Another presidential campaign is taking shape, and potential Republican candidates are beginning to speak with extra care – and sometimes with censorious hellfire – about social issues. As ever, they’re bowing to a bloc of voters described as Christian conservatives.
But these voters are a minority of Christians. They’re not such representative conservatives.
They have a disproportionate sway over the Republican Party. And because of that, they have an outsize influence on the national debate.
That’s an inescapable takeaway from new data compiled by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan group that interviewed more than 50,000 Americans last year.
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To put together what it is calling the American Values Atlas, the institute divided survey respondents into more than a dozen faith-related categories, some of which factored racial identity into the equation as well. White evangelical Protestants and black Protestants are separate groups, as are white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics.
The institute looked at three issues: gay marriage, abortion and immigration.
Among religious groups with large populations, white evangelical Protestants, who represent 18 percent of all Americans but 36 percent of self-identified Republicans, according to the survey, stood out as the most conservative. If you looked at the responses of all Republicans minus this evangelical subset, you saw a remarkably different party.
Among all Republicans, 35 percent favored the legalization of gay marriage, while 58 percent opposed it. But subtract the white evangelicals and the spread changes: 45 to 47. The party becomes almost evenly divided, in bold contrast to the decidedly negative stance that most Republican congressional leaders take.
Just 39 percent of all Republicans said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 58 percent said that it shouldn’t. Subtract the white evangelicals and again there’s another nearly even split: 48 to 49 percent. So the party’s anti-choice ardor makes sense chiefly in terms of evangelicals.
socially liberal than those even-split numbers suggest, because the institute’s survey counted as Republican or Democrat only those respondents who readily identified themselves that way. It didn’t press others on whether they typically voted for one party, so the share of voters it categorized as independent was unusually large: 40 percent. In other words, its Republicans were the most committed Republicans.
“If you added in independents who lean Republican, you would expect to see the support for same-sex marriage and the support for abortion rise, precisely because they tend to be less ideologically oriented,” Robert Jones, the head of the institute, told me.
And you’d see that white evangelical Protestants “tend to be outliers today on issues like same-sex marriage,” he said. He added that in the 1980s, when Jerry Falwell and others referred to white evangelical Protestants as part of a “moral majority,” the designation was overblown but perhaps arguable.
“Today, on these key, bellwether issues like same-sex marriage, it’s no longer true,” Jones said.
While 55 percent of all Americans, 52 percent of white Catholics and 42 percent of Hispanic Catholics said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, just 32 percent of white evangelical Protestants responded that way.
In terms of allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, 77 percent of Jews and at least 60 percent of all three Catholic subgroups – white Catholics, Hispanic Catholics and “other non-white Catholics” – said they favored it. So did more than 60 percent of white mainline Protestants.
But white evangelical Protestants?
Just 28 percent.
According to the survey, there are just seven American states – Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky – where more than 50 percent of voters oppose gay marriage.
All of them “have white evangelical Protestant populations of one-third or more,” Jones told me. “There’s basically a linear relationship between the number of white evangelical Protestants and opposition to same-sex marriage.”
When survey respondents were asked whether immigrants “strengthen the U.S.” or “are a burden,” the only religious group in which fewer people said “strengthen” than “burden” was white evangelical Protestants. The spread was 36 to 53 percent.
Among all Americans, the spread was the opposite, with 55 percent saying “strengthen” and 36 saying “burden.”
The conversation on Capitol Hill doesn’t exactly reflect that. Instead it suggests, accurately, that some voters’ voices are louder than others’ and are better heard.
The New York Times