October 30, 2000
Is There a Religious Vote?
-- Martin E. Marty
*Sightings* has chosen to keep blinders on concerning the overdone, overcovered, overtreated presidential election campaign, full of religious nuances and blatancies though it be. But as Auction Day -- a.k.a. Election Day -- nears, it is time to be responsible. David C. Leege, veteran Notre Dame polltaker and polling-booth watcher, helpfully asks once again, "Is there a religious vote?"
Leege's complex answer is that this is all very complex: there is a sort of religious vote, sort of. Politicians *think* there is a religious vote, so that matters. Both parties are trying to abandon extreme positions that appeal to some religious or irreligious groups and repel others, so all this is hard to measure. Next, "voter data suggest that faith-based voting occurs only at the margins of American elections. However, faith-based voting is central for some religious groups," namely African-American Christians and white evangelical Protestants.
Finally, it is hard to sustain a creedal basis for voting in the U.S., "where office-seekers use (and abuse) religious symbols, where civil religion [as opposed to church-bloc religion] remains the dominant form of political religion, where economic well-being, perhaps even greed, motivates voters more than their moral and religious beliefs, and where intergroup conflicts lie fallow only for short periods of time." (All of this is in the October 20 issue of *Commonweal*.)
Leege looks at four groups, overlooking Jews. African Americans, as we all know, religiously switched loyalties from Republican to Democrat in the civil rights era, especially after being alienated in the Republican campaign of 1964. On the other hand, whereas many evangelical populations may have once been bipartisan, since 1968 they have moved more solidly into the Republican camp. Why? Their drive for "moral restorationism." Paradoxically, I think Leege would say, the same evangelicals -- especially Southerners -- who have kept their "century-old animus to the federal government" are precisely the people of whom he can "unequivocally" say "that a religious vote concerned with state-encouraged morality in our daily lives has dominated the political outlooks and behavior of white Evangelicals." Explain that contradictory set of attitudes.
And explain why mainline Protestants, typed as "liberals" or "liberal-led," remain safe in the Republican camp, according to Leege. But they have become unreliable coalition partners chiefly because when they are repulsed by "code words to heighten racial differences" and in reaction to some "moral-restorationist" themes. But still count most of them Republicanly.
That leaves the Catholic scene "complex" and "ambiguous," as Leege would say. Up for grabs -- just like, so it still seems, the presidential election itself.