May 27, 2003


Do the Democrats Have a Prayer?: To win in '04 the next nominee will need to get religion. (Amy Sullivan , June 2003, Washington Monthly)
Democrats stand to gain the most support among two particular religious constituencies--"freestyle evangelicals" and "convertible Catholics." Although some commentators often refer to the "evangelical vote" or the "Catholic vote," more astute political observers understand that both of these religious communities are actually a collection of sub-groups characterized by regional, socio-economic, ethnic, and sometimes theological differences. And their political attitudes and behaviors are far from monolithic. "There are sub-constituencies among the religious of America who are more persuadable," says Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary. "What Karl Rove has seen is that if the Bush campaign can go into traditional Democratic constituencies and peel off 5 percent of the vote, that is a huge victory." Democrats could do the same thing if they understood the territory better.

Who are these religious swing voters? Freestyle evangelicals--so named by founder Steven Waldman and political scientist John Green--are a growing subset of the largest religious community in the United States. Twenty-five percent of American adults are evangelical Christians, but 40 percent of those (or 10 percent of the adult population) are freestyle evangelicals. This group is tied not to controversial figures such as Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, but to shared cultural touchstones like the Left Behind book series or Michael W. Smith concerts. Sociologist Alan Wolfe refers to the "maturation of American evangelicals" as an indication of the changing demographics of the community. They are just as likely to send their children to public schools as the next person, and many throw back beers on a Saturday night just as happily as they attend church the next morning--often at so-called "megachurches," which have expanded rapidly in the suburbs, reflecting the spread of evangelicalism up the rungs of the socio-economic ladder and into the mainstream.

Although theologically conservative, this group is politically independent; freestyle evangelicals supported Clinton in 1996 and Bush in 2000. They are fairly conservative on social issues--most are pro-life, although they are not single-issue abortion voters--and express particular concern about popular culture. "They worry a lot about their kids, about declining standards, about what they see as 'smut' on television," says Green. "But they have a much broader agenda--they are interested in social welfare issues, they care about the environment." These voters supported Tipper Gore's successful campaign for music warning labels in the 1980s, and like many parents shared Lieberman's worries about the omnipresence of explicit television shows, movies, and Internet sites. Yet in the 2000 campaign, the Gore-Lieberman team inexplicably ignored these touchstone issues.

Free-style evangelicals are not the only "persuadable" religious voters. Conservative older Catholics (read: pre-Vatican II) are a dwindling group, and a potential coalition of "convertible Catholics" is taking their place. On a range of issues, especially economic issues, these Catholics are natural Democrats: They tend to have urban ethnic roots, support unions, and don't automatically hate "big government." But as religiously minded voters, they also feel alienated from the Democratic party over a range of moral and cultural issues, including abortion. In the 1980s, many of them who had once voted Democratic left the ticket to vote for the Gipper, hence the term "Reagan Democrats." But they were never fully at home in the GOP either. Clinton brought many Catholics back into the fold with initiatives like the V-Chip and mandatory school uniforms. But in 2000, Bush campaigned hard for their votes. He pursued a strategy similar to the one used to court evangelicals, granting one-on-one interviews with conservative Catholic publications like Crisis magazine and cultivating key alliances with conservative Catholic intellectuals. His aggressive courtship won back many Catholic voters. In 2000, both Bush and Gore drew 20 percent of their total support from Catholics, a relative gain for the GOP.

Over the long term, though, winning the Catholic vote will depend on winning the Hispanic vote. The vast majority of Hispanics are Catholic, but they tend to be culturally Catholic, not necessarily committed churchgoers. In part because of their loose ties to local churches, this group has been extremely difficult to mobilize. In 2000 and 2002, Hispanic Catholics had the lowest turnout rates of any of the religious voting blocs. But when they do vote, they overwhelmingly support Democrats. Although white Catholics divided their votes between Clinton and Dole, Latino Catholics voted for Clinton by a wide margin. A survey by the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life project found that, in 1996, Hispanic voters supported Clinton at a higher rate (81 percent) than did any other ethnic group, including blacks. As Green observes, "There is a huge potential there, not only because they're growing as a group, but because there is an untapped set of votes there." If Democrats could get Hispanic Catholics excited about the next election, they could pick up a great number of votes.

So, the Democrats, despite being so closely identified with Hollywood, abortion, gay rights, opposition to school choice, etc., can still appeal to "theologically conservative" voters? Either "theologically" or "conservative" must not mean what it used to. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 27, 2003 9:18 PM
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