Religion defined American politics for the better part of a century. Outside the South, it was the major fault line after the Civil War, with Protestants lined up on the Republican side and Catholics on the Democratic side. The arrival of Catholics from Ireland had earlier given rise to the Know Nothing Party, and their arrival in even larger numbers from southern and eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century sparked the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan rebranded itself as anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish, as well as anti-Black. In the 1920s, 1 in every 6 adult white Protestant males was a Klan member.
The Great Depression and World War II taught Protestants that Catholics weren’t their enemy, and religion lost its political power, allowing the election of a Catholic president in 1960.
The sectarian respite was short lived. Religion in a different form reentered American politics in the 1970s when the political parties lined up on opposing sides over abortion. Since 1976, every Republican Party platform has opposed a woman’s right to choose, whereas every Democratic Party platform has supported it.
Since 1980, when they backed Ronald Reagan by 3-to-2, white evangelical Christians have been reliably Republican. They are the GOP’s largest and most loyal bloc, voting upward of 2-to-1 Republican in recent elections. Subtract their votes and the GOP would have lost the 2016 presidential election by nearly 60% to 40%. Even the GOP’s image as a “white party” owes to white evangelicals. Non-evangelical whites voted Democratic by a 53-47% margin in 2016.
Of the groups that journalists could track in this year’s election, white evangelicals should be near the top. For one thing, they’ve been shrinking in number. America’s fifth wave of religious revival began to wane in the 1990s, and white evangelicals, who represented a fourth of the U.S. population in the early 1990s, account for only about a sixth today. They’ve compensated by voting at ever higher rates. In 2016, when they voted 4-to-1 for Donald Trump, their voting rate was 85%, the highest of any major demographic group.
Will it stay that high in 2020? Will it be that heavily Republican this time? Those are questions worth exploring as the campaign moves toward November. Particularly noteworthy will be the preferences of white evangelicals in battleground states outside the South. In the South, where religious beliefs comingle with racial beliefs, white evangelicals vote close to 90% Republican. They are less loyal to the GOP elsewhere.
White evangelicals rightly complain that the mainstream press normally plays little attention to their concerns. Even lower on journalists’ radar screen are “religious nones” — individuals who never attend religious services. The religiously unaffiliated have doubled in size during the past two decades and now constitute a fourth of adult Americans. They tend to have liberal views on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and have voted 2-to-1 Democratic in recent elections.
The religiously unaffiliated are not an easy story for reporters to tell. White evangelicals are a cohesive bloc, united by common religious beliefs. The religiously unaffiliated are more diverse. Their preference for Democratic candidates owes to a range of influences, many of them unrelated to religion. Nevertheless, research indicates that their embrace of Democratic candidates stems in part from their opposition to the GOP’s stance on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.
The political power of the religiously unaffiliated is diminished by low turnout. Although larger in number than white evangelicals, they constitute a smaller percentage of actual voters. According to exit polls, they cast 15% of the votes in 2016, compared with 26% for white evangelicals. Will the religiously unaffiliated vote at a higher rate this time? The answer to that question could well determine the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
What’s clearer is the long-term implication of Americans’ shifting religious orientations. As I detail in my recent book Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?, a third of white evangelicals are 65 years of age or older and only a tenth are under 30, whereas the religiously unaffiliated are the reverse — a third are under 30 and only a tenth are 65 or older. If the religiously unaffiliated retain their Democratic loyalty in the years ahead, the GOP will struggle to remain competitive.
Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of the recently published Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself? Journalist’s Resource plans to post a new installment of his Election Beat 2020 series every week leading up to the 2020 U.S. election. Patterson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David E. Campbell, Geoffrey C. Layman, John C. Green and Nathanael G. Sumaktoyo. “Putting Politics First: The Impact of Politics on American Religious and Secular Orientations,” American Journal of Political Science, 2018.
Paul A Djupe and Ryan L. Claassen, eds. The Evangelical Crackup? The Future of the Evangelical-Republican Coalition, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2018.
Thomas E. Patterson. Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?, KDP Publishing, 2020.