Survey Takes a Revealing New Look at Religious Voters

Deal W. Hudson
June 17, 2008

A new survey on religion and politics provides important background on the dynamics at work among religious voters in 2008. The “National Survey on Religion and Public Life” published by the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College was based on a large sample of 3,002 interviews, nearly three times the sample size of most political polls.

Analyzed by director Corin E. Smidt, the survey data yielded the following major conclusions:

Mainline Protestants are now firmly identified with the Democratic Party, 46 percent to 37 percent. Smidt calls this “a historical turning point,” but the shift has been in the making for over a decade. Taking their place in the Republican Party is, of course, the Evangelical voters – 54 percent to 25 percent, slightly down from 2004.

White Catholic loyalties lean slightly toward the Democrats, 41 percent to 38 percent, reflecting the 30-year migration of Catholics into the GOP. Democrats used to own the Catholic vote in years gone by.

The White Catholic vote is “up for grabs in the 2008 presidential election.” Because of the instability created by the unpopularity of the Iraq War, and the Vatican’s criticism of it, I agree with him.

The news about Latino Catholics is not good for the GOP. Only 15 percent call themselves Republican, compared to 57 percent for the Democrats. The number of independents among these voters is growing (28 percent). The good news for Republicans is that Latino Catholics can still vote in force for the GOP in spite of their party affiliation, as they did in 2004 when they cast 44 percent of their ballots for George W. Bush.

Individual religious beliefs and practices are more important than denominational affiliation in predicting political views. When you distinguish between traditionalists, centrists, and modernists within each denomination, each group’s politics will resemble the others across the denominations. Modernist Catholics will think politically like modernists belonging to other denominations, and so on.

This final point has been begging to be made for quite a while. The political preferences of Christian voters have everything to do with an individual’s view of traditional Christianity. This is the reason for the coalition of Evangelicals and pro-life Catholics in the religious conservative movement called the Religious Right.

Traditional believers of all denominations are more likely to be Republican, and modernists are more likely to be Democrats – with the odd exception of modernist Evangelicals, who lean toward the GOP.

The survey numbers on abortion and gay rights bear the importance of looking beyond denominational affiliation. Catholics overall agreed, 51 percent to 43 percent, that “abortion should be legal and solely up to the woman to decide.” Among traditionalist Catholics, the number changes dramatically, with 71 percent disagreeing. Modernists, not surprisingly, agree 80 percent with a woman’s “right to chose.”

Gay marriage is not supported as strongly as abortion among religious voters, but comparing 2004 with 2008, support appears to be growing: 9 percent among Evangelicals, 5 percent among mainline Protestants, but only 2 percent among Catholics, who have heard Benedict XVI quite outspoken in opposition to gay marriage.

The volatility of the Catholic vote created by the Iraq War was confirmed by the study’s findings. Non-Hispanic Catholics did not agree that the United States rightly took action against Iraq, 52 percent to 42 percent, while traditionalist Catholics supported the war 56 percent to 36 percent. Centrist and modernist Catholics overwhelmingly oppose the war: 54 percent to 34 percent, and 68 percent to 29 percent, respectively. Latino Catholics disapprove by a margin of 69 percent to 25 percent.

The softening of support for environmental regulation among Evangelicals and Catholics was a surprise finding. Evangelicals, who have been widely described as turning “green,” dropped 9 points (from 52 percent to 43 percent) in their agreement with government regulation of the environment. Catholics dropped 8 points, from 60 percent to 52 percent. Global warming may have peaked as a major political issue.

The survey also asked an interesting question about the religious expression on public property – whether “local communities should be allowed to post the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols in public buildings if the majority agrees.” This topic immediately brings derisive laughter from most media pundits, but a strong majority of Evangelicals (84 percent), Catholics (74 percent), Latino Catholics (57 percent), and mainline Protestants (74 percent) support displays of the Ten Commandments.

These numbers confirm the determination of Christians across the denominational and political spectrum to oppose the government-enforced secularization pursued by the ACLU, along with pro-abortion and gay-rights groups. Could McCain make this a campaign issue? Obama would likely take a pass to avoid irritating core supporters.

The Calvin College poll asked its respondents whether they would vote for McCain or the Democratic nominee (Obama was not yet the clear victor) for president in 2008. White Catholics favored McCain 43 percent to 39 percent, but Latino Catholics supported the Democratic nominee 63 percent to 19 percent. Evangelicals picked McCain 59 percent to 24 percent, and mainline Protestants slightly favored McCain over the Democrat; 19 percent were still undecided at the time of the survey.

The methodology of the survey suggests that an innovative way for political candidates to organize their religious outreach may be in the offing. Instead of a Catholic or Evangelical outreach, future campaigns may focus on the newer categories of “traditionalists” and “modernists,” regardless of denomination.

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