Do the Democrats Have a 'God Problem'? How Public Perceptions May Spell Trouble for the Party

Source Organization: Pew Research Center

07/11/2006 - In the immediate aftermath of George W. Bush's 2004 victory over John Kerry, many journalists and other political observers declared the election to have been decided, in large part, on the basis of moral values and cultural issues. According to the national exit poll, more than one-in-five voters (22%) cited moral values as the most important issue in the campaign. Gay marriage was identified as being a particularly important issue, since same-sex marriage initiatives were on ballots in 13 states (including the crucial swing state of Ohio) and served, ostensibly, to mobilize turnout among conservative opponents of same-sex unions. These initial reactions turned out to have overstated the importance of moral values and cultural issues-and gay marriage in particular-in the campaign. (See, for instance, Pew Research Center 2004 and others.) Still, careful analyses of the national exit poll and other post-election surveys revealed the persistence of what Prothero referred to as the "God gap"; those who attend church frequently and conservative Christians (especially white evangelical Protestants) supported Bush over Kerry by large margins. In other words, insofar as religion has become a political force, it seems generally to help Republicans and hurt Democrats.

But what, precisely, is the nature of the Democrats' struggle with religion? At least two alternative conceptualizations of their problem present themselves. The first, suggested by the work of those who see a "culture war" being waged in American politics, is that Democrats, because of their liberal approach to social issues, have surrendered the vote of conservative, traditional Christians to the Republican Party, allowing the GOP to forge electoral victories and capture control, at least for now, of both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. Abramowitz and Saunders, for example, show that among white voters in 2004 two religious variables, church attendance and born-again status, were "more strongly correlated with (Republican) party identification and presidential candidate choice [for Bush] than any other social characteristic including income, education, gender, marital status, and union membership." Guth and colleagues conclude that "Evangelicals have become the religious mainstay of the GOP," while Democrats have "established a strong link to the growing coterie of unaffiliated voters, perhaps building a large constituency of 'secular warriors.'" For Democrats, the solution to the problem conceptualized in this way is simple in principle but likely to be quite difficult in practice: find a way to (re)capture at least some of the religious voters who have come to support the GOP.

But there is a second, less frequently discussed alternative conceptualization that may help to explain the Democrats' recent struggles with religion. The root of the Democratic Party's religious woes may not lie solely in the fact that they have been spurned by religious conservatives. Contributing to the Party's electoral misfortunes may be that even moderate citizens and voters view the Democrats as being unfriendly toward religion. The Democrats may have had a problem in recent elections, in other words, not just because their policy prescriptions were rejected by conservative Christians but also because a large portion of the electorate who may be sympathetic to Democratic positions was nevertheless turned off by a perceived hostility on the part of the Party toward religion, which most Americans see as a positive force with an important public role to fill.

Read the full report Do the Democrats Have a 'God Problem'? How Public Perceptions May Spell Trouble for the Party on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site. 

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