Debunking the Rise of Democratic Christian Voters

In a recent Atlantic article titled “Why Democrats Must Regain the Trust of Religious Voters,” author Michael Wear makes the well-worn argument that the Democratic Party needs to get God. More to the point, they need to target their outreach efforts toward evangelical Christians.

In Wear’s estimation, “Democrats ignored broad swaths of religious America in the 2016 election campaign and the nation has suffered because of it.” He cites how in 2012, Barack Obama was able to secure 21 percent of the white evangelical vote while Hillary Clinton only received 16 percent in 2016. “Because white evangelicals account for more than a quarter of the American electorate, that five-point difference accounts for a swing of millions of votes nationally.”

In a piece penned for Slate during the 2016 election cycle, Ruth Graham points to the demise of white conservative evangelicals due to their ongoing support of Donald J. Trump. She outlines a strategy whereby the Christian Left could be poised to take the mantle from the Republicans as the party of God. “As the religious right struggles to determine its own path forward, believers on the left have the chance to form an influential band of opposition to those who have long been the loudest voices within American Christianity.”

Sorry, but neither Wear nor Graham’s math adds up. As the recent Alabama election proved, while an estimated 80 percent of white evangelicals threw their support behind an accused pedophile, he lost because 98 percent of black voters cast their ballot for his opponent. The majority (76 percent) of this voting block self-identify as “evangelical.” (Nationally, 57 percent of blacks and 39 percent of whites identified as born again or evangelical, a voting block that was ignored by both political parties during the 2016 election.)

Also, their analyses fail to take into account the rapid rise of the nones. As I reported in September, The Public Religion Research Institute’s expansive survey, “America’s Changing Religious Identity,” points to the sharp growth of the religiously unaffiliated, with 24 percent of those surveyed stating they do not identify with any particular religion. Conversely, the number of white Americans who identify as Christian has dropped to 43 percent. Furthermore, there are now twenty states in which the religiously unaffiliated are the plurality of residents.

In another post, I cite how this rise of the nones points to a growing consensus among Americans who don’t want any political party to be fueled by a godly fire. “Twice-elected President Barack Obama has the distinction of being the first president in recent history who has never attended a church regularly or had a pastor readily available on speed dial should a public prayer be required. Also throughout his presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders continues to champion himself as a secular Jew.”

In an email exchange I had with Tom Krattenmaker, a board member with the Yale Humanist Community and author of Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower, he pointed to Wear’s focus on LGBT rights and abortion. The repetition of these two topics suggests that these are the only issues of interest to people of faith. In his estimation, “many religious people are pro-choice and pro-LGBT rights or gay themselves. Moreover, many religious people care a lot about the environment, and poverty alleviation, and racial justice, and so on, but these get only passing mention in the article.”

As the Democratic Party faces its own reckoning in the national debate over sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace, will they emerge as the party more concerned about truth telling than their Republican counterparts? Can they move toward an inclusive party that can speak to all Americans regardless of their religious beliefs, or a lack thereof?

In Krattenmaker’s estimation, “By doing a good job of messaging and policy-making around these important issues, the Democratic party will be reaching out to many religious voters while addressing the concerns and values of secular people at the same time. It’s not about religion. It’s about values.” This strategy will enable them to reach out to both black evangelical voters and the nones, two ignored voting blocks that have the potential to shape both the 2018 and 2020 elections.