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Post-Election Breakdown: Religious Voters, the Economy and Moral Values

November 3, 2010, 5:22 pm | Posted by John Gehring

America woke up to a new political reality this morning. Voters anxious about the economy delivered the House to Republicans, though Democrats held onto control of the Senate. In many ways, this wasn’t a big surprise. The president’s party historically loses seats in the midterms, and the results reflected deep anxiety over the current unemployment rate and deepening economic despair, as well as an emboldened Tea Party movement on the right. A Los Angeles Times’ editorial today provides a measured analysis that should help buck up progressives and others on the left wallowing in an endless round of what ifs:

In 1956, Eisenhower crushed Adlai Stevenson in their rematch; two years after that, Democrats picked up 48 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate. Those patterns have repeated more recently: Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, only to have Democrats lose 53 House and seven Senate seats in 1994; George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 and lost control of Congress two years later. Given that history, Tuesday’s results are hardly astonishing; indeed, they are more part of a trend than an aberration. Nevertheless, they do reveal powerful forces at work in our politics today. Specifically, they reflect the descent from 2008′s hopeful zeitgeist to 2010′s anger and bewilderment, emotions that found purchase in many of the bitter, partisan races decided Tuesday.

Faith in Public Life crunched some exit poll numbers last night and asked experts on the intersection of faith and politics to provide some commentary. First, the numbers.

Eighty-seven percent of voters said they were worried about the economy, and 62% said the economy is the most important issue facing the country. Exit polling, however, debunks the narrative being perpetuated by some partisans that the election was a mandate to implement a Republican agenda. It’s hard to make that case when forty-three percent of voters polled had a favorable view of the Democratic party, compared to 42% who had a favorable view of the Republican party. In many ways, the results last night can be read as a desperate cry from a weary electorate hungry for more bipartisan cooperation to lift the nation out of our economic crisis. Voters in 2010 were noticeably older and more politically conservative than the 2008 electorate. In 2008, 18% of voters were under 30; this year 11% were under 30. In 2008, 53% of voters were 45 or older; this year 67% were 45 or older. A significant flip was evident among Catholic voters. In this election, 54% percent of Catholics supported Republican House candidates, compared to 42 percent in 2008 and 44 percent in 2006. In 2008, 54% of Catholic voters voted for President Obama. The Senate race in Pennsylvania was an outlier, as Catholics nearly evenly split on support for Democratic candidate Joe Sestak and Republican candidate (and winner) Pat Toomey (51% breaking for Toomey and 49% for Sestak).

Faith leaders and analysts put these numbers in perspective, offering insights into what happened with religious voters yesterday, from the role of the Tea Party to the importance of framing the economy as a moral values issue.

Steve Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington: “Our nation’s diverse faith traditions, especially Catholic social teaching, emphasize the common good and the essential role government has in building a just economy that works for all. This tradition and powerful message is not heard enough today and is urgently needed at a time of economic anxiety, growing ideological polarization and voter anger.”

Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute: “One thing is clear from this election – the Tea Party movement was a mixed blessing for the Republican Party. This group, which represents about 1-in-10 Americans in the general population, has captured some of the enthusiasm, and part of the membership of, one of the key groups typically rallying the Republican base, the Christian Right. …On the other hand, the Tea Party hurt GOP chances in the Senate by backing several candidates who faced an uphill climb appealing to mainstream voters in state-wide elections.”

Rev. Jennifer Butler, Executive Director of Faith in Public Life: “The faith community knows firsthand how hard families have been hit by our economic crisis, and we know that this election reflected voters’ frustration with a still-stagnant economy. The fact that an overwhelming percentage of voters ranked the economy as their top concern speaks not only to individual anxieties, but also to our concerns about our nation and its values. Economic injustices are moral injustices.”

I will leave it to the professional pundits and party leaders to break down the political spin, but it’s clear that elected officials and candidates hoping to win over anxious voters in the next few years need to talk less about GDP, interest rates or unemployment rates and more about values, the dignity of work, and the common good. There is a deep well of moral wisdom from our nation’s diverse faith traditions waiting to be tapped.

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