Rules Are for Schmucks: Is Religion Irrelevant in Voting?

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Something I’ve suspected for a while seems to be coming clear in this year’s presidential primaries. To put it bluntly: religion doesn’t matter.

Maybe it used to. I’m not ready to debate whether it mattered back when Republican candidate James G. Blaine went down in flames in the race against Grover Cleveland in 1884, ostensibly over “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” (though I have my doubts). But it doesn’t matter now.

If religion mattered in people’s voting decisions, then a smart, personable, attractive, experienced “Pope Francis Democrat” like Martin O’Malley would have been able to attract enough liberal Catholic support to do a lot better than 0.6 percent of the Iowa vote against a Methodist and a lapsed Jew.

If religion mattered in people’s voting decisions, then the professional preacher (Huckabee) and the professional Christian filmmaker (Santorum), who won the last two Iowa Republican caucuses, would have gotten more than an asterisk this time around.

If religion mattered in people’s voting decisions, then the massive evangelical (and Catholic) handwringing over Donald Trump would be having some impact, somewhere. The Christian Post even took the first-in-its-history step of endorsing “everybody-except-Trump”—shortly before he swept to victory on Super Tuesday. In fact, the states where Trump is losing are the less-religious places like Maine, Minnesota, and Alaska. And the biggest-name pastor to endorse Trump, Robert Jeffress, leads a congregation in Texas—where Trump also lost. In the Bible Belt, twice-divorced casino tycoon Trump, who can’t cite scripture passages properly or tell the difference between a communion plate and a collection plate, and whom a plurality of Republican voters agree is just not religious, is cleaning up.

Sit quietly for a moment. Look at the ceiling. Think about the last time you heard or read someone say: “Well, if it were up to me, I would agree with [position X]. But my religious leaders say that God wants [position not-X]. Therefore, I support [position not-X].” I won’t say it never, ever happens. But I can’t think of a time when it ever has. Can you?

Just the opposite happens, all the time. God experts proclaim “God is for [position X]. Which also happens to be a good idea, for the following rational reasons…Ain’t that God a smart fellow?” Abortion is a perfect example. It’s not enough for the Christian right just to say that God hates abortion (even though God chose not to express any opinions on the subject in the 783,000 theoretically inspired words of the Bible). No, they crank out argument after argument about how terrible abortion is for the physical and mental health of women, how it is equivalent to genocide of the black race, etc.

What religion really does is harden positions people have already reached. “Not only am I right—but God is on my side.” That’s how God winds up on so many opposite sides of so many issues. Religion doesn’t drive politics; politics drives religion. As the world inexorably grows more complex, this hardening of positions makes good government far more difficult than it ought to be. Conditions do change. What made sense as immigration policy, say, twenty years ago may well make no sense at all today. But when both sides have set their jaws with what God wants, rational changes in course become unduly difficult to achieve.

“Correlation does not imply causation” is one of the oldest truisms in social science (or any science, for that matter). There’s no question that if you study voting patterns, you’ll find people with different belief systems clustering around different candidates. The Democratic nominee, for example, will likely receive a huge majority of the humanist and secular vote (a fact that seems to matter not at all to the Democratic establishment). The Republican nominee will receive a majority of the self-styled evangelicals. But are people voting Republican because they are evangelical? My (unproven) hypothesis is no, they’re not. They are people who, partly through reason and partly through their social milieu, come down on the conservative side of most issues. That makes them want to join evangelical churches, and to vote Republican. But when you have one right-wing Republican pitted against another, their evangelical beliefs matter not at all.

If I’m right, what does it mean?

The first thing it means is that you can safely ignore mountains of so-called political “analysis” of the effect of religion on voting patterns. This particular emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.  Here are few examples from this year:

Eliminating all this clutter would be nice, but the even more profound effect would be on candidates and their brain trusts. The message is simple, and surely welcome: you don’t have to suck up to these God salesmen anymore! Sure, an endorsement from any public figure is nice—but an endorsement from Rev. Megachurch is worth no more than an endorsement from a football player or a movie star. In other words, not very much. So why twist yourself in a pretzel?

With these scales removed from his eyes, a Bernie Sanders wouldn’t have to mealy-mouth his “very strong religious and spiritual feelings.” He could just say “I’m not religious. Period. Let’s talk about healthcare.” It would be even more valuable for a Donald Trump, someone who has succeeded beyond all expectations precisely because of the perception that he’s a nonpolitician who “tells it like it is.” You may not like most of what he says—I don’t—but I will admit to an occasional guilty pleasure when I hear him say things that “just aren’t said.” The one huge exception to that is his cowardly buffoonery on religion. Everybody sees through it—most especially, the tiny handful of people somewhere in this great land who are the exceptions to the general rule posited here, who actually might let religion influence their voting. Pretending to be religious completely undercuts Trump’s straight-shooter image. So why do it?