No Retreat for Christian Conservatives

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In trying to explain the results of two consecutive presidential defeats, some Republican strategists privately blame Christian evangelicals for the perceived decline in their political participation. Conventional wisdom argues, unconvincingly, that three factors make the once mighty movement of “Born Again Christians” a spent force in American Politics.

First, such voters seem to comprise a declining percentage of the electorate.

Second, they may have lost their enthusiasm for the GOP and felt particular discomfort with Mitt Romney’s Mormonism.

And finally, they feel disheartened by shifting public sentiment on gay marriage and marijuana and find themselves increasingly outside the mainstream of public opinion.

In fact, none of these three contentions counts as true or accurate and comparisons of recent exit polls should obliterate all groundless assumptions about the diminished role of Christian conservatives. Exit polls matter because they measure how respondents actually voted, not the direction they leaned at one point or another in the course of the campaign.

Exit polling for 2012 showed the percentage of the electorate identifying as “white, born-again Christians” increasing from their big year of 2004, the last time a GOP nominee won the White House. When the outspokenly Christian George W. Bush beat John Kerry, 23 percent of all voters said they were “white evangelicals” but in the Obama-Romney race that number jumped significantly to 26 percent.

Meanwhile, the numbers gave no evidence of disillusionment with the party’s standard-bearer: Mitt Romney won 78 percent of self-described “born again” voters – drawing precisely the same proportion that George W. Bush won of his fellow evangelicals. Yes, a few Christian leaders grumbled over their disagreements with the LDS church, but that didn’t stop born-again voters from giving the nation’s first Mormon candidate a huge 57 point margin over Barack Obama.

Moreover, anyone who sees religious conservatives as dejected or disengaged because of recent setbacks on marriage or marijuana hasn’t visited their churches, conventions or assemblages of activists. Issues of religious liberty resonate powerfully with faith-based conservatives; controversial government efforts to force elderly nuns to offer free birth control to employees, or to compel Christian florists to provide artful arrangements for gay weddings they prefer not to attend, have produced a new determination to fight back. The recent low-budget Christian film GOD’S NOT DEAD told a melodramatic tale of a devout student standing firm against an arrogant professor’s attempt to force all his pupils to affirm atheism. In its first two weeks of release, with scant advertising and no associated A-list names, this little film scored in the box office top five and earned more than $20 million – an achievement described in mainstream media as “astounding.”

Finally, exit polling shows that fervent Christian conservatives stand far closer to the middle-of-the-road than the religiously disaffiliated voters who provided Barack Obama’s most reliable base of support. In 2012, 42 percent of the electorate said they attended church once a week or more – a slightly higher figure than the 41 percent who reported that level of participation in 2004. Among those voters, Mitt Romney won by 20 points. In fact, among the staggering 82 percent of Americans who told exit pollsters they attended church even “a few times a year” or more, Romney also won a solid majority. Obama, in other words, owed his margin of victory to a small minority of the electorate – 17 percent – who proudly declared that they “never” attended church or synagogue. Within this religiously disconnected congregation, the president prevailed by a crushing 28 points, thereby capturing the election. Barack Obama may or may not have thanked God for his re-election victory but he certainly should have thanked the Godless.

Yes, these religiously disaffiliated have increased as a percentage of voters since 2004, but so have those who attend services weekly, or describe themselves as “born again,” or express other measures of religious enthusiasm. The shrinking populations are those in the center, who may go to church monthly or just a few times a year, and split their votes more evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Just as they qualify as swing voters, the direction of their swings in religious terms – toward more or less faith-based participation and affiliation – may determine the future shape of American politics.



This column originally appeared at on April 10, 2014.

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Comments (22)

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  1. Andrew  •  Apr 17, 2014 at 2:20 am

    Thank you, Michael. Nice article. Now I’m just waiting for “Brian” to chime in and disingenuously bash Christians again.

  2. Brian  •  Apr 17, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    I wasn’t going to “chime in”, but since you insist. The first thing I would take some small issue with is the demographic description of the electorate. I heard a statistician was talking about the church attendance data of Americans that is pretty much accepted as fact. This stat guy did some calculations based on the most recent polling data about the number of Americans that claims to attend church regularly. Basically what he found was that if the number of Americans that claim to attend church regularly actually did then every church, temple, synagogue and meeting house would be filled to brim every Sabbath without fail. Which we all know isn’t the case. So he tried a little experiment. He did a regular poll and didn’t ask anything about religion, simply asked people to name events or activities they participated in regularly and not surprisingly something like 10% or less included attending religious services as an activity in which they participated regularly.

    • Mike  •  Apr 17, 2014 at 4:47 pm

      Source Link?

    • Andrew  •  Apr 17, 2014 at 8:33 pm

      If I insist? Nice excuse to comment, as if you wouldn’t have already.

    • American  •  Apr 21, 2014 at 11:38 pm

      Where did you get the idea that Christians worship on Saturday (e.g. the Sabbath)? I think your information is false and also that you have an agenda.

  3. Brian  •  Apr 18, 2014 at 5:30 am

    I thought the whole idea of a comments section was to comment. Or do you just want to hear an echo?

    Mike: I cannot provide a source link because I cannot remember the name.

  4. Andrew  •  Apr 18, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Tryn’a turn around the point I was making, huh? Alright, obviously you would’ve commented either way. You just used what I said as an excuse. We both know that.

    • Brian  •  Apr 18, 2014 at 1:56 pm

      No, really, I wasn’t going to reply. I think the subject is nonsensical.

  5. Terry  •  Apr 18, 2014 at 9:29 am

    I would surmise that regular church goers as a percentage of the electorate in 2008 and 2012 probably increased overall because Obama’s base included a huge number of black voters voting for the first time. Some of the most frequent church-goers in the country are the black southern Baptists and members of AME churches. The Godless or agnostics may be the libertarians and independent voters who must choose between economic liberty, and thus vote Republican, or are so afraid of the religious influence in American politics that they vote Democratic, choosing the regulatory state over a God-fearing state as the lesser of two evils.

  6. Wayne Hinson  •  Apr 18, 2014 at 10:56 am

    Brian, you are quite mistaken to say that “Basically what he found was that if the number of Americans that claim to attend church regularly actually did then every church, temple, synagogue and meeting house would be filled to brim every Sabbath without fail.” The synagogues might be filled on the Sabbath, but MOST churches meet on Sunday. There IS a difference.

  7. Brian  •  Apr 18, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    By “Sabbath” I simply meant whatever day of the week a particular religious sect holds as its “holy day”, or more literally, rest day. Sunday is also the Sabbath day. As could be Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. So the idea is still pretty simple, if as many people regularly attended church as they claim when the poll taker asks, then houses of worship would be constantly filled to the brink and overflowing. But they aren’t.

  8. Bernard Wolff  •  Apr 18, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    As a regular church go-er with a strong belief in God, I am frustrated by those that place social issues above issues with which a President and other elected officials must deal.

    Where, pray tell, do abortion, gay rights, & similar “social issues” enter into handling the horrible economy with 1 out of 6 citizens out of work? The collapse of our standing overseas & the impact this has & will have on our country & citizens? The loss of personal freedom due to government excesses (encroachment, tax code, abusive regulations, etc)? The oligopolization of our economy that is destroying small business & their jobs? A sane & possible alternative to Obamacare using private sector ingenuity & efficiency? A Supreme Court that focuses on protecting the Constitution?

    “Social issues” are between a person and their Creator. This should not be encroached upon by government or organized religion.

    People like me long for a leader that, like Reagan, promotes the ideals of individuals pursuing their dreams in a free market economy, rather than “elect me because I’m better than my opponent” politicians that we’ve had to put up with since 1988.

    • Len  •  Apr 19, 2014 at 12:31 am

      If I believe that abortion is murder, then I can no longer consider it only “between a person and their Creator,” now can I? If so, then I’ll remember that the next time the police try to apprehend the murderer of an adult. After all, the issue will only be between the murderer and their Creator.

      At the basis of every economic and foreign policy issue, I can identify a social issue.

  9. Brian  •  Apr 21, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    “People like me long for a leader that, like Reagan, promotes the ideals of individuals pursuing their dreams in a free market economy, rather than “elect me because I’m better than my opponent”

    Bernard – Reagan’s mantra in 1980 was “are you better off now then you were 4 years ago”? Which is basically saying “elect me because I’m better than my opponent”.

  10. JGUY  •  Apr 21, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    I know it is irrelevant to point out that President Obama
    has publicly claimed Christianity and stated that he
    has belief in Jesus Christ.

  11. Philip  •  Apr 22, 2014 at 10:46 am

    ” they feel disheartened by shifting public sentiment on gay marriage and marijuana and find themselves increasingly outside the mainstream of public opinion.”

    Nailed it, though not just these two issues. They aren’t soap box sins for Christians, just a reflection of the problem as a whole, namely, the rejection of God.

  12. Mike A  •  Apr 25, 2014 at 4:18 pm

    When I was young, I recall my parents and other adults giving me this simple lesson (whether it’s true or not in practice, this was, and is, the perception promoted by the right):

    Republicans = lower taxes on the wealthy, earn money, independence, have the things you want
    Democrats = higher taxes on the wealthy, receive welfare, dependency, don’t have the things you want

    Since then, I’ve always been puzzled as to why Christianity in general, would adopt the philosophy of the first over the second. If I recall, Christ spoke about letting go of material interests and wealth in favor of spiritual interests in wealth. In fact, I believe He mentioned something about giving all you have to the poor, in order to follow Him. I believe He compared the likelihood of a wealthy man entering Heaven to a Camel fitting through a needle eye. I believe He mentioned something about the poor being blessed, for their richness will be in Heaven. I believe He made a point to treat the poor, infirm, and ridiculed with Love and Forgiveness. And I believe He admonished the wealthy and the money changers as to the spiritual dangers of love of money and material.

    Whenever I bring this up, I’m usually referred to other verses in the Bible, often ones in which Christ is not actually speaking. The person referring me to those verses is trying to sell me on the idea that Christ didn’t actually mean all that, or at least didn’t intend for everyone to rid themselves of money and material possessions, and trudge around homelessly, preaching. In fact, so I’m told, these verses tell us that it’s in fact “ok” to be rich, as long as you do certain other things (e.g. tithing)

    I think what’s entirely more likely is that the Bible was, in the past, used by “white evangelicals” in America to justify genocide, slavery, ecological savagery, misogyny, warfare, caste system, and the pursuit of extreme wealth above all else. Today, many of the same sentiments of superiority and being a favored or “chosen people” remain among white evangelicals. The problem is, America’s laws no longer favor or allow institutional discrimination. Thus, white evangelicals cluster as a voting bloc to attempt a return to a country where wealth is concentrated in the hands of those who deserve it – them. And as it turns out, the Republican party became their favored party because of it’s long association with the wealthy.

    I think it’s really that simple.

  13. GuessWho  •  Apr 27, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    Just goes to show how stooopid the GOP is. They vote against a Christian, Obama and for a non born again non christian, hell bound mormon who will share the same eternal damnation of an atheist.

  14. gary  •  Apr 28, 2014 at 10:22 pm

    The real reason the GOP lost was the bad taste left in there mouth from the Bush/Chaney LIES DECEIT war monger,criminal administration.

  15. JGUY  •  Apr 28, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    If one expects Government Leaders to define that which is desired by
    Christians and reflects their Christian collective ethics in their political
    positions then they will be continually disappointed and frustrated.
    American leaders normally go with policy that is for the entire body politic.
    The policies of President Obama that the Christian group disapprove
    are not forced upon them ……no one forces you to smoke marijuana,
    become gay or get an abortion. If the majority elect a Pat Robertson or
    a Governor Huckabee then we will have their slant which I will support
    since they have been elected….but they will still not force their positions
    on the electorate….although we will have to obey their laws as we have
    to obey leftist laws now. As I have heard MM say “elections have conseq-

  16. GuessWho  •  Apr 29, 2014 at 2:03 am

    Well said JGUY. The gay thing is settled. Gay marriage will be everywhere and CC will be left fighting gay wedding cake wars. Petty crap.

  17. Mo' Data  •  Apr 30, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    The trite approach to poll %’s in this article is reminiscent of MM’s quoting poll data a few months before the 2012 U.S. presidential election that Romney would win in part because young single women and minorities would not turn out as strongly for Obama as they had in 2008; N.Y.Times pollster Nate Silver’s projections were dismissed by conservatives as biased. Not being ideological, I actually took a look at what Silver’s data indicated. Young women were actually more likely to turn out for Obama IF THE ELECTION WAS CLOSE; minorities still had a reservoir of ethnic “identity” with Obama — a majority still HELD BUSH NOT OBAMA RESPONSIBLE FOR THE WEAK ECONOMY. Such voters were still likely to turn out in a presidential election year with a little prodding. WHY DIDN’T THE 3% INCREASE OF WHITE EVANGELICALS AS A SHARE OF THE ELECTORATE PREVENT A DECISIVE OBAMA VICTORY?
    WELL, IN TERMS OF THE ELECTORAL VOTE, “RELIGIOUS RIGHT” EVANGELICALS ARE CONCENTRATED WHERE THEY AREN’T NEEDED. Red states went solidly for Romney because of this. Also, white evangelicals outside of the deep south tend to have more nuanced views on issues like abortion; the next time you see a poll where 50% self-identify as “pro-life”, check the details — one third will also say they want Roe vs. Wade to remain the law of the land! These type of evangelicals are more likely to be voting in “purple” or blue states and are not “sure” Republican votes. IN TERM OF THE POPULAR VOTE, MM himself acknowledges that the evangelical vote was offset by the rise of the “Godless” vote; he equates lack of church attendance with atheism or agnosticism. Actually a significant portion of this growing group can be described as “spiritual not religious”; many of them, like a lot of Americans, believe in GOD but have become distrustful of clerical “leaders”, especially those with dogmatic positions on social issues.
    I first noticed this beginning in the 1980’s in discussions with younger people in various social settings, including church groups. Many mentioned in the months before an election they had seen political candidates on the TV news speaking from a Sunday church pulpit and how uneasy they felt about tax-exempt churches allying with a political candidate. Many were particularly annoyed when a Catholic bishop wearing clerical garb was seen outside of church on the platform with the Republican candidate at a big-city campaign rally (a sort of silent endorsement). How was this different from the Vatican forbidding Fr Robert Drinan from engaging in politics? This past election someone said at least the Mormons fund their own charities, whereas over 50% of Catholic church charitable activities are now funded by goverment programs. A lot of comments were about ending special tax treatment for churches so deeply involved in politics. Some academics claim the rise of this group is a reaction to the strong religious right association with the GOP, sort of like the Archie Bunker voter reacting to secular liberal democrats.
    MM seems to think the problem is just “nutty” nominees like Christine O’Donnell or Todd Akin. The 2012 election results from Virginia seem to refute this. For years the Virginia GOP has been dominated by religious right influence. The GOP controlled the legislature and the governorship in a way that won approval from Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (Sr.& Jr.) Computerized-gerrymandering created a lot of safe religious right legislators eager to require “invasive” ultra-sound probing of pregnant women. Almost all were re-elected. BUT STATEWIDE DEMOCRATS WON 3 OF 4 RACES. Only 1 of the GOP nominees was “nutty”. The nominee for Governor already held state-wide office. He was a hard-line religious rightist, but not in a crazy way. He was relatively untarnished by the financial scandals of the exiting GOP governor. His Democratic opponent had political baggage of his own going back to the Clinton years, not an appealing candidate. But big GOP doners abandoned him for the more “moderate” democrat. And also single women and a small but high-propensity-to-vote group of married GOP women abandoned the GOP ticket in droves, tired of ultrasounds, Sandra Fluke insults, and a Congressional committee with no females allowed to testify about reproductive matters. In a purple state, the religious right is a hinderance to statewide office.

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