Evangelical culture/evangelical politics

Interesting explanation from the Washington Post that tries to unpack the poll data on increases in the evangelical turnout in 2004

Exit polls do not permit a direct comparison of how many evangelical and born-again Americans voted in 2000 and 2004 because the way pollsters identified these voters changed. Four years ago voters leaving polls were asked: “Do you consider yourself part of the conservative Christian political movement, also known as the religious right?” In 2004, the question was changed to: “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?”

Fourteen percent answered “yes” in 2000 and 23 percent did so in 2004, but polling specialists said the 2004 wording virtually assures more affirmative answers.

The percentage of voters who said they attend church more than once a week grew from 14 to 16 percent, a significant difference in an election decided by three percentage points. These voters backed President Bush over John F. Kerry 64 percent to 35 percent. Similarly, the percent of the electorate that believes abortion should be “illegal in all cases” grew from 13 to 16 percent. These voters backed Bush by 77 percent to 22 percent.

In the two major battlegrounds, Ohio and Florida, exit polls showed Bush substantially improved his support among voters who attend church more than once a week. At the same time, the percentage of the electorate that goes to church this often actually fell.

The article also argues that the grassroots evangelicals were not driven by the Bush election team but were actually way ahead of the curve. The interviews with a range of Christian activists support Dana Milbank’s notion (which I posted about yesterday) that we have seen the emergence of a new evangelical politics in this election. Many of the activists interviewed in today’s Post article argue that they were better organised, and campaigning earlier within their christian communities, than the official Bush team. The picture to emerge is of both organised and grassroots action. Certainly the big names like James Dobson and his Focus on the Family were active – and in weekly phone contact with Bush strategists – but local ministers and smaller organisations and individuals were critical to the campaign.

As to the significance of the same sex marriage issue Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council puts it nicely. It was “the hood ornament on the family values wagon that carried the president to a second term.”

But other factors certainly also drove moral values voters:

The Rev. Rick Warren, author of the best-selling “The Purpose Driven Life” and one of the most influential ministers in the country, sent a letter to 136,000 fellow pastors urging them to compare the candidates’ positions on five “non-negotiable” issues: abortion, stem cell research, same-sex marriage, human cloning and euthanasia.

Many of these activists regard Bush as slow to take up the marriage cause and they were working on a constitutional ban long before Karl Rove started to think of the issue as a voter turn-out technique.

Some Democrats suspected that the ballot initiatives were engineered by Rove and the GOP, but religious activists say otherwise. In Michigan, state Sen. Alan Cropsey (R) introduced a bill to ban same-sex marriage in October 2003 and assumed it would have the support of his party. Instead, the Roman Catholic Church in Michigan became the amendment’s main booster, spending nearly $1 million to secure its passage.

“I couldn’t say anything publicly, because I would have been blasted for it, but the Republican Party was not helpful at all,” Cropsey said. “It’s not like they were the instigators. They were the Johnny-come-latelies, if anything.”

Michael Howden, executive director of Stronger Families for Oregon, said it was a similar situation in his state. “There’s been no contact whatsoever, no coordinating, no pushing” by anyone at the White House or in the Bush campaign, he said.

Dobson sums up what a “values voter” means very clearly and very simply:

A values voter, Dobson said, is someone with “a Christian worldview who begins with the assumption that God is — that he not only exists, but he is the definer of right and wrong, and there are some things that are moral and some things that are immoral, some things that are evil and some things that are good.”

Although liberals may mock Bush for his good-vs.-evil approach to the world, it “is seen by many of us not as a negative but as a positive,” Dobson said. “Here is a man who is simply committed to a system of beliefs.”

This type of world view is not explicitly apocalyptic but is congruent with the type of moral universe that LaHaye and other producers of christian mass culture evoke. This also ties into broader streams of American popular culture as identified by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence’s American Superhero myth.

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