By Monish Tourangbam*
In the United States of America, one sees a highly developed country and at the same time, a deeply and widely religious country. This reality in many ways defines the lives of many Americans, who are church goers and look towards a religious identification in their private as well as public lives. This in turn to a large extent explains the impact that religious affiliation has on how Americans vote during the Presidential elections. The very genesis of the first colonies in the eastern seaboard of the United States cannot be devoid from the religious aspirations of the people who desired to practice Christianity their way. The iconic attachment to the ‘Mayflower Pilgrims’, the symbolisms of the ‘city upon the hill’ or the ‘Manifest Destiny’ have shown the acute identification of religious signposts to the course of the American nation. Moreover, the separation of the state and the church in the US constitution and the waves of immigration led to a rainbow of citizens following different religions. More significantly, it also allowed a number of denominations to emerge within protestant Christianity. A pattern has been discovered in the voting patterns of the major sects of the Christians in the United States that impact the results of the presidential elections.
Religious interpretations of social issues particularly have in many ways influenced how campaigns are run and how voters are either enticed or repulsed. One of the most memorable and significant questions raised on a presidential candidate because of his religion was during the campaign of President John F Kennedy (the only Catholic elected US president) who had to passionately emphasize his American-ness to a group of protestant ministers at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on 12 September 1960. Kennedy emphatically said, “…contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.”
Fast forward to June 2015, at the premier gathering of Christian activists, the annual conference of the Faith and Freedom Council in Washington D.C., Republican presidential contenders were seen stressing the importance of Christian values in their private and public lives. They espoused the idea that people who were attached to faith made public policies that were attuned to what the people of the country largely believed, more particularly on social issues such as abortion rights.”My faith has guided me for my entire life, and I don’t suspect that’s going to change,”said former Texas Governor Rick Perry. Presidential hopeful and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush called his Catholic faith “an organizing part of my architecture, if you will, as a person and certainly as an elected official.”
Conferences of this kind are reflective of the influence that the evangelical wing of the Republican Party wields during primaries as well. According to exits polls taken during the 2014 midterm elections, 4 in 10 Republican voters were found to be white evangelical Christians, with nearly half attending religious services weekly.
Among Democrats, a third was found attending services weekly and 11 percent were white born-again Christians. The Faith and Freedom Council was founded in 2009 by Ralph Reed (came to prominence in 1990s with the Christian coalition) who, in his own words, began assembling the “largest-ever database of reliably conservative religious voters.”
Reed believes in micro-targeting religious voters, through phone calls, emails, text messages and volunteer visits. Besides identifying potential targets (religious voters) for micro-targeting, the council also engages in looking for those who have never registered to vote. Evangelicals are seen as a crucial voting constituency in the US presidential elections and Reed is often credited as helping George W. Bush win re-election in 2004, by ensuring evangelical turnouts. The National Election Pool exit poll recorded 78% of the vote among white evangelicals having gone to Bush in 2004. Reed speaking of the mid-term election results in 2014 stated that Conservative voters of faith were the largest constituency in the electorate in 2014. “….Religious conservative voters and the issues they care about are here to stay. They will be equally vital in 2016. Politicians of both parties ignore this constituency at their peril,” he contended.
The rise of Christian political activists like Ferry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the 1980s made a substantial dent in the prominence of evangelicals in the voting patterns of America. President Ronald Reagan was associated with religious conservatives and his national popularity paved the way for increased conservatives’ participation in the socio-political milieu of the United States. Falwell proclaimed, “God is calling millions of Americans in the so-often silent majority to join in the moral majority crusade to turn America around.”More importantly, Falwell was instrumental in building coalitions with Jews, Roman Catholics and Mormons. Pat Roberson, who belonged to a political family, unsuccessfully ran to become the Republican Party’s nominee for the Presidential elections in 1988. However, his candidacy significantly encouraged evangelicals to switch their party registration from Democrat to Republican in order to vote for him and is often seen as the forerunner of evangelical-fueled candidacies in the Republican Party.
According to a Gallup poll, very religious Americans today tend to identify more with or lean towards the Republican Party than with the Democratic Party, with those who are moderately or nonreligious more likely to do otherwise. Though this relationship between religiosity and party identification is seen to be largely applicable to most demographic groups, African Americans tend to lean towards the Democratic Party, and the political orientation of very religious and nonreligious among them do not vary significantly. Though Hispanics and Asian Americans tend to identify with or lean more towards the Democratic Party, this “preference is significantly less pronounced among very religious Hispanics and Asians than among the others.”
Another survey by the Pew Research Center has pointed to the growing number of adults, across regions and demographics, in the US population who do not identify with any organized religion. Although from a very low base, a growth has been registered in non-Christian religions, especially among Muslims and Hindus. Simultaneously, a drop has been seen in the Christian share of the population in recent times, owing largely to declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics. As a result, concerns have been expressed that this scenario could impact the conservatives’ vote share in the country, hence affecting the support base for the Republican Party.
However, Ralph Reed of the Freedom and Faith Council discount this fear, arguing that those who do not identify with any religion, or the ‘nones’ as they are called, do not “gather in a single place weekly as evangelicals and Catholics do at church.” “?it is a lot easier to organize people who hold to what they believe is a transcendent and eternal truth than it is to organize people who don’t believe in anything, or much of anything,” Reed said.
The publicness and privateness of the Christian faith in American lives have been a constant discourse at the local and national levels. Viewpoints might differ regarding the extent to which faith affects voting patterns in America. Nevertheless, regular churchgoers seem more inclined towards developing a group mentality that shape their views towards issues, and hence determine their party and candidate preferences. The US constitution builds a wall of separation between the church and the state, interpreted as prohibiting the state from meddling into the affairs of the church and vice versa. However, this constitutional provision cannot negate the church’s influence in impacting who gets elected.
*The writer is Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University