The Religious Re-direct: Religions and elections in America

The Religious Re-direct: Religions and elections in America

By Marcia Pally

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Oct. 30, 2010

 For over a century, religiosity in America has been greater, more committed, and more populist than in any other industrialized country. Though today, South Korea sends missionaries to the US, on the view that we are not devout enough, perhaps they needn’t worry, as roughly 95% of American say they believe in the Almighty, 40% report at least weekly church attendance, and 20% of atheists say they believe in God. 79% agree that miracles still occur today; 74% believe in life after death; 63% of those with children at home say they pray or read Scripture with them; 60% send their children for religious schooling; 63% hold that sacred texts are the word of God; 62% disagree that religion causes more problems in society than it solves.

If these self-reports are a bit exaggerated, it is because faith holds a positive valence in the US, associated with the vibrant, grassroots community life that built the country. Since the First Great Awakening (1730s-40s), American churches have been not top-down institutions that work with political elites but bottom-up, associated with the populist causes of the day and run by ordinary men and women. America’s constitutional separation of church and state codified this system and, in keeping the churches out of government, protected them from the stains of corruption, thus preserving their reputation as a people’s thing.

In the 19th century, the churches supported free public education, land squatters against landlords, farmers against bankers, temperance (a feminist issue of the day), and in the North, abolition. The largest US government operation in antebellum America was the postal service, but by 1850 evangelical churches had double the employees of the postal service, twice as many facilities and raised three times as much money. Post-bellum, Catholic charities and the evangelical Social Gospel ran programs for the poor and provided one of America’s earliest critiques of laissez-faire capitalism. In the 20th century, religious groups provided such a sizable portion of social services that, even in a country where church-state separation is a constitutional “wall,” the government has long funded faith-based agencies (though they may not use public funds for religious activities).

Given high levels of economic and social engagement, it is unsurprising that religion has played a significant role in politics as well. The most productive way to understand it is to look at what usually guides decisions about political activism and voting , and then at specific religious views that may override this dominant pattern. We can call this the religious-redirect.

The prime motive for much in US politics is attitude towards the state. The most-enduring view is: the less of it the better. Owing to the revolution against “big government” in London and to the immigrant and frontier experiences–where state institutions were scarce and self-reliance was necessary to survive—the nation matured with a suspicion of government and trust in its own can-do-ism: in the individual and his voluntary/civil society groups, in “we the people.”

This holds across socio-economic lines, though most Americans benefit from such government programs as public education, Medicare, and Social Security. During extreme economic duress (late 19th century industrialization, for instance), workers and farmers protest. But most Americans wanted not to socialize the economy but rather reform of the capitalist system (improvement in wages and working conditions) and a slice of the capitalist pie (credit and protection from monopolies to get into the market). While lack of market regulation benefits business, Americans generally don’t mind because they feel the open field of opportunity also benefits them. In the most severe months of the recent bank-led economic crisis, in March/April, 2009, over 50% of Americans held that “big government” was more of a problem than big business.

Since the 1870s, the Republican party has represented the  “small government” approach: keep government regulation as light as possible; reduce taxes and return the money to the people so we can do things right. In this sense, the party is consonant with the nation’s core outlook.

The Democrats, from the Civil War until the Depression, promised a bit more to the poor and immigrants but on the whole sponsored policies similar to those of the Republicans—so assumed is “small government” in American thinking. Indeed, at the turn of the 20th century, so close were the Democrats to big business that it was the Republican Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1908) who restricted the cartels and instituted labor reforms—not to socialize but to improve market functioning. Nonetheless, it was a step towards “bigger government,” which his nephew Franklin (Democrat) took further in the massive government stimulus programs of the Depression. Franklin Roosevelt is America’s minority voice that says: the priority is still the individual, his liberty and opportunities, but government is not an obstacle to them but a vehicle for them, responsible for policies that make opportunity not just a procedural possibility but realistically accessible to the ordinary fellow.

This tune, however, easily fades. Though Roosevelt’s programs boosted the economy, America turned against them: in 1938, only 15% supported continued state spending to end recession. Indeed, the generation that most benefited from greater state involvement in the economy—in the Depression, WWII, and early postwar–voted in Republicans from 1968 to 1992 (with the exception of the one-term Jimmy Carter). In 1992, Clinton (Democrat) could be elected only with an economic platform that was moderate-Republican by Roosevelt-ian standards. This remains the economic platform of many Democrats today, save the small left wing. In just 16 months, the tea-parties—populist crusaders for “small government”–have grown to 12% of the population. On their view, both the Bush and Obama bailouts gave money to the banks while ordinary Americans lost jobs and homes. Throw the bastards out! The smaller the government, the better.

America’s religious groups—since they are American–vote their views on “small” or “bigger” government just as other Americans do. This does not mean they vote according to their own economic interests, as many who would benefit from government programs vote against them out of faith in “small government.” When, however, Americans do vote against their views on government, it is largely because of religious belief.

How does this play out by faith? White Protestants in all socio-economic categories have been the bulwark of the Republican party–unsurprsingly, as their religious beliefs were a primary source of self-reliant small-government-ism from the nation’s beginning. Protestantism itself has a creative and anti-authoritarian individualist emphasis–the individual’s relationship with Jesus, individual Bible-reading by ordinary folk, the individual’s responsibility to develop a system of moral conduct, and the priesthood of all believers (unreliant on a priestly class). As the nation’s dominant religion, Protestantism interacted synergistically with the self-reliance demanded by American settlement, which helped bring about the nation’s entrepreneurial, anti-authoritarian do-it-yourself-ism.

Evangelicalism—the dominant approach to Protestantism from independence to WWI—did so even more. Born in Europe’s dissenting churches, it more emphatically sought an individual, spiritual, anti-authoritarian faith. Themselves the victims of Europe’s states and state churches, they were especially wary of government. Doctrinally, several churches placed even greater emphasis on individual will: you choose to bring Jesus into your heart; the critical step is yours to take. This was an approach of the Arminianism tradition, which became the basis for Methodism, America’s most popular denomination throughout the 19th century. Arminianism also added the idea of the perfectibility of man: we can be not only forgiven for sin but free of it. All told, this optimistic doctrine that individual effort brings ever-increasing betterment interacted with the nation’s secular optimistic entrepreneurialism, each reinforcing the other.

When Protestants, evangelicals, and Mormons vote for Republican “small government,” they are voting for their own assumptions and values–a politics consistent with deepest beliefs. When they join tea-parties, even more so. In the last three presidential elections, the majority of white Protestants voted Republican, consistent with historical patterns. 79% of evangelicals did in 2004 and 73% in2008. In the upcoming 2010 congressional elections, 53% of mainline Protestants support favor the Republicans, 39% Democrats; 66% of white evangelicals favor the Republicans, 26% Democrats.

But who’s the minority of Protestants who vote Democrat? The answer lies in the shifting effects of individualist, anti-authoritarianism in the present global economy. Until the 20th century, it was a progressive force–against entrenched political and religious elites and for the common man’s entry into the opportunities of the new markets. This liberalism is what Republicanism Protestants vote for. But in the last century, the liberal unregulated market also brought vast labor abuses, which conflict with Jesus’ injunction to server the poor. This religious mandate has landed a significant minority of Protestants (from 34- 44%) in the Democratic camp—both lower income Protestants who need government aid and higher income, who believe that government is responsible for helping the common man get a leg up—the religious-redirect.

Not only has Jesus’ mandate to serve the needy affected mainline Protestants but it has also shifted white evangelicals, the staunchest Republican bloc. 5% more white evangelicals voted Democrat in 2008 than in 2004, bringing the total white evangelical Democratic vote to 22%. Fully 30% of white evangelicals under 30 voted for Obama, and evangelical PACs like the Matthew 25 Network formed to elect him. Evangelical theologian Scot McKnight calls this, “the biggest change in the evangelical movement at the end of the twentieth century, a new kind of Christian social conscience.” Among Americans who attend church at least weekly, many of whom are evangelical, support for Democrats has risen consistently since January, 2010, from 33% to 41%; support for Republicans is 52%. The 11 point difference in favor of the Republicans is significant but far narrower than over the last 40 years.

Since 2005, millions of evangelicals have moved away from the Religious Right towards an anti-militarist, anti-consumerist politics focusing on poverty relief, environmental protection, and immigration reform. While 51% of mainline Protestants favor small government, 48% of evangelicals today do—a noteworthy drop, given the fervor of their earlier anti-state individualism. Most “new evangelicals,” as they’re called, oppose abortion, but many work on “abortion reduction” by offering financial, medical and emotional support for pregnant women and, post-partum, for women and children. 58% of younger white evangelicals support some kind of gay marriage; 37% of even older white evangelicals support civil unions. Because of abortion, many “new evangelicals” will not vote Democrat. Yet, if “new evangelicals” remain Republican, their emphasis on environmental protection, poverty relief and immigration will put pressure on that party. And this might lead to an interesting shift in Republican politics.

In sum, Christian belief among Protestants alters the dominant political pattern in at least two ways: the mandate to serve the needy moves a sizable minority away from “small government” Republicanism to Democratic bigger-government programs for the poor. Yet opposition to abortion moves even Protestants with “bigger government” views back towards the Republicans. This is why there is no easy correlation between Protestants and the staunchly anti-government tea-parties, save the Religious Right, which makes up 47% of the tea-party-ers. While most tea-party-ers are Protestants, most Protestants are not tea-party-ers (most are moderate Republicans; a significant minority are Democrats). Neither are most evangelicals. While evangelicals come to 20-24% of the population (roughly 68-72 million people), less than 1.5 million are tea-party-ers.

Catholics come to US politics and religion almost in reverse: rather than from Republican small government-ism to a minority vote for bigger government-ism, they began as Democrats and now span the political spectrum. While 51% of mainline Protestants favor small government, 37% bigger government, the numbers are reversed for non-Latino Catholics: 51% favor larger government, 37% small. An immigrant group that sustained prejudice and discrimination till the mid-20th, Catholics long favored bigger government because they needed state aid, because they sought a government sympathetic to immigrants, and critically because of their views about institutions.

Catholic corporatism begins with faith in the body of Christ and then in the body of the Church, a community that harbors and enacts Christianity in the world. While Catholic doctrine holds the believer responsible for his conduct, the emphasis is less entrepreneurial can-do-ism and more buffered by the mother church. The hierarchies of the church, meant as support for each believer, cast institutions as helpful–not robbers of individual liberty, if I may caricaturize American Protestant wariness. In a sense, the church gives believers a leg up. Whereas Protestant individualism interacted synergistically with frontier opportunity to yield individualistic can-do-ism, Catholic corporatism interacted with immigration to cities, where the state was not suspect but assumed. When the Democrats began courting the Catholic vote in the 19th century, they were recruiting a group inclined to join.

As anti-Catholic animus fades and as Catholics integrate into higher socio-economic levels (33% today earn more that $75,000; the US median is $49,770), they have the experience of opportunity that Protestants have had. And like Protestants, they move Republican because lower taxes/less government regulation benefit them and because they come to share the worldview that “small government” is better government. In the last three presidential elections, a majority of non-Latino Catholics voted Republican, nearly the same as mainline Protestants—a significant shift from the long Catholic record of Democratic support. Today, 51% of non-Latino Catholics are Republican supporters, 39% Democrat. Integration into the American mainstream affects even Catholic views of abortion: 48% now hold it should be legal in all or most cases, 45%, illegal. Those who retain strong opposition are drawn Republican: while 53% of less observant Catholics voted for Obama, 61% of weekly church-attenders (42% of all Catholics) voted Republican. Here again is the religious-redirect: religious Catholics who may feel that greater governmental aid to the poor is the more Christlike way or who may themselves benefit from it tend, owing to their opposition to abortion, to vote Republican.

In short, non-Latino Catholic politics is split: pulled Democrat because of long-standing economic needs, corporatist outlook, and Jesus’ mandate to help the needy–but pulled Republican because of opposition to abortion, the benefits of “small government-ism” to higher income earners, and decreasing sympathy with newer immigrant groups.

Latino Catholics today have the politics which non-Latino Catholics had for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Because of economic need, corporatist outlook, and concern for newer Latino immigrants, they vote for “bigger government” Democratic programs, even if many oppose abortion and gay marriage. While 52% of non-Latino Catholics voted Republican in 2008, 78% of Latinos voted for Obama. 65% say they favor Democrats in the 2010 election. For Latinos, the religious-redirect (on abortion, for instance) has not yet overridden the economic, immigration and corporatist motives for a Democratic vote. But Republican strategists hope it will, especially as Latinos rise in income. Children of Latino immigrants cover the gap between the “poverty line” and the US median income at the same rate as non-Latino, native-borns. If Latinos follow non-Latino Catholics, they may move Republican as they rise in income, both for economic benefit and the party’s “family values” conservatism.

One trend suggests this may have begun: Latino conversion to evangelicalism. 15% of Latinos are now evangelical, and more than half of Latino Catholics–while remaining Catholic–are charismatics, incorporating evangelical and even pentecostel features into their worship. Evangelical Protestant Latinos, usually US-born, are twice as likely as Latino Catholics to be Republicans, holding Republican views not only on abortion and gay marriage but on government aid to the poor. While 69% of Catholic Latinos favor Democrats in the 2010 midterm election, Protestant Latinos are nearly evenly divided: 45% Democratic, 41% Republican.

The African-American vote, nearly entirely Protestant, shares much with the Latino: owing to economic need, they are the most consistent Democratic bloc (72% earn the median income or less, 59% have only a high school education or less). Their 98% vote for Obama hardly differs from their long pattern of Democratic support–though many reject both abortion and gay marriage. A tiny shift Republican can be seen with upward mobility, but it is not yet statistically or politically significant. 88% favor Democrats, 9% Republicans, in the 2010 congressional elections.

Comprising a small sector of the US electorate, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, unaffiliated believers, and non-believers tend to vote Democrat and favor “bigger government.” For immigrants, the economic motive for “bigger government” is traditional. This holds for US Muslims, 60% of whom earn the US median or less while only 26% earn over $75,000/year. Among these minority religious groups, there is relatively little religious-redirect towards Republican positions on abortion and gay marriage. Though Muslim-Americans are uncomfortable with homosexuality (61% say it should be discouraged), they are evenly divided on abortion. Hindus, Buddhists, other faiths, unaffiliated believers, and non-believers tend to be progressive on these issues and so are closer to the Democrat platform. Upward mobility may predict a Republican shift, but that is not yet evident.

America’s Jewish population, though small (1.7% of the American population), is second only to the African-American in consistent Democratic support, voting nearly 80% for Clinton, Gore, and Obama. This pattern endures through rumors of Obama being a Muslim (and thus anti-Israel), through Obama’s outreach to the Arab Middle East, especially in his approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and though American Jews are largely middle class, with 59% earning bachelor or graduate degrees, which would suggest a Republican vote.

Two religious-redirects are in play here. The smaller is among the tiny ultra-Orthodox population who are somewhat less supportive of the Democrats because of conservative religious views on abortion and homosexuality and because they feel Republicans are stauncher supporters of Israel. Nonetheless, when it comes to voting, most choose Democratic candidates anyway. The far more significant redirect, moving American Jewry away from economic self-interest and the Republican party, begins with the Biblical mandate to aid the poor and stranger, and the millennia-long tradition of considerable charitable giving. With emancipation from the ghetto in the 19th century, this giving extended to a wide range of non-Jewish charities, with American Jews contributing far more than their percentage in the population to philanthropic causes. In addition, extensive anti-Semitism, since late antiquity, has enmeshed empathy–with the persecuted, the Other, the immigrant–in the Jewish mindset. This tends American Jewry not only towards “bigger government” aid to the needy but towards sympathy for women in crisis pregnancies and for homosexuals—all told, a Democratic stance.

Peak immigration of Jews to the US occurred at the turn of the 20th century, making most today third- or fourth-generation Americans. Sufficient time has elapsed for most Jews to have internalized the “small government” outlook. Yet the religious-redirect is sufficient to moor Democratic affiliation. Compared to the nearly 80% Democratic vote among Jews, 47-48% of Latino Protestants voted Republican in 2008, though they are much newer to the US. By a small margin, Latino Catholics too voted more Republican than American Jewry that year.

Looking at the big picture, the Democrats have a double disadvantage: not only is “big-government-ism” America’s minority voice but Democrats are considered the less religious party by a highly religious nation. Though both Obama and Hillary Clinton are more religiously engaged than John McCain, during the 2008 presidential campaign, only 28% of Americans thought Obama was the more religious candidate. Thus, even where the religious-redirect (towards aiding the immigrant and poor) moves voters towards the Democrats, the party is undercut by perceptions of Democratic secularism and Republican religiosity. All told, what anchors a Democratic vote is economic need–except where faith in small government supercedes it–or an ethical concern for the needy (as among a significant minority of Protestants and Catholics and the anamalous example of the large majority of Jews).

Americans–most of whom are after all not rich–are often criticized for not grasping economics and for voting Republican against their own economic interests. Present political patterns may suggest that Americans misunderstand their religious interests as well: they vote Republican against their religious interest in helping the needy. However, one can say that Americans misunderstand their religious interests only if one ignores that “small government” entrepreneurialism is America’s creed. It is the original, most wide-spread, and most enduring faith, and the one to which  generations of of immigrants have long been drawn. For them, success is when you have worked hard and moved up enough so that this “small government” creed feels right. Then you have achieved the American Dream.

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