Religion and Politics: Combustible Combination Influences Voters' Choices

September 25, 2008

September 25, 2008 — Americans who regularly attend worship services tend to hold more conservative religious views, so if they decide to be similarly dedicated to voting in November, their votes could tip the presidential election to John McCain.

But if Barack Obama can rouse the more lackadaisical Christians among us, they may swing the election in his favor, based on historical trends.

Those were some of the links between religion and politics highlighted by Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, who spoke Monday evening at a University of Virginia Center for Politics event.

Lugo presented findings from the Pew Forum's recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which was based on interviews with more than 35,000 American adults.

The survey found strong correlations between Americans' degree of religiosity, as measured by church attendance, and voting patterns in the 2004 election. Survey respondents were asked to describe how often they attended church: more than weekly, weekly, monthly, a few times a year, or seldom to never. Those who attend church more than weekly chose Bush over Kerry by 64 percent to 35 percent, while 58 percent of weekly churchgoers voted for Bush.

In a nearly symmetrical reversal of those preferences, those who seldom attend church favored Kerry by 62 percent to 35 percent. The preference for Bush declined steadily in correlation with attending church less often. 

This so-called "God gap" is more accurately described as a church attendance gap, Lugo said, and the Obama campaign is absolutely determined to close this gap.

Political preferences can also be broken down by religious affiliation, Lugo said. White evangelical Protestants, who make up nearly a quarter of the American electorate, voted for Bush at a 78 percent clip in 2004. In contrast, even higher percentages of Jews and black Protestants favored the Democratic candidates in 2000 and 2004.

But despite all the efforts of Obama to appeal to Christians, surveys show that he has made no progress appealing to self-described white "evangelical" voters. About 71 percent of them back the McCain-Palin ticket, according to a Pew survey conducted Sept. 9-14 — up from 61 percent in June, and about the same proportion as supported Bush in 2000, said Lugo.

Catholics make up nearly 20 percent of the electorate, and they have become a key swing vote in American politics, Lugo said. Gore won the overall Catholic vote by 3 percentage points in 2000, but Kerry lost that bloc by 5 points in 2004.

While about two-thirds of Hispanic Catholics favored both Gore and Kerry, white Catholic voters were much more evenly divided, with Bush garnering 52 percent of their vote in 2000 and 56 percent in 2004. How these white Catholics vote will be critical to the upcoming election, Lugo predicted.

Lugo's presentation was followed by a roundtable discussion with three U.Va. faculty members.

Politics professor Lynn Sanders put the importance of religion in perspective. Americans base their votes primarily on the "fundamentals" of partisanship, the economy and major events like a war, with religion (and race and gender) having a secondary and complicated influence, she said.

After the panel noted how religion is generally viewed in America as a proxy for morality, psychology professor Jon Haidt shared some findings of moral psychology, the focus of his scholarship.

"Feeling drives thinking," said Haidt, explaining people can think logically about something like a math problem that they don't particularly care about, but "as soon as you care about something, it's a whole new game."

The mind can be likened to a pool table, explained Haidt, where thoughts (pool balls) are in flux until they reach a conclusion (a pocket). Feelings tilt the pool table, pushing thoughts in a certain direction, and critical thinking plays a secondary role, like a little nudge that taps the ball into a particular pocket.

"Moral psychology is like a pair of contact lenses that were sewn onto our eyeballs when we were between the age 4 and 10, and it is almost impossible to take them off. It colors everything we see," Haidt said.

Sanders nodded in agreement as Haidt explained how feelings and moral psychology impact people's judgments. Political science research suggests that feelings play a significant role in tilting people's political decision-making, she explained. Americans tend to be very politically disengaged, thinking about politics only when their feelings are roused, Sanders said. That's one reason for the prominence of the culture wars, but when hot-button moral issues like abortion spur voters to pay attention, "they're thinking in not very logical or clear ways if they're quite passionate," she said.

Religion has always been important in American public life, with attitudes only shifting gradually, and over decades. From 2000 through 2008, a steady 70 to 72 percent of Americans agree with the proposition: "It's important to me that a president have strong religious beliefs." In the 1950s, Americans were much more open to electing an atheist or someone without strong religious convictions, Lugo said.

The increase in pro-religion sentiments in the past 50 years was spurred in part by facing the "godless" enemy of communism in the Cold War, said Charles Mathewes, a professor of religious studies. If Americans continue to face a significant threat from fundamentalist Muslim terrorists for the next 30 to 40 years, he wondered, will the importance of religion in public life wane?

As for this year's election, the "fundamentals" of an unpopular Republican president, a tanking economy and a derided war appear to favor the Democrats, Lugo said. But current polls show a very tight presidential race.

"In this election, everything is against the Republicans," Lugo said. "To be honest, I'm just surprised it's so close. ... I guess there's a lot of underlying discomfort in closing the deal with Obama."

— By Brevy Cannon