Experts: Obama Win May Signal Start of Religious-Voter Shift
Barack Obama’s election as president could signal waning influence by the Christian Right in American politics, according to several experts — but his improvements over previous Democratic nominees’ appeal to religious voters could also simply be a variation on an old pattern.
Panels of religious and polling experts, in two separate Nov. 5 conference calls with reporters, noted that Obama had improved on both John Kerry’s and Al Gore’s performance in most categories of religious voters.
“The religion gaps are alive and well, and in 2008, favoring the Democrats,” said John Green, a religion-and-politics expert with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The Democratic nominee garnered about 53 percent of the popular vote to GOP nominee John McCain’s 46 percent.
Green noted that Obama improved slightly but significantly on John Kerry’s performance in every major religious category. The 2004 Democratic nominee lost white evangelicals by huge margins — and Catholics by a narrower margin — to President Bush.
But Obama did better among evangelicals and won a majority of Catholics. He also scored significant increases in support from Jews, Protestants in general and those not affiliated with any religion.
Among white voters who identified themselves to exit pollsters as evangelical or “born-again” Christians, 26 percent voted for Obama and 73 percent voted for McCain. That’s a 5-point improvement over Kerry’s performance among white evangelicals.
However, Obama did significantly better among white evangelicals in Midwestern and Rust Belt states than he did in the South. For instance, in Alabama, only 8 percent of white evangelicals supported Obama, whereas in Iowa, 33 percent did.
Nationwide, Obama won a significant majority — 54 percent — of Catholics. That was a demographic in which Bush bested Kerry 52-47 percent in 2004, giving Obama a 7-point boost among Catholics.
Obama’s biggest boost in terms of religious categories over previous Democrats came among those who are not formally affiliated with any religious group. Those listing no religious affiliation favored him over McCain 75-23 percent. That’s an increase of 8 points over Kerry’s showing among the unaffiliated — and an increase of 14 points over 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore’s 61-percent share of the same category.
Obama also did better than Kerry among all religious categories in terms of attendance at worship services. His biggest increase was among those who worship more than once a week, 43 percent of whom voted for him. That was an 8-point gain over Kerry’s 2004 share of frequent worshipers. The Pew experts said much of that increase may owe to Obama’s strong support among African-American Protestants and Latino Catholics.
A separate panel of moderate-to-progressive religious leaders, assembled by the advocacy group Faith in Public Life, said the trends indicate many religious voters are moving away from traditional religious-conservative political leanings.
David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, said the election revealed a “fracture” between the Christian Right and the general public. Whether that fracture is permanent, he said, depends a great deal on whether the Religious Right positions itself as “flat-out opposition” to a Democrat-controlled Washington or tries to build coalitions aimed at achieving goals for the common good.
Rich Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said the Religious Right has treated politics as a “zero-sum game,” where in order for them to win someone else had to lose.