How many Evangelicals would vote Democratic if it were not for abortion?
Various media outlets are constantly coming out with reports that Evangelicals, especially younger Evangelicals, are moving to the left politically. Now the Economist has joined the fray. The Economist’s piece is more balanced than most, and it acknowledges that the data suggest Evangelicals on the whole are as solidly Republican as ever.
Nevertheless, as we see these reports, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, often their definition of an Evangelical is exceedingly broad. According to this report no less than 100 million Americans are Evangelicals. It is clear that the word Evangelical is therefore not a synonym for the label conservative Protestant. More and more Mainline Protestants are calling themselves Evangelicals, and it is diluting the significance of the term. The key distinction is not between Evangelicals and Mainline Protestants, but between traditionalist and more observant Christians (measured in terms of worship attendance) on the one hand, and liberal and less observant Christians on the other. This is what sociologist John C. Green calls “the new religion gap.” More observant, traditional Christians – whether Catholic, Mainline, or Evangelical – tend to vote Republican, and their counterparts tend to vote Democrat. This gap is only growing with time.
Second, there is actually very little evidence that younger Evangelicals are moving to the left politically on any issue except the environment. Sociologists Buster Smith and Byron Johnson demonstrated this in a research note in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. As their abstract sums up their argument:
Our study indicates that young evangelicals (1) are significantly more likely than older evangelicals to think that more should be done to protect the environment; (2) hold views similar to older evangelicals regarding abortion, same-sex marriage, stem cell research, marijuana use, government welfare spending, spending on the nation’s health, and the war in Iraq; and (3) remain significantly more conservative than nonevangelicals on these same social issues. We find no strong evidence to support the notion that young evangelicals are retreating from traditional positions or increasingly adopting more liberal positions on hot-button or controversial social issues.
Third, many Evangelicals (and Catholics) who supported Barack Obama in 2008 have become disillusioned with him, and the main reason is the administration’s actions regarding abortion and religious liberty. Even if Evangelicals shift to the left on other issues, the result is more likely to be a shift within the Republican Party rather than a shift to the Democratic Party, as long as the latter is militantly pro-choice. Abortion (and to a lesser extent same-sex marriage) is by far the lynchpin of the alliance between the Republican Party and Evangelicals.
Of course, it is true that Evangelicals have not always been associated with conservatism on major economic and political issues. William Jennings Bryan is the classic example of a figure who mobilized Evangelicals in a decidedly progressive agenda. And most Evangelicals voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, largely because he called himself an Evangelical. There is no inherent connection between Evangelicalism and conservative political or economic thought, as Darryl Hart pointed out in his From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin. Disassociating Evangelicalism from Republican Party politics would do a world of good for the Gospel. Indeed, depoliticizing our faith in general is an urgent need.
But the fallout from Roe v. Wade changed a lot. It is arguable that the greatest blunder of the Democratic Party of the last 40 years was its commitment to the widespread legality of abortion-on-demand, a commitment that cemented the relationship between conservative Christians and the Republican Party and ensured a long-term electoral shift to the right. We live in a Republican era, and there is no evidence that either the Democrats or Republicans are about to change their positions on abortion; if anything they are becoming more strident in their positions. What’s more, Evangelicals are right to insist that their commitment to the right to life may never be abandoned. Whatever the pundits may say, look for current trends to continue.