Some of the most extensive discussion of a very extensively discussed subject here in the U.S.—religion and politics—occurs at the Pew Forum. The online proceedings of an early December conference on the subject were just brought to my attention. Of particular interest is the transcript of the presentation by John Green. Green, who cooperated with Acton years ago on our survey of economics in seminaries, is arguably the most respected and most widely quoted authority on religion and electoral behavior. Personally, I approach the whole polling industry with a large dose of skepticism, but with all the requisite caveats in place, Green’s work is indeed among the best in the business.
The transcript, with full Q&A, gets rather lengthy, so I’ll focus on a couple points. One is that it is remarkable how the distinction between “active” or “churchgoing” and less active, non-regular churchgoers has assumed preeminence in analysis of religion and politics. Green suggests that the distinction may not be as politically significant this year (and he may be right, although I think that depends greatly on which two candidates end up with the nominations). Yet the difference has clearly become a focus of investigation, a significant (and positive) change from the days when most analysts approached the subject with the blunt categories of “evangelical Protestant,” “mainline Protestant,” and “Catholic.”
The second is that EJ Dionne, with whom I frequently disagree, makes some of the most salient and incisive points. The section begins here. A sampling:
I believe, and this will be a controversial statement, that the era of the religious right is over. Now, as Bill Clinton would say, I suppose that depends on what the meaning of the words “religious right” is, but I believe the religious right, viewed as a conservative political movement within the Republican party that rose from 1978 or 1980, is breaking up, in significant part because the evangelical community itself is changing and also because the issues confronting the country are changing. Again, I’m not predicting that this group will suddenly shift overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party, but I think we’re going to see a very different style of politics in the coming years.
If you put untroubled and troubled skeptics together, that’s 26% of the electorate. So if anyone wonders why Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, and all those folks have sold so many books, 26% is a very significant number of Americans. If you combine that 26% with the reluctant believers group, that is over a majority. It is simply not true that if you go out and say how religious you are and talk about it all the time, you are automatically appealing to a majority of the electorate.
But also, I think Huckabee is very interesting because Huckabee, a former Baptist minister who does have strongly conservative positions on the social issues, has actually been broadening the evangelical agenda. He speaks critically of Wall Street; he has linked his Christian commitment to a concern for the poor and their access to education and health care. I think Huckabee may understand better than most politicians how much the religious conversation is changing within his own evangelical community. I think the most interesting criticism of Mike Huckabee came from Fred Thompson, who called him a pro-life liberal. There are, indeed, times when Mike Huckabee sounds a little bit like our friend Jim Wallis.
There are also fascinating differences by state, and I had a long list of these, and I won’t belabor you with them, but I actually once took apart the 2004 exit polls to look at how the religious question played state-by-state. You’ll find that the religion gap barely exists in Louisiana; is enormous in Minnesota and Washington State; and that California was the only state in which Bush failed to secure a majority among weekly churchgoers. Now, all these may have demographic explanations. In Louisiana, the Democratic share among regular church attenders was boosted by African Americans and, to some degree, Cajun Catholics. Minnesota and Washington have relatively small African-American populations, and in California the Democratic vote is boosted by Latino Protestants.