Let's stop and ask a few questions about religion and that Republican romp

Richard Ostling

NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: If you were working on the religion beat these days, especially if you were still new on the beat, wouldn't you welcome advice from someone who had excelled at this work at the highest levels for decades?

I recently had a long talk in New York City with Richard Ostling -- by all means review his bio here -- to ask if, along with his Religion Guy Q&A pieces, he would experiment with memos in which he offered his observations on what was happening, or what might happen, with stories and trends on the beat. He said he might broaden that, from time to time, with observations on writing about religion -- period.

To which I said, "Amen." -- tmatt


Grumble  if you wish, but in this era of perpetual political campaigns it’s nearly time for the usual news media blitz assessing evangelical Protestants’ presidential feelings about the Republicans’ notably God-fearing 2016 list of candidates.

That would be: Catholics Christie and Ryan and Santorum, Catholic-turned-Anglican Kasich, Episcopalian-turned-Catholic Bush, Hindu-turned-Catholic Jindal, Mormon Romney, Mormon-turned-Bapti-Catholic Rubio, Baptists Cruz and Huckabee and Thune, evangelical independents Pence and Perry and Walker, Presbyterian Paul, Adventist Carson, and perhaps others.

Meanwhile, we have 2014 and those Republican Senate, House, and governor victories and remarkable control over 68 of the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers. This gives the allegedly Grand and certainly Old Party the kind of clout it last enjoyed when F.D.R. was puffing Camels in Albany. Of course this could be reversed in 2016 because the public distrusts both political parties.

Didn’t you find surprising  the scant media attention to religious factors before and after the  Republican romp?  

We’ve heard about the “religious right” pretty much non-stop since 1979, but what role did they play in 2014? And, important for newsies, what’s their impact going forward?  That’s an obvious theme for careful exploration as the new Congress and state governments take shape.

One attempt at this ran just before Election Day in Britain’s liberal The Guardian.

Headline:  “Godless Millennials Could End the Power of the Religious Right.” Adam Lee was hopeful because “America is becoming less Christian. In every region of the country, in every Christian denomination, membership is either stagnant or declining.” However, “no one is forecasting the total extinction” of the religious right.” (What?!) But no longer can religious conservatives expect to “be obeyed without question” (What?!). “For progressives, the eroding power of the churches is a most welcome development” (What?! Are there no churches and churchgoers allied with his progressive side?).

Reuters, however, figured “white Protestants” are losing power (nobody expects the Democrats will lose their lopsided backing from black Protestants) but predicted  “Christian conservatives will probably vote in greater numbers” than others and exercise “an outsized say” in the outcome. That scenario got a post-election amen from Ralph Reed of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, who claimed a hefty turnout by conservative Christians handed the GOP its Senate majority.

Is that true? What do Republican and Democratic pros think, and how does this affect future strategy? Did Republicans downplay those pesky “social issues” this round, and did other factors energize evangelicals like they did voters in general?

Despite the big party shift, exit polling showed religious patterns in U.S. House voting were mostly the same old, according to the go-to guys at the Pew Research Center, who compared 2014 with the 2010 midterms.  For instance white evangelicals (26 percent of the 2014 electorate) and white Catholics (19 percent of the electorate) gave virtually the same support to Republicans both years, 78 percent and 60 percent respectively in 2014. In the increasingly important Democratic bloc of Americans with no religious affiliation (12 percent of voters), party loyalty also held steady this year at 69 percent.  

As before, Republicans could count on voters who attend religious services weekly, and Democrats on those who never worship.  Why has this big piety gap -- the so-called "pew gap" -- between the two parties emerged, and is it permanent?

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