Evangelicals and Democrats: Thoughts on Michael Wear’s Atlantic Interview

I trust Michael Wear. He is a faithful evangelical who is attempting to find a vital role for religious faith in our political system. This is a commendable, albeit taxing, task. He served in the Obama White House in the office of faith outreach during the first term. He has written a book Reclaiming Hope (which I preordered when it first became available) that releases in three weeks. I look forward to reading it.

Yesterday, The Atlantic published an interview Michael did with Emma Green. Titled “Democrats have a Religion Problem,” it covers a number of important issues we saw in the 2016 election. Notably, over 4 in 5 white evangelical/born again voters supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.


[Research note: the qualifications Pew uses are kind of weird — Black protestants are considered just Protestant. Evangelicals are people who self-identify as such. Born agains are anyone from any religious tradition who claims a salvation experience. And as I’ve noted before, there is significant variation in their church attendance.] 

The most basic explanation Michael offers is that Democrats never asked for the evangelical vote. If they had, it would have been a tough sell but losing evangelicals by 57 points as Obama did in 2012 instead of Clonton’s loss of 65 points would have been huge in an election that ended up so close. (Obama has done interviews recently explaining how he used this “limit the size of the loss” strategy in downstate Illinois during his US Senate race.)

Another explanation Wear gives is that the Democratic Party seemed to go out of its way to poke fingers in the eyes of evangelicals. This was true with a platform that demanded repealing the Hyde Amendment that blocks federal funding of abortion. It was true with making HB2 in North Carolina a rallying cry against homophobic religious folks. It was true with regard to how the contraceptive mandate in ObamaCare was seen to force religious groups to sue the federal government to  protect their “deeply held religious views”. While these issues served to fossilize the preexisting partisan distinctions, they could have been handled differently as I’ll explore below.

Thirdly, Michael points out that there is a lot of religious illiteracy among Democratic operatives. They don’t hang out with religious folks so it is easier to minimize and ridicule their positions. It’s helpful to consider how journalists with churched backgrounds do a far better job of avoiding such ridicule, treating people of faith as real people (shout-out to Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Sarah McCammon, Ruth Graham, Emma Green, and others I shouldn’t be forgetting). 

This lack is particularly damaging when its filtered through the lens of religious persecution. There is an entire industry devoted to finding outrage around religion issues. A religious freedom limitation in a local school is cast as “what’s coming for us all“. The president-elect is fixated on the Johnson Amendment with no evidence that pastors have ever been limited in their political speech. But a few cases, when combined with the “they are opposed to religion” mantra creates an echo chamber that is very hard to engage.

And yet…

It’s hard for me to fully buy the “Democrats left evangelicals” argument. Lydia Bean’s book, The Politics of  Evangelical Identity underscores the myriad ways that evangelical subculture vilifies Democrats (or Liberals, which means the same thing to the parishioners in her study). It is taken as a matter of faith that not only has culture changed for the worse (sexual revolution, support of LGBT rights, the women’s movement) but that Liberal Democrats are directly to blame for forcing their views on others. It’s part of the taken for granted worldview and not a prescribed set of talking points taught from the pulpit. 

In 1988, a “colleague” wrote an opinion piece for the university paper claiming that the only way one could vote for a Democrat was by compartmentalizing ones faith from the willing sacrifice to the sovereignty of the state. I know it was written about me because he used to discuss me by name in class (according to mutual students). It fit very well within the ethos of that school and all of the others where I have worked. To make the argument that my position would have been more respected if I’d tried harder probably doesn’t hold. The best I could hope for was quiet toleration (like the angry uncle at Thanksgiving).

If we take another look at the Pew data above, it’s easier to argue that Evangelicals left Democrats, especially as moral issues superseded economic or policy issues in the minds of voters. It is true that Clinton lost evangelicals for 5% more than Obama, but the actual story going back to 2000 is a remarkable level of stability. The highest support Democrats received in the last five presidential cycles was Obama’s historic election in 2008 where he got almost a quarter of the evangelical vote. That’s a 6 point swing from Obama’s high to Clinton’s low (which would have mattered in an election so close, but still).

The easy explanation, of course, is abortion. Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, overturning that decision has been a high priority for evangelicals. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that supporting Republican presidents will change the makeup of the Court to make that possible. While the empirical evidence on that linkage is pretty poor (a lot of Republican appointees have supported Roe), it might be a viable electoral strategy — even though every president claims that there won’t be a litmus test and nominees make noises about settled law (Stare Decisis).

And yet we vilify Democratic candidates for nuancing their position on abortion (e.g., John Kerry, Tim Kaine) and arguing for space between the moral position (when does life begin) and the political position (what should policy be to govern individual rights). If one tries to argue for compromise, the firestorm from the church (especially with regard to Catholic candidates) is real.

I’d argue that Republicans have pushed the abortion debate in new directions in recent years. State laws mandating hospital level facilities for abortion clinics under supposed concern for very rare cases look to any casual observer as an attempt to undermine Roe and limit its applicability. Don’t believe me? Read the religious press when one of those laws passes and watch for the analogies to “knocking bricks out of the foundation“.

Our abortion policy is badly decided regardless of political party. The Hyde Amendment is a bandaid that holds off the actual national debate that should be had. State level restrictions on abortion are passed that manage to make abortion legal but impossible and seem to stem from the view that “we have the votes so we can do what we want.” 

We have to find new ways of having this important policy debate in ways that serve the common good and not just the partisan votes we can whip, but that’s a post for another day when I feel more brave.

One more thing about the gap between Democrats and Evangelicals. There is a huge instrastructure on the Right that mobilizes voters to attend to certain candidates. The Value Voters Summit and the Conservative Political Action Conference are two highlighted events that get covered by the major media. Republican candidates come and make their red-meat pitch to those in attendance (each trying to out extreme the previous speaker). The Family Research Council and similar groups regularly appear on cable news shows to reflect the position of evangelical Christians, always from the Republican vantage point. 

There is no equivalent infrastructure on the Democratic side. Sure, there are groups like Sojourners or Red Letter Christians but those are organized around a set of specific individuals. Who puts out the talking points to counter immigration policy from a faith persepctive? Where does criminal justice reform come in? What about balancing refugee relief and security concerns?

To me, these issues are addressed by activist groups formed around that particular agenda point. What is needed is for Democrats to find the funding to create the parallel non-governmental advocacy structures that exist on the right.

My colleague in 1988 was wrong (even though my candidate, Michael Dukakis, lost badly) — there are lots of ways of seeing how evangelical faith and Democratic partisanship flow together. I have been trying to walk that road my entire career. It’s hard and sometimes lonely but its important work to do.

The quality of our small-d democracy depends on all us putting in that work.

7 thoughts on “Evangelicals and Democrats: Thoughts on Michael Wear’s Atlantic Interview

  1. Great reflections, John. To counter-argue your counter-argument, it might be truer to say that evangelicals have always been populists, but populism in America (and the parties embodying populism) have changed. Evangelicals have merely gone with the populist flow from William Jennings Bryan to Ronald Reagan. See Michael Kazin’s The Populist Persuasion and Daren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt on these points.

    1. Her book is an ethnography of two US evangelical churches and two Canadian evangelical churches. She found that the US churches blames liberals/democrats for social decline where Canadians were more concerned about the changes in society without assigning blame. The strength of the book is documenting the myriad ways that informal patterns of interaction reinforce the idea that “Real Christians” are Republicans.

  2. Abortion may be it. Still, I don’t know what it means to say we may be delaying some conversation that might take place. We seem to have solidified into two very different ways of seeing the issue, and talked ourselves to death.

    And I wouldn’t shortchange the nation’s movement on lgbt issues as the matter that may have stuck in the craw of many fundamentalists/evangelicals. In 2008 Obama said “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.” In 2012 he said “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Evangelicals have not gone on the same journey as Obama and the rest of America. And, as with abortion, seem to be digging in.

    1. I agree that we’ve calcified positions on abortion. My point is that public policy for a society needs to find ways of accommodating a variety of viewpoints. We haven’t done that and it is a task that remains. The data on same-sex marriage is reflecting movement in two ways. There is an increasing acceptance (though still a slight minority) among millennial evangelicals. That will shift the conversation in ways similar to Obama’s shift. The second pattern is that numbers of people are no longer identifying as evangelicals over SSM issues. That will shift the political dynamics going forward as well.

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