Mon Mar 6, 2006

Evangelicals and Democrats

Amy Sullivan writes about the prospect of the Democratic party recruiting evangelical or conservative Christians. Kevin Drum comments

I have to confess that I’ve always been skeptical of the notion that liberals should spend much time trying to get the Christian evangelical community on our side. When push comes to shove, they just care way more about sex and “moral degeneracy” than they do about helping the poor or taking care of the environment, and that means that outreach efforts are ultimately doomed to failure.

Two quick points about this. First, when political commentators talk about wooing the evangelical or conservative Christian base, they typically mean—but do not say—that they’re talking about white conservatives. African-American Christians may look similar on theological issues like the veracity of the Bible, but they vote Democratic. Here, for example, is some data courtesy of Andrew Greeley and Mike Hout, from a forthcoming book on conservative Christians in America. (Andy presented some of this work in my department recently, and these figures are based on some crosstabulations of GSS data that he showed us.) The three panels in the figure below break respondents down by their answer to a question about the truth of the Bible—is it the literal word of god, the divinely inspired work of men and women, or a book of historical fables. Within each panel, we see what percentage of each of four kinds of Protestant groups voted Democratic in Presidential elections in the 1990s. These groups are Blacks affiliated with historically black churches, blacks affiliated with other Protestant churches, whites affiliated with Mainline Protestant denominations, and Whites affiliated with Conservative protestant denominations. (Note, of course, that these are percentages: in terms of sheer numbers there are more conservative white Christians than their black counterparts.)

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The two things to notice are, first, blacks pretty much always vote Democratic. You knew that already, but it’s worth reiterating given that many African-Americans also believe in the literal truth of the Bible, attend church every week or read the Bible every day. In fact, African-Americans with conservative views on the Bible are more likely to vote Democratic than those who think it’s just a bunch of stories.

Second, while it’s clear that white conservative Christians lean heavily towards Republicans, the swing in some cases isn’t as large as you would think. More than a third of white conservative christians who profess the literal truth of the Bible still vote Democratic. That’s probably more than you imagined. The picture is similar for church attendance, as shown below.

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Now, the implications for Democratic Party strategy are of course not so clear. For one thing, the structure of U.S. Presidential elections means that recruiting more conservative Christians at random probably won’t do much good. And the question of which policies, exactly, would win over these voters is also unclear. On the other hand, it’s at least worth bearing in mind that there’s more than one sort of conservative Christian, and that they’re not actually required to vote Republican—even if they’re white.