Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics

The end of America’s Protestant political majority gives Republicans cause to wo …

RNS photo illustration by Kit Doyle

(RNS) — A quick and dirty anaylsis of how the midterms played out in the religious landscape, according to Tuesday’s exit polls, shows that politically the United States is no longer a majority Protestant country.

The unsurprising fact of the election is that white evangelicals, the folks everyone from the White House on down has been focused on for the past two years, went 75 percent for the Republican candidate in races for the House of Representatives and 22 percent for the Democrat. The gap is five percentage points down from the 2014 margin of 78 percent to 20 percent margin in favor of the GOP, but holding form.

White evangelicals constitute 26 percent of the electorate, as they did in 2016, when they went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, 80-16. All in all, they constitute a constant one-quarter of the electorate, maybe trending slightly less Republican.

Overall, non-Catholic Christians (Protestants and others) preferred Republicans to Democrats by a 14-point margin, 56-42. That’s a little more than half the margin Republicans enjoyed in 2014 (61 percent to 37).

But for the first time in American history, Protestants constituted less than half the electorate, at 47 percent.

Catholics favored Democratic candidates by the slimmest of margins, 50-49. This represents a significant shift from 2014, when they split in favor of Republicans, 54-45. Catholics also voted in higher numbers, with their proportion of the entire vote growing by 2 percentage points over the last midterm to 26 percent.

Those shifts may reflect the higher turnout in the Latino vote, representing a larger, more Democratic portion of the Catholic vote as a whole.

The biggest shift in terms of faith may turn out to be the Jewish vote. In 2014, Jews voted 2-1 for Democratic House candidates, a pretty low margin for them that perhaps reflects unhappiness with President Obama’s relatively tough stance on Israel. On Tuesday, Jews went better than 4-1 for the the Democrats (79 percent to 17), showing that Trump’s embrace of Israel did nothing to counterbalance the rest of his agenda.

Very possibly, the increased margin was also a reaction to the Pittsburgh massacre, which, along with the bomb threats to Democratic politicians, suggested to Jews that resurgent anti-Semitism on the right is a clear and present danger — and that if it has not found a home in the Republican Party, it has found aid and comfort in Trumpian white nationalism.

Finally, there are those who identify as belonging to no religion, known as the nones. They voted Democratic 70 percent to 28, almost the same as in 2014, when they did so 69-29. Significantly, however, their portion of the overall vote has steadily increased over the past three national elections, from 12 percent in 2014 to 15 percent in 2016 to 17 percent this year.

A closely aligned group, those who say they never attend religious services, voted Democratic 68 percent to 30, a gap half again as large as the margin of 62 percent to 36 in 2014. As with the nones, their proportion of the electorate is growing, from 18 percent in 2014 to 22 percent in 2016 to 27 percent this year.

Meanwhile, voters who say they attend religious services weekly favored Republicans 58 percent to 40, holding steady at the 20-point (give-or-take) split that has been the case with them in most elections since 2000. But their proportion of the electorate shrank from 40 percent in 2014 to 32 percent in 2018.

The bottom line, as moving parts of the American religious system continue their recent trends, is clear: Republicans beware.

(This article has been updated to show that voters who say they never attend religious services favored Democratic candidates more heavily in 2018 than in 2014. A previous version erroneously indicated that the gap had grown smaller. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

15 Comments

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  • Thank you, Mark. Fact-based reporting is refreshing. That was a very quick turn-around for this much data.

  • I’ve been hearing about the end of the Republican party for years now due to the “Rise of the Nones” but they (frustratingly) keep winning and even growing in power. Is it possibly because Nones tend to be concentrated in the northeast and west coast which tend to be liberal anyhow so there isn’t a lot of shift?

  • The Nones are rising everywhere, but as you suggest they constitute a larger portion of the population on the West Coast (especially in the Pacific Northwest) and the Northeast. This helps explain the blueness of those regions—and helps explain why large portions of the country are relatively unaffected.

  • There is some encouraging facts about this election in the House races. The first Muslim women, more women, American Indian women, etc. More white women went Democratic this time–greater diversity is a very good thing. We have taken one step forward after falling 3 or 4 steps backward with the election of Trump. So there is still much more to do.

  • “On Tuesday, Jews went better than 4-1 for the the Democrats (79 percent to 17), showing that Trump’s embrace of Israel did nothing to counterbalance the rest of his agenda.”

    I wish the Catholic Bishops would learn a lesson from the Jewish voters. The bishops are part of the reason we have Trump as president – they have promoted voting abortion politics and the “religious freedom” to use economic power to impose a belief system on others. The rest of the suffering world could just continue to suffer or even get worse as long as they had their way on imposing a particular religious viewpoint on those who do not hold that viewpoint. There was little to no difference between Evangelical so-called Christians and the fundamentalist Roman Catholics, including most of our Bishops, with a few blessed exceptions.

    I expect a furious backlash from the religious right. I expect the U.S. Senate to work overtime to approve justices for courts who will be far more conservative than the voters are showing they want. I expect more attempts, especially by Republican controlled state legislatures to cleverly find ways to disenfranchise far more liberal leaning votes than preventing the practically non-existent voter fraud. And I fear like crazy the continuation of the very clever gerrymandering the Republicans used to construct voting districts to favor their own party which will be happening in 2021, I think. For now, the Catholic Bishops are so busy covering up for their own coverup of sexual abuse, they may be distracted enough to drop out of sight for a while.

    Did you read about the long voting lines in Georgia? In the primaries, we had about a dozen voting booths at my precinct (in Georgia). Yesterday there were six. It was worse in some other areas. Deliberate or stupid? Or deliberately stupid? Or that cutesy way Southern good ol’ boys show how deceptively clever they are? When I asked a polling place worker why so few, he said he was told that it was based on typical mid-term election patterns. Great excuse to ignore the clarity we have had for months that this time there was going to be massive voting. Oh, in case it didn’t register, the man running for governor (Kemp) is the current Secretary of State who is responsible for overseeing and protecting voting rights and opportunities in Georgia.

    Ah, democracy. It can be downright scary sometimes.

  • No doubt the “inefficient” concentration of Nones is part of the reason. But, so is gerrymandering and voter suppression. A majority of Americans, about 54%, recognize voter suppression as a more pressing danger than non-citizens voting.

    An interesting article in Scientific American, about using mathematics to draw political districts, offers a possible way to fairer elections. (The article is behind a pay wall, so I haven’t linked it.) Here’s an article about one of the movers behind the idea.
    https://www.chronicle.com/article/Meet-the-Math-Professor/239260

    My state voted yesterday to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians and give more say to citizens. The ability of politicians to choose their voters patently flies in the face representative government.

  • With respect to the Nones, we should recognize that, in the aggregate, they appear to behave more spiritually than many of their counterparts in religions. By that, I mean that they vote for public policy which operatively and tangibly “loves” more people than sectarians do. An obvious exception to that generalization, of course, is what you have reported here about Jewish American voters in yesterday’s election. (it’s always a curious matter that the Jewish interests in America are not really what the Evangelicals imagine, and we should be grateful for the voting contributions of our Jewish folks, even if their numbers are relatively small in the whole country.)

  • Republicans have little reason to worry about any decline in their influence. Their preferred policy is cemented in place for decades. Oh, I guess they could worry that their preferred policy will come back to bite a lot of their supporters in the rear end because it was WRONG for actual people who happen not to be already wealthy, but most of them see it like they see climate change. “What the heck? We’ll be dead before it hits us.”

  • Protestants at 47% and practicing christians at 32%. Takes my breath away, and some of the fear of a christian takeover of america. Not all but some.

  • Growing up both liberal and Mormon, I had to choose and Mormonism lost. Individual personal spirituality is a much better choice anyway.

  • The Pittsburgh massacre is not the reason that Jews vote for Democrats more and more. Is there even a Jewish Republican Senator? I am not even sure there are Republican Jewish House members. The Christian Right has taken over the GOP to the extent that their dominance may affect me as a non-Christian. That is why my friends and I are yellow dog Democrats.

  • There are only TWO political parties to realistically choose from in the United States.

    BOTH parties have their Christians. One lopsidedly so since it goes out of their way to cater to them even if some of the rhetoric is lip service. Israel is a factor, as it figures prominently with end times theology, and the TRUMPparty is the only one at this time that seems to value the importance and protection of Israel.

    On issues such as abortion, that sole factor can be enough to influence many Christians to stay with the TRUMP party as well, since that party tends to oppose abortion. These Christians believe that taking life through the act of abortion is a grave transgression against God. For such Christians it IS the high ground on the front line from which there can be no desertion, in spite of the Commander in Chief’s failings; lest God withdraw His blessing from the United States and let it collapse by the weight of its own collective sin against the unborn.

    The unTRUMP party, seems to barely tolerate its Christians, insulting or even vilifying them if they try to apply any their principles that are not in lockstep with the whole of that party. This is regrettable, as that party has many fine points.

    Fellow Democrats showed contempt for this woman when they learned her stance on abortion:
    Joan Barry, (NY Times declined to identify her as a Catholic) has been a member of the Missouri Democratic Party for 53 years. As a state legislator, she voted regularly for workers’ rights, health care and programs for the poor.

    She ran , as part of her campaign as a Democrat who opposed abortion.
    Within days, Ms. Barry began receiving angry emails and Facebook messages. People called her a dinosaur, a has-been and worse. Her children started to worry.
    “My daughter called me and said, ‘Mom, your life is in danger,’” Ms. Barry, 77, said in her home in suburban St. Louis. “‘You’d better get some mace.’”
    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/16/us/missouri-democrats-abortion-republicans-voters.html
    https://www.getreligion.org/getreligion/2018/10/17/shes-a-democrat-pro-life-and-from-missouri-why-cant-new-york-times-say-shes-catholic

    Clearly, abortion is a non-negotiable with this group.

    The unTRUMP party needs to become more tolerant and compassionate and inclusive of Christians as well, for righteousness without Jesus is tyranny.

  • This was Democrats big, original mistake. Conservatives latched onto abortion as the ‘wedge issue’–Democrats knew that were using it strategically, and took the bait anyway. I assure you I am solidly pro-choice. But I’m especially vexed not only because taking that bait has set back Democrats but because making it the signature feminist issue has set back feminism, distracted from economic issues–the male-female wage gap and occupational sex segregation, neither of which have shifted for 20 years. Or for that matter affordable child care. As far as I know there is no other country on earth, including some where women are doing a lot better, where abortion is taken to be the central issue, and where any restrictions whatsoever are regarded as unacceptable. I can’t even say stuff like this on the ground without getting slammed and told that I’m proposing to ‘throw women under the bus’.

  • I’ve been thinking the same thing. Many liberals portrayed Hillary as a feminist candidate one, for being a woman, and two because she would secure a liberal in the Supreme Court and thus protect women’s reproductive rights. But how feminist was it to support the war in Iraq which maimed, killed and left thousands of Iraqi women hopeless? How feminist was it to back a Honduran coup that resulted in the execution of women environmental activists? How feminist was when she made no promise to abolish the war on drugs that disproportionately incarcerates men of color and thus decimates families and communities of color? How feminist was it for her to hire campaign fundraising bundlers from the private prison industry that profits from incarcerating black men? How feminist was it of her to make no promises of fundamentally changing labor power dynamics that disproportionately impact women of color? This is the poverty of the Democratic Party – they may speak the “I feel your pain” language, but they play by the GOP rules.

  • You are right there is much more to do – as in curtailing electoral politics and resorting to direct action.

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