The American news media have made a big issue of how President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry are both trying to woo voters from groups that usually support the other side, be they military veterans, Hispanics or Jews. Yet one group that receives almost no attention is Christian evangelicals.
We are repeatedly told they form the president’s unshakeable electoral base. But in truth, this claim is vastly simplistic: the fashionable image of masses of white evangelical voters, stirred up by the tricks of Karl Rove, the president’s chief political adviser, and led by Bible-thumping clergymen, marching in lock step to deny rights to women and to gays, is hardly born out by the data. Rather, the real Republican base is the same as it was before Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” appealed to religious Protestants in 1968: the wealthy and the powerful.
Data about the last two presidential elections drawn from the 1998, 2000 and 2002 General Social Surveys, carried out by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, found that the one-fifth of white Americans who belong to “fundamentalist” churches (like Southern Baptist, Assembly of God, Holiness, Pentecostal and Missouri Synod Lutheran) are remarkably pluralistic in their political and social attitudes.
While it is true that white evangelicals tend to be more conservative socially, as well as religiously, than the average American, there is little correlation between religious conservatism and political conservatism. For example, in the social surveys, about 40 percent of Americans who believe in the literal, word-for-word interpretation of the Bible describe themselves as “politically conservative.”
In the last two presidential elections, about 62 percent of white evangelicals voted Republican – or about 7.5 percent more than among other American Protestants. A majority, clearly, but nowhere near unanimity. And in terms of the electorate as a whole, it’s hardly fair to say evangelicals are a dominant political force.
If we measure their overall political influence as that 7.5 percent differential multiplied by their share of the electorate – they make up about 21 percent of voters – it comes to about 1.6 percentage points. Yes, as the 2000 election showed, even an edge that small can be decisive in a close race. But it hardly amounts to an overwhelming base. Moreover, those 1.6 percentage points are spread across all regions, not concentrated in the South, where the evangelicals supposedly contribute to the Republicans’ advantage.
Clearly, claims that evangelicals have hijacked America’s politics are greatly exaggerated. In fact, polling data show that Bush’s real base is not religious but economic, the group he jokingly referred to as “the haves and the have mores.” The General Social Survey found that 20 percent of American voters have family incomes of more than $75,000 a year, while twice that many earn $30,000 or less. The high-income group (about the same size as the evangelicals) votes Republican by an 18-point margin, while the low-income group favors Democrats by 24 percentage points.
If the Republicans were to lose their 18-point advantage among the affluent, it would cost them about four percentage points nationwide in the election, more than twice the cost if they were to lose their edge among evangelicals.
And neither region nor religion can override the class divide. If recent patterns hold, a majority (about 52 percent) of poor Southern white evangelicals will vote for Kerry in November, while only 12 percent of affluent Southern white evangelicals will.
Most poorer Americans of every faith – including evangelical Christians – vote for Democrats. It’s a shame that few pundits, pollsters or politicians seem to notice.
Michael Hout is a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. Andrew M. Greeley, a Roman Catholic priest, is a professor of sociology at the University of Arizona and a research associate at the National Opinion Research Center.