Evangelicals and the 2012 election: The kingdoms of faith and politics By Marcia Pally

Evangelicals and the 2012 election: The kingdoms of faith and politics

By Marcia Pally

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.[1] 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.[2]

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[3]–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.

Commenting on the recent Illinois primary, Santorum summed up: “We won the areas that conservatives and Republicans populate”[4]–the rural and western regions, where he led evangelicals and Republicans overall. In the more urban, prosperous, and educated regions, Romney ran ahead and won the state with a 22-point lead among college grads, a 27-point lead among those with incomes above $100,000.[5]

In sum, evangelicals, when voting, rely on religious and other factors to choose the people they think best at the jobs governments do. And about that, evangelicals, like other people, differ.

Is this a violation of faith? Fewer evangelicals seem to think so than those unfamiliar with evangelical belief and history. “Evangelicals for Mitt” write on their website, “We don’t have to choose between someone with our moral values or someone with economic expertise.” The lack of concern over political variation emerges from the evangelical distinction between politics and Gospel. The Bible says, love your enemy, for instance; states fight enemies and protect citizens militarily, economically, etc. So the jobs governments do and the job of furthering Jesus’ vision are different. When engaged in the narrowly circumscribed business of choosing who’s best for the jobs governments do, one may be motivated by belief as well as income, education, business or populist interests. One’s religious efforts will have different standards.

Joel Hunter, pastor at a central Florida church and a member of Obama’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships (2009-2010), has noted that while governments are needed (Rom. 7: 1-13), their job–to maintain order and protect the nation, sometimes with force–is far from that of the church, which is to follow Jesus’ teachings never with force but through faith and service. Or as Greg Boyd, pastor in St. Paul, put it, “America, like every other fallen, demonically-oppressed nation (see Lk. 4:5-7; 2 Cor. 4:4; I Jn. 5:19; Rev. 13), is incapable of loving its enemies, doing good to those who mistreat it or blessing those who persecute it (Lk. 6:27-35)… The sooner the label ‘Christian’ gets divorced from this country, the better. It provides hope that someday the word ‘Christian’ might actually mean ‘Christ-like’ once again.”[6]

Evangelicals like Hunter and Boyd do not think Christians should avoid politics or sequester their religious values when they vote. As we’ve seen, religious values are among those that bear on evangelical voting. Yet, maintaining the politics–Gospel distinction allows believers to follow one—Gospel–precisely because it has not gotten gummed up by the other. It allows evangelicals the “prophetic” role, to stand outside government and “speak truth to power” when government is corrupt or unjust. Churches, like other civil society groups, are in a position to advise or critique government if they are extra-state, their perspectives and constraints not those of sitting power.

Both shielding religious efforts from the worldly limitations of politics and the prophetic role of outsider-critique require political independence. “A voice of Biblical values,” Hunter has said, “cannot be in the pocket of one party”[7] so that, David Gushee, professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, writes, “they [Christians] can retain their moral compass when they do venture into the political arena.”[8]

Frank Page, then president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, took up this idea in 2006, “I have cautioned our denomination to be very careful not to be seen as in lock step with any political party.”[9] That year, Randall Balmer, Professor of religion at Barnard College and an editor at Christianity Today, wrote, “The early followers of Jesus were a counterculture because they stood apart from the prevailing order. A counterculture can provide a critique of the powerful because it is utterly disinterested—it has no investment in the power structure itself.”[10] Though evangelicals have been a bulwark of the Republican party for 40 years, over the last decade, organizations like the Evangelical Environmental Network, Evangelicals for Human Rights, The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, and Partners Worldwide (a Christian economic development organization), have formed with aims that sometimes conflict with Republican policies. In 2007, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), against the Bush administration, issued its “An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture.”[11]

That year Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “If that issue [abortion] were taken off the table, then other issues get oxygen, issues where evangelicals are not nearly as certain that Republicans offer the best answer. Issues like economic justice, racial reconciliation, the environment.”[12] The 2008 Evangelical Manifesto was bolder still. Signed by over 70 evangelical leaders including NAE president, Leith Anderson, and Mark Bailey, president of the Theological Seminary in Dallas, it warned evangelicals not to “become ‘useful idiots’ for one political party or another.”[13] In the fractious budget debates of 2010-2011, the NAE joined the protest against Republican budget cuts in programs for the needy.[14] At the end of 2011, it protested again, calling this “the wrong place to cut.”[15]

If a mix of religious and other concerns has created a variety of views among evangelical Republicans, it has moved some away from that party altogether. In the 2006 midterms 41% of white evangelicals were “happy” with Democratic wins.[16] In the 2008 presidential election, a third of white evangelicals under 40 voted for Obama; 26% of older white evangelicals did, 36% of the less observant.[17] Evangelical PACs like the Matthew 25 Network formed to support Obama. Two evangelical ministers, Tony Campolo and Joel Hunter, helped write the 2008 Democratic party platform. A third, Leah Daughtry, was CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee.

Thus far, variety in evangelical voting has tended to cause a stir–though that variety is longstanding in evangelical history and theology, with the emphasis on the individual conscience and the politics-Gospel distinction. If candidates continue to think that evangelicals vote one way on only one set of religious reasons, they will miss all the others, potentially missing 80 million votes.


Marcia Pally teaches at NYU and Fordham University. Her most recent book is The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good (2011, Eerdmans).

[1] In Virginia, evangelicals voted more strongly for Romney (62%) than did the general population (57%).

[2] http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765561534/Romney-grows-edge-among-high-income-voters-in-Ill.html

[3] Tennessee, Kansas, Colorado, Minnesota, North Dakota

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/21/us/politics/romney-a-victor-in-illinois.html

[5] http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/exit-polls-show-romneys-strong-showing-among-college-grads-high-income-voters-drove-win/2012/03/20/gIQAmgMUQS_story.html

[6] Boyd, G. (2009, April 8). Don’t Weep for the Demise of American Christianity. Christus Victor

Ministries (blog).

[7] Hunter, J. (2008). A new kind of conservative. Ventura, CA: Gospel Light Publishing. p.31.

[8] Gushee, D. (2008). The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical

Center. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, pp. 49, 51; see also, A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good on the disservice done to the Kingdom when it is conflated with a political wrangling.

[9] Kirkpatrick, D. (2007, Oct., 28). The Evangelical Crackup. The New York Times magazine.

[10] Balmer, R. (2006) Thy Kingdom Come: How the religious right distorts the faith and threatens America — an Evangelical’s lament. New York: Basic Books, p. 189.

[11] National Association of Evangelicals. (2007). An Evangelical Declaration against torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror. http://www.esa-online.org/


[12] Tomma, S. (2007, Sept. 30). Influence of Christian right in the GOP wanes. McClatchy Washington Bureau. http://www.sacbee.com/111/v-print/story/406777.html

[13] http://www.anevangelicalmanifesto.com/docs/Evangelical_Manifesto.pdf

[14] http://www.nae.net/budgetcircle

[15] https://app7.vocusgr.com/WebPublish/Controller.aspx?SiteName=NAE&Definition=ViewIssue&IssueID=1446

[16] http://www.pewforum.org/Politics-and-Elections/Religion-and-the-2006-Elections.aspx

[17] http://www.pewforum.org/Politics-and-Elections/Much-Hope-Modest-Change-for-Democrats-Religion-in-the-2008-Presidential-Election.aspx