The Religious Realignment

There’s been a lot of talk about America’s shifting demographics following the election. There’s a consensus among the media that part of the Obama victory can be traced to the rising percentage of latinos in America, a demographic group that has tended to vote Democrat.

Good ol’ Bill O’Reilly moaned, “The white establishment is now the minority [...] The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore.” He’s probably right, although why he assumes that the “white establishment” is something sacred is beyond me.

Something that is getting less attention is the shift in religious demographics, which is why I’m glad thatThe Wild Hunt is asking if this was “A Post-Christian Election? Jason Pitzl-Waters picks up on an article by Sarah Posner on The Great Religious Realignment. Both Poner and Pitzl-Waters are suggesting that the clout of the Religious Right is declining. No one is suggesting that the Moral Majority is dead and gone, but certainly that it can no longer tip an election the way it once could.

Here’s Posner:

… [G]iven what we’ve learned recently about religious realignments—declining numbers of Catholics, declining numbers of mainline Protestants, declining numbers of evangelicals in the 18- to 29-year-old age group, and increasing numbers of unaffiliated voters, and in particular, atheists and agnostics in the 18- to 29-year-old age group—it seems like a significant shift is underway. A recent Pew survey found that there are now equal numbers of white evangelicals and unaffiliated voters, and a Public Religion Research Institute poll found similar results. I noted at the time of the PRRI survey that the bulk of Romney’s base was coming from white conservative evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics, while Obama’s “support comes from a more diverse group: 23% from the unaffiliated, 18% from black Protestants, 15% from white mainline Protestants, 14% from white Catholics, 8% from Latino Catholics, and 7% from non-Christians. Romney draws just 3% of his base from Latino Catholics, 2% from non-Christians, and an unmeasurable portion from black Protestants.”

Pitzl-Waters explains what he thinks that means:

I think we’re going to see a lot more elections that look like this one. That doesn’t mean that Democrats automatically win all the time, or that Republicans are always doomed to lose, just that the playing field will never again be like it was in the 1980s or 1990s. The slowly shifting demographics have started to turn a corner, and savvy politicians, no matter what their political orientation, will adapt to these emerging realities. Yes, that means reaching out to racial minorities, and women, and younger voters, but it also means reaching out to the “nones” and the religious “others” instead of banking everything on the evangelical Christian vote (or the Catholic vote for that matter).
Welcome to the beginning of the post-Christian American future.

Interesting. I suppose that it’s possible the Republicans could forge a new base composed of conservative Catholics, Protestants and Mormons that spans the racial divide, in which case we’re basically back to where we started. But with Republican spokesmen like O’Reilly mourning the decline of the white establishment, such an outcome is unlikely.

  • vasaroti

    We’re still going to have to contend with religion-infected politics for a long time to come. In GOP parlance, “reach out to non-White voters” means guilt them into caring more about Leviticus and heaven than about their day to day lives and opportunities for advancement.

  • smrnda

    The GOP isn’t going to win any votes outside of its current target demographic as a result of savvy marketing or re-branding because what they are selling is ideology – they can’t change that and remain ‘the Republican party.’

    • UrsaMinor

      I disagree. They’ve successfully done it before. This is the very same party that originated as a liberal, left-wing offshoot of the Democrats with an agenda to bring equality to everyone in the country by eliminating slavery. They were the premier champions of responsible environmental stewardship in the early 20th century.

      The party today in no way resembles its former incarnations and shares only the name. And if they have to do it in order to survive as as a political entity, they will change everything that they stand for once again.

      • Elemenope

        This is the very same party that originated as a liberal, left-wing offshoot of the Democrats with an agenda to bring equality to everyone in the country by eliminating slavery.

        I would pick many nits with this. Their origin is, I think, much better understood as a resurrection of the northern Whigs than as an offshoot of the Democrats, the northern wing of whom still existed and opposed the GOP; e.g. Steven Douglas, notably by supporting popular sovereignty solutions to the issue of the spread of slavery, as opposed to the GOP position of a complete halt of expansion of slavery. And they were liberal in the classical sense, which on the ideological axis is normally situated to the right of center; the GOP was never not the party of the banker and industrial classes (and the Democrats were just as clearly the party of farmers for most of its existence), though as you note on social policy they used to be more easily characterized as left of center (environmentalism, race relations, secularism, et al.).

        • UrsaMinor

          I can see that I have some more history homework to do. The collapse of the Whigs (indeed, the very fact that they even existed) is not given much attention these days.

          It’s interesting to speculate on whether we are moving towards another major shakeup of political parties in the U.S. The Democrats aren’t going anywhere as far as I can see; what happens to the Republicans is largely in their own hands. Sticking with their policy of energizing their aging and shrinking voter base through the creation of wedge issues seems to be a losing strategy to me. It pretty much guarantees that the large segments of the population being demonized for short-term political convenience will take their party affiliation and their votes elsewhere.

          • kessy_athena

            Also be careful about overstating the egalitarian aspect of the original Republicans. Abolitionists of the 1850′s were generally not what we today would consider racially enlightened. For example, a common sentiment was to free the slaves – and then ship them all back to Africa. Or Central America. Or pretty much anywhere away from decent civilized white folk.

            Part of the problem the Whigs had was that they started out as the party of everyone who hated Andrew Jackson. In some ways they never really managed to outgrow being a group of people who only had opposition to the Democrats to unite them. Since they never really had a unifying philosophy or world view, when something as divisive as slavery came to the fore, the party shattered and never recovered.

            My impression is that the origins of the GOP owe little to the party system that existed at the time. They began as a movement against slavery and evolved into a political party, vacuuming up all the anti-slavery factions because neither major party was willing to confront the issue head on. I think it might be a bit like if the Green Party took off today by taking on climate change head on while both the Dems and Repubs both refused to take a strong position on it because they were both afraid of fracturing their coalitions.

            • Elemenope

              It is easy to make both errors regarding the generalization of sentiment amongst abolitionists, as there were those, like Thaddeus Stevens, who believed in actual equality, and those, like Abraham Lincoln, who did not. There were tectonic shifts in personal sentiment and opinion directly stemming from the prosecution and aftermath of the Civil War, and it is hard to pinpoint the moment at which the sentiment genuinely shifted an embrace of formal and practical equality, rather than merely the end of slavery.

              It is important to emphasize, I think, that the Republican party was not actually (at least at first, 1854-1863 or so) against slavery per se, only its territorial expansion. Much of this position was due to a purely pragmatic concern: the prevailing attitude that territories should be able to decide for themselves had already led to a Civil-War-in-Miniature in the incipient state of Kansas, and was the most obvious route to a national Civil War. This position, incidentally, pissed off abolitionists something fierce, who later took over the party over the issue (the “Radical Republicans”).

            • kessy_athena

              It’s a little hard to pin down Lincoln’s personal beliefs on the subject – he was a politician, after all. It’s certainly true there was a lot of diversity of opinion, and it’s also true that the war itself changed a lot of attitudes. That had a lot to do with Northern soldiers, many of whom had never actually met a black person before. getting to see slavery first hand as they campaigned across the South, and getting to see black soldiers in action.

              The conventional wisdom of the time was that if slavery was not allowed to expand to new territories, the institution would gradually wither and die in the natural course of events. The Confederacy certainly believed it – that’s why they seceded over Lincoln’s election.


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