduates. This group is less religious than whites without degrees — 36 percent answered “very important,” 22 percent “somewhat important,” 15 percent “not too important” and 27 percent “not at all important.”
The 2018 House Democratic vote among white college graduates for whom religion is not at all important was 91 percent; for those who said religion is very important, 30 percent voted Democratic, a 61 point gap.
The less religious, Schaffner wrote told me “are more likely to be male (57 percent), and are much younger (average age of 44, compared to average age of 52 among those for whom religion is important).” In addition, the nonreligious are much less likely to be married, tend to live in urban areas and are more likely to be found in the Northeast and West than other regions.
In his book “Red Fighting Blue,” David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, pointed out that:
voters’ religious affiliations and degrees of religiosity now exert considerable influence over their partisan identification and choice of candidates; the Pew Research Center found in 2015 that white evangelical Protestants had come to prefer the Republican Party by a margin of 68 percent to 22 percent, while religiously unaffiliated voters now leaned toward the Democrats by 61 percent to 25 percent — a 40-point gap that equals the magnitude of the more longstanding difference in the partisan preferences of whites and African Americans.
While cultural liberals and cultural conservatives are not truly at “war,” Hopkins continued, “they are increasingly lining up on opposite sides in the ongoing electoral competition between the two major parties.”
The steady growth in recent years in the number of people who respond to the question “what is your religious preference” by saying they have “no religion” has clearly benefited the Democratic Party, which now depends on the nonreligious for nearly three out of every 10 votes it gets.
By 2018, according to Burge’s analysis, these voters had become the largest religious category, 28 percent, of the Democratic electorate, outnumbering once dominant Catholics at 21.8 percent, evangelicals at 14.1 percent, black Protestants at 12.9 percent and mainline white Protestants at 14.4 percent.
Three political scientists — David Campbell and Geoffrey C. Layman, both of Notre Dame, and John Green of the University of Akron — have developed a multidimensional analysis of religiosity in their forthcoming book, “Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics.”
Campbell, Layman and Green divide Americans into four categories: Religionists, 37 percent of the population, who are a mainstay of the Republican Party; Secularists, 28 percent, a linchpin of the Democratic Party; and two other groups that fall between these extremes.
One of these intermediate groups is made up of those the authors call Religious Secularists, who make up 16 percent of the population, and endorse both religious and secular values. The other intermediate group — which might be called a bystander constituency — is made up of people the authors term Non-Religionists, best described by what they are not: They see little value in religious views and are disinterested in secular explanations.
From a political vantage point, what is most interesting about these four groups is the different pattern of voting each exhibited in 2012 and 2016.
As would be expected, the most conservative group, Religionists, remained firmly Republican, voting 58.8 percent for Romney and 62.1 percent for Trump. The most liberal group, secularists, remained firmly Democratic, 78.0 percent for Obama in 2012, 77.8 percent for Clinton in 2016.
There were, however, big shifts among the two intermediate groups, which have proven to be the most volatile, and thus of most interest to campaign strategists. The Non-Religionists went from supporting Obama over Romney 60.2 to 39.8, to supporting Trump over Clinton, 56.6 to 43.4. The Religious Secularists remained Democratic, but the margin among them fell from decisively backing Obama, 85.1-14.9, to more modest support for Clinton, 67.4 — 32.6.
Laura R. Olson, a political scientist at Clemson University, provided The Times with an analysis of white non-college voter demographics based on the nonpartisan Democracy Fund’s 2019 VOTER Survey.
She found that among non-college whites, neither Republicans nor Democrats are strong churchgoers, although there is a substantial difference: While 51 percent of Republicans say they seldom or never attend services, 70 percent of Democrats are not regular churchgoers.
There is a larger partisan difference on religiosity per se. 44 percent of white working class Democrats describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” — more than double the number of similarly educated Republicans, at 19 percent.
Olson has additional data on the white working class.
Democrats are substantially less likely to be married, at 49 percent, than Republicans, at 64 percent. 53 percent of working-class white Democrats say they are liberal or very liberal, a huge difference from the 1.2 percent of their Republican counterparts. 55 percent of the Democrats have no confidence in big business compared to 20 percent of Republicans without college degrees.
Robert Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, sketched out other differences in an email. For example, 65 percent of non-college white Republicans say they are conservative compared to 17 percent of non-college white Democrats.
These Republicans, Jones wrote, are 49 points more likely to favor restrictive immigration policies than their Democratic counterparts, 93 to 44 percent.
Another political analyst, who asked to remain anonymous because of the rules of his employment, argues that the “most powerful simple way to understand the electorate” is as composed of “white Christians (half), white seculars (a quarter) and voters of color (a quarter).”
Citing data from Pew, he noted that white Christians favored Trump 67 to 27, while white seculars favored Clinton 63-28 and voters of color favored Clinton 75-20. In more recent polling, he said, sorting by religion provides more insight than by education:
White non-college secular men support the generic Democrat by 17 points, while white college Evangelical women support Trump by 47 points, a 64 point gap going in the opposite direction from what education and gender would predict.
In addition, he continued, “identifying yourself as Christian in America today means that you are identifying yourself with a particular set of values that systematically set you apart from those who do not.”
The substitution, he wrote,
of “non-college” for “Christian” in elite discourse is consequential and damaging to progressive prospects. Pretty much everyone loosely agrees that Republicans want America the way they think it was and are revolting against cosmopolitan modernization, including even science. But naming white non-college voters as the Republican base suggests that the source of Republican grievance is lack of education, which organizes the conversation that follows about everything else. Imagine instead, the conversation that would follow from identifying the source of Republican grievance as religious.
Religion, he continued, “is real with values and motivated institutions, while non-college is barely more than an analytical category. Christians call themselves Christians, non-college folks don’t call themselves uneducated. Christian is an identity, non-college is a label.”
Religiosity has joined issues which cluster around race, immigration, abortion, women’s rights, gay marriage, the traditional nuclear family and globalization — all reinforced by the parallel split between urban and rural America, which is playing out again in our response to the dangers posed by coronavirus.
In “Red Versus Blue,” David Hopkins accurately sums up the situation:
Perpetually vigorous competition between two closely matched parties that each maintain reliable electoral dominance over a significant, and roughly equal, proportion of the nation’s geographic territory has become a signature characteristic of American politics in the twenty- first century.
The result is a national politics in which conflict replaces resolution. Hopkins goes on:
The appearance of distinct and stable geographic alignments on the contemporary electoral map thus serves as an apt visual symbol of an era defined by the emergence of intense partisan conflict among leaders and citizens alike. With the vast majority of voters now providing consistent support to the candidates of a single party in national elections, and with Democratic and Republican politicians collectively shifting toward opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, the United States has entered a political age characterized by the dual trends of mass-level partisanship and elite- level polarization.
Under these circumstances, with the nation so closely divided, a small minority gains the power to determine election outcomes:
It is only fitting that cartographic representations of recent election results have repeatedly revealed large, comparably sized territorial bastions of opposite partisan affiliations, with a smaller bloc of swing states holding the narrow balance of power between them — just as a dwindling number of voters who remain open to persuasion by either party now find themselves caught between two sizable populations of increasingly fervent, and mutually antagonistic, loyalists to the Democratic or Republican cause.
The past 50 years have brought extraordinary new freedoms, but they have also tested our faith. The current pandemic and the economic chaos churning in its wake bring yet another test, a test that will demonstrate just how resilient our population is, how functional our electoral system is and how resourceful our institutions are under conditions of maximum stress.
Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C. on politics, demographics and inequality.
Original Headline: In God We Divide
Source: The New York Times