People in pews had new options

1733486 35b0ecbbc6It was a good day to be a populist, churchgoing, leaning-toward-conservative Democrat. It was a bad day to be liberal Republican, or a Republican in a blue state who was running against a centrist or conservative Democrat.

It was a bad day for Andrew Sullivan, if you look at ballot initiatives.

It was a bad day for Dr. James Dobson. Maybe. That depends, in large part, on his willingness to talk to centrist or conservative Democrats. Some of them may want to talk with him.

It was a bad day for Howard Dean and the new Democratic bloggers.

It was a really bad day for Karl Rove and the Dick Cheney side of the big GOP tent -- a really, really bad day.

All kinds of people are going to be writing all kinds of things in the next 24 hours about the impact of religion in an election that, other than the impact of the White House's work in Iraq, had very few consistent themes. I have been struck that reporters at the mainstream media are having trouble writing those traditional "What It All Means" stories for page one. USA Today, naturally, gave it a try:

The coalition that re-elected President Bush and bolstered Republican margins in Congress just two years ago fractured Tuesday under the weight of an unpopular war, economic unease and a series of scandals.

Fueled by dissatisfaction with Bush's leadership and the direction of the country, Democrats scored significant gains in the Senate and won control of the House for the first time since 1994.

And what happened to evangelicals and "values voters"?

White evangelical Christians remained a bulwark: Seven in 10 voted for Republicans. But the focus on issues important to the Christian Right, including banning same-sex marriage and embryonic stem cell research, apparently alienated less devout voters. Those who attend church only occasionally moved to the Democrats by 9 points, compared with 2004. Those who never attend church moved away from the GOP by 11 points.

Gosh, that sounds rather -- ordinary.

In other words, no real shockers in those numbers. (By the way, check out the funny little poll over at Christianity Today asking evangelicals to pick one of several options explaining why they were -- MSM news template alert -- too depressed to go to the polls.)

Nevertheless, Marcus Baram at ABC News went for the brass ring with an online story titled "Losing Faith in GOP -- Early Exit Polls: Third of White Evangelicals Voted for Democrats."

Are white evangelicals losing faith in the Republican Party? The huge voting bloc, which helped elect President Bush twice and had been swinging more heavily Republican, seems to have become disenchanted with the GOP after the Mark Foley scandal and the high-profile resignations of several Republican congressmen.

Almost a third of white evangelicals voted for Democrats in today's election, according to early exit polls reported by The Associated Press. Most of them cited corruption as an important factor in their decision. That's a change from the 2004 presidential election when 78 percent of white evangelicals voted for Bush and 21 percent voted for Kerry. That was a recent peak in evangelical attachment to Republicans.

. . . In the 2002 midterm elections, almost 68 percent of evangelicals favored Republican candidates. In 2000, 68 percent voted for Bush and 30 percent for Gore.

Wait a minute. Am I missing something important? In 2006, "almost a third" voted for Democrats and in the 2002 mid-term elections it was about 33 percent?

It seems to me that what happened yesterday in the "evangelical" pews was pretty consistent with that other midterm election and not radically different than in the White House elections, meaning the numbers differed by about 10 percent.

That doesn't sound like things fell totally apart in the world of the "pew gap," at least in white evangelical circles. The Catholic vote is another matter.

But if there was a bit of move toward the Democrats here, what might have caused it? Over at Beliefnet, Steven "friend of this blog" Waldman has offered his point of view on precisely that issue. The headline says it all: "The Smaller God Gap: Democrats make progress with religious voters but now have to reassess their approach to abortion." I question his use of the words "fell apart" in the lede, followed then by "closed a bit" in the second paragraph. But let's let him speak for himself:

The religious coalition that Republicans had assembled -- evangelical Christians, churchgoers, and Catholics -- fell apart yesterday.

The "God Gap" -- One of the most important factors in recent years has been the development of a religiosity gap in which the most church-going Americans voted Republican and the least devout voted Democratic. This gap closed a bit yesterday. People who attended church weekly voted 58 to 41 for Bush in 2004. This year, they voted 51% for Republicans to 48% for Democrats.

EmptyRedPewsThat's a crucial number, but that number mixes a wide variety of people. Still, what might have inspired this shift of seven points?

Clearly, Iraq was a big factor -- especially with Catholics. Also, the left side of the "born again" world continues, slowly, to develop or, perhaps, "emerge," drip by doctrinal drip.

Then there was another obvious factor. The Democratic leadership bit its tongue and let some social-issues heretics seek office, at least at the state and local levels. Waldman bluntly states the obvious:

Several seats were snatched away from Republicans by pro-life Democrats. Robert Casey, Jr., who is anti-abortion, defeated Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania. Brad Ellsworth, who defeated Indiana incumbent John Hostettler, also opposes abortion, as does former pro-football quarterback Heath Shuler, who defeated North Carolina Republican Charles Taylor.

These Democrats are not shy about their anti-abortion views though they put a Democratic twist on them. For instance, on his website, Shuler says he is "a pro-life Democrat and I believe that all life is sacred." He adds that he also believes that "a commitment to life extends beyond the womb and means ensuring that all people have adequate health care, receive a strong education, and be given proper care in their later years."

In order to cement the gains with religious voters and Catholics, the Democrats will likely need to develop a more moderate position on abortion. These new pro-life Democrats will surely press the case; it's an open question how the pro-choice Democrats who will still dominate the party will react.

Thanks to the Iraq war, Democrats now have an opening to win over more religious voters. However, the Iraq war won't dominate forever and Democrats will now need to prove themselves worthy of religious voters by altering their views on some social issues and dispelling the image that they're hostile to faith.

In other words, we are still waiting for news developments on that old, old story. Will anyone in either party risk offending core voters and donors -- left and right -- by proposing meaningful compromise legislation on the Sexual Revolution issues?

First photo by xicot via Flickr.

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