Fall 2012, Vol. 14, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 


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Table of Contents   

From the Editor:
Democrats Find Their Inner None

The Saints Come Marching In

I am a Mormon?

How Mormons and Evangelicals Became Republicans

Rowan Williams Lays Down His Burden

Honey, I’m Shrinking the Church

The Struggle to Keep Hospitals Catholic

“Religious liberty” in Court

The Democrats Dump God

Ayn No Way: Paul Ryan’s Problem

Netanyahu’s Anti-Obama Campaign

Varieties of Dylan’s Religious Experience







From the Editor

Democrats Find Their Inner None  by Mark Silk

The idea that Democrats are the Party of Irreligion became a media meme in the middle of the last decade, thanks to what in these pages has been called the religion gap, but which gained celebrity as the God Gap. By 2000, voters who told exit pollsters that they attended worship services at least once a week were voting Republican at the rate of 60 percent to 40 percent.

That was a differential far larger than the better known gender gap, whereby women preferred Democrats to Republicans. And after the 2004 election, in which a plurality of the electorate said the most important issue was “moral values,” the Democrats vowed to do something about it.

Under the leadership of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee made a concerted effort to let folks throughout the country know that his Party too felt their faith, and the DNC backed candidates in red parts of the country who did not hesitate to run faith-based campaigns.

Lo and behold, the strategy worked. In 2006, with the help of an increasingly unpopular Bush administration, Dean’s 50-state effort succeeded in flipping both houses of Congress into Democratic hands. Suddenly, it seemed, the Democrats had got religion.

Come the 2008 election cycle, both Democratic frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, made a considerable show of engaging in “faith outreach.” The evidence is that Clinton took the task more seriously, but from the early primary battles through Election Day, the importance of religion to Democrats was on display.

Apart from whatever was happening in the ground game, there were candidates’ visits to houses of worship and confessions of faith and forums for talking about religious issues. And when the votes were counted and the exit polls properly tabulated, the God Gap was seen to have shrunk fairly dramatically, from 20 points to 12.

What a difference four years have made.

In contrast to the well-advertised efforts of Ralph Reed et al. to mobilize evangelicals for Mitt Romney and of Catholic bishops to exercise their flocks against the Administration, the faith outreach of the Obama campaign was invisible to the naked eye. Religious testimonies and forums were out the window. (In this, Obama had the tacit collaboration of Romney, who steadfastly avoided any and all discussion of his Mormon faith throughout the campaign.)

But it was not simply that the president eschewed the kind of reassuring vibe that Democrats broadcast to conservative religious folks in 2006 and 2008. He made it clear that he was not interested in deferring to their sensibilities.

Item. In January, Obama decided to provide religious institutions with only minimal exceptions to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employer-provided insurance cover contraceptive services free of charge.

Item. In May, he announced his support for same-sex marriage—support that he had been notably reluctant to tender even after putting an end to Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell in the armed forces the year before.

Item. In October, he ran ads in battleground states attacking Romney for his opposition to Roe v. Wade and his pledge to defund Planned Parenthood.

This may not have added up to the war on religion that the Catholic bishops charged Obama with, but it signaled that the politics of religion in America could also be played by appealing directly to the secular side of the electorate.

For just as the gender gap is as much about men voting Republican as about women voting Democratic, so is the God Gap as much about the less religious voting Democratic as it is about the more religious voting Republican. In particular, the Nones (those who when asked, “What is your religion, if any?” answer, “None”) are a growing segment of the American population, now 20 percent compared to just seven percent two decades ago.

In the end, Obama’s overt appeal to less religious voters did not bear very impressive fruit. His margin among the Nones shrank eight points, to 70-26 from 75-23 in 2008. At the same time, the God Gap bounced back up to 20 points. Yet the “Godless Gap”—the preference for Obama on the part of the 57 percent of voters who said they attend worship less than weekly—was still nearly 25 points.

After the election, the Public Religion Research Institute released a graphic comparing the respective religious coalitions of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to the religious demography of age groups in the U.S. Romney’s coalition most closely matched the over-65 cohort, but was even whiter and less religiously diverse. By contrast, Obama’s coalition fit snugly between the 18-to-29-year-old Millennials and the 30-49-year-old Gen-Xers.

Nones, who constituted 35 percent of the Millennial vote, were a quarter of Obama’s coalition but just seven percent of Romney’s. The Millennials are the future. Looking forward, the national Democratic love affair with faith-friendly campaigns may turn out to have been no more than a two-cycle flirtation.


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