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The Widening Gap Between Republicans and Democrats Isn't Just Political, It's Theological

The Widening Gap Between Republicans and Democrats Isn't Just Political, It's Theological
Why Theology Determines Politics

By Albert Mohler
https://albertmohler.com/2020/05/08/briefing-5-8-20
May 8, 2020

We do our best as Christians to try to understand the world around us. It's a world that's very complex. It's a world that we know is even now in the process of radical, moral, and societal change. We want to look beneath the surface and understand the changes in the tectonic plates, we might say, of the culture that provide us understanding of how we are as Christians to respond to the world as it is and as it is becoming. This means that of course we pay a lot of attention to politics, trying to watch the world of politics because in politics all the major issues of life are eventually disclosed.

We're seeing a very interesting story, a very interesting pattern, develop when it comes to politics in the United States right now. It has to do with what Christians should both anticipate and uniquely understand, and that is the collision of theology and politics in a very volatile but revealing way. Thomas B. Edsall, reporter for the New York Times recently talked about major new research indicating what he described as a "steady religious realignment" that has reshaped the American electorate. In particular given the data he spoke of the reshaping of the white American electorate, and he went on to say that this pattern is now "turning religious conviction or its absence into a clear signal of where voters stand in the culture wars."

The next paragraph is this, "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." He concludes, "These two trends have transformed the strategic underpinnings of political campaigning." Well, more to that in just a moment, but let's just back up and say on one hand there's no news here. This is not the news the headline would indicate. You don't have to have particularly recent research in order to discern this pattern. It has been documented now over a course of decades.

Going back at least 10 years, you have research coming out from figures such as Robert Putnam of Harvard University indicating that finding out whether a voter had attended church the Sunday before the vote is the leading indicator of how that voter would vote and did vote, that with particular reference to presidential campaigns. But as you're looking at the situation now, the point that is rightly observed by Thomas B. Edsall is that the pattern is becoming ever clearer almost every single day. The bottom line and the pattern is this, and I'm going to go to Edsall's text, "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 he went on to say, "As we shall see, it's not that simple. The deeper you go, the more complex it gets." Well, in a sense, yes, but in a sense, no. Actually the deeper you go, it just becomes far more clear why it is so. But there are a couple of very interesting twists in the developments of recent years.

Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University is cited in the article as having tracked religious trends for the past 30 years using data from the General Social Survey. Edsall goes on to tell us according to this research that in 1988, 55.7% of Americans were members of traditional mainstream denominations, 36.6% were members of evangelical and born again denominations, and 7.7% said they were not religious.

Remember, that's '88, so right at about 30 years ago. 30 years ago, what did the picture look like? More than half of all white Americans indicated that they were members of some kind of main line denomination. Then you had almost 40% who identified as evangelical "born again" denominations. You'll notice the awkwardness of the secular press even now trying to discuss classical Christians who after all believe in conversion. But less than 10% identified as non-religious. But fast forward 30 years, from 1988 to 2018, what do we find? "Membership in traditional denominations has fallen 20 points to 35.5%. Born again, evangelical church membership has grown by 4.8 points to 41.4% and the share of the non-religious has tripled to 23.1%."

But what's really, really interesting is the statement made by Ryan Burge in the next paragraph who warned, according to the language of the New York Times, "That in just a few years there will be no moderate Protestants left." Now that raises an immediate question. What does he mean by moderate Protestants? Does it mean moderate in some sense theologically or does he mean moderate politically? Probably there is some mixture of the two, but it appears to be that moderate politically is the dominant category here. That is made clear when in the next paragraph we read, "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."

So there we are talking about politics, but wait just a minute, we're also talking about theology because at least when he mentioned the Southern Baptist and the Missouri Synod Lutherans and the assemblies of God, you aren't talking about generally very conservative denominations when it comes to theology. Again, what's the Christian worldview link? When you're talking theology and you're talking politics, the common link is worldview. The theology eventually determines the politics.

But at this point the story gets even more interesting as the New York Times tells us, "Among the 20 largest white Protestant denominations, just two became less Republican in a statistically significant way in the last 10 years," again that according to Ryan Burge. Using Burges language, sixteen of these denominations have larger shares of Republicans today than they did when Barack Obama was elected in 2008. The New York Times then tells us, "Republicans have even made gains in relatively liberal denominations like the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, and the American Baptist Churches." Now that is explosive. That's unexpected.

We're being told here that even in the more traditionally liberal Protestant denominations, and let's be candid theologically, they tend to be very liberal. They're also becoming increasingly Republican. How is that happening? Well, it's happening, I would offer, because of a fundamentally theological rather than political explanation, and that is that if you are a theist, you believe in God, and if you have any association whatsoever with any version of historic Christianity of any link at all, then you're going to tend to be more Republican than Democratic on the political spectrum because these days it doesn't take much theology to make you far too theological for the Democratic party.

In an article by Ryan Burge himself published months ago at Religion News, he asked the question as to whether or not more white Protestants, regardless of theological identification, were likely to become Republican. In essence, he says probably not, but the reason is, "In large part because most white Protestants are already Republicans."

The article written by Burge includes a chart at Religion News Service that really is fascinating. It's a bar chart, denomination by denomination, showing the relative strength of Democratic registration versus Republican registration, again, denomination by denomination. Red is Republican as is now traditional and these kinds of graphics and maps, Blue is Democratic and the most important impression from looking at the chart is across the board, it's a lot more red than it is blue. Again, the research by Ryan Burge indicates that when you are looking at the liberal denominations, they are actually more Republican now than they were under the administration of President Barack Obama. What does that tell us? It tells us that the issues are now getting very tight. The political tension is very high, and the people who remain, even in those mainline liberal Protestant denominations, they are at least at this point, sufficiently theistic and sufficiently identified with some form of Christian heritage that they are still more theological than the growth curve in the Democratic party, which is overwhelmingly secular.

I've been following this research for years now very, very closely. I am seldom surprised, but I have to admit, this research has surprised me. I would not have expected that in denominations as liberal as the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, you're talking about denominations that are so far on the theological Left, they generally don't require any kind of theism, but you are looking at the fact that nonetheless they're becoming more Republican. I think it comes down to the fact that if you believe in any kind of theistic referent or authority at all, you're on the more Republican side of the worldview divide in American politics today.

The article by Edsall recently at the New York Times also cites Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts University, he gives us the data that in the 2018 House Democratic vote, that is the winning majority Democratic vote for the House of Representatives, when you look at white college graduates for whom religion is not at all important, the vote for the Democrats was 91%. You're talking about an overwhelming vote. It's a very secular vote. It's an extremely liberal vote. But for those who said, religion is very important, 30% voted Democrat, that's a 61 point gap. 61 points that are separating their vote.

The article by Edsall also cites a political scientist at Boston College, David Hopkins, who has been looking at religious affiliation and degrees of religiosity as are applied to partisan identification and choice of candidates. He has found a 40 point gap that equals the magnitude "of the more longstanding difference in the partisan preferences of whites and African Americans." As the research by Hopkins indicates, white evangelical Protestants prefer the Republican party by a margin of 68% to 22% while "religiously unaffiliated voters" now lean toward the Democrats by 61% to 25%. Notice how close those margins are. It really does come down to a 40 point gap. That's massive.

With 2020 being a presidential election year and these issues looming so large, we'll be taking even a closer look at much of this research and at the patterns in weeks and months to come. But at this point in May of 2020, it's just vitally important that we recognize that these patterns are accelerating right before our eyes. The gap is becoming even larger. We're seeing it across the political landscape and again, we'll be looking at it even more closely. The worldview implications as you can well understand are simply massive.

*****

In God We Divide
The political dimensions of worship have never been greater

By Thomas B. Edsall
New York Times
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/25/opinion/religion-democrats-republicans.html
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.

Supporters sing the national anthem as they wait for President Trump to make a speech to evangelical supporters in Miami, Fla.Credit...Eva Uzcategui/Reuters

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.

END

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