As the 2020 White House race draws closer, I think I hear a familiar train a comin’. Or maybe it’s this slow train, coming up around the bend. I’ve already bought my new political t-shirt for the months ahead.
Whatever you want to call it, the train that’s coming is more and more coverage of Donald Trump and his white evangelical voters — both enthusiastic supporters and reluctant ones. It’s the same train that so many mainstream journalists spotted in 2016, but never took the time to understand (or were unwilling to make that effort, for some strange reason).
The bottom line: They thought the whole “81 percent” thing was a story about the Republican Party and the Republican Party, alone.
As for me, I keep thinking about all the church-goin’ people that I know who really, really, really do not want to vote for Trump. Yet they hear the train a comin’, since they remain worried about all those familiar issues linked to the First Amendment, abortion, the U.S. Supreme Court, etc. (Click here for my breakdown on the various evangelical voting camps in the Trump era.)
So what is happening on the Democratic Party side of this story?
That brings me to a short, but important, essay by Emma Green (she’s everywhere, these days) that ran at The Atlantic Monthly website with this headline: “Pete Buttigieg Takes Aim at Religious Hypocrisy.” It starts you know where:
On the debate stage, Buttigieg gave voice to a view that has become common among Democratic voters: Many of Trump’s policies, along with his conduct as president, do not reflect Christian values. “The Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” Buttigieg said. “We should call out hypocrisy when we see it.”
Many religious conservatives, of course, agree with that statement, that Trump’s conduct doesn’t “reflect Christian values.” His policies? That’s a bizarre, very mixed bag, for most religious conservatives that I know.
Back to Green:
This has been a theme throughout Buttigieg’s campaign. The mayor has spoken openly about his religious faith and rallied religious rhetoric to his advantage: This spring, he called out Mike Pence for his opposition to same-sex marriage, saying, “Your quarrel, sir, it is with my creator.”
This is a departure from the usual playbook for the Democratic Party. As Buttigieg himself pointed out, “Our party doesn’t talk about [religion] as much.” The reason for this, he said, is that Democrats are committed to the separation of Church and state, and that the party wants to stand for all people, regardless of their religion. But it may also be a reflection of the growing irreligiosity of the Democratic base: The party’s most politically engaged voters tend not to be affiliated with any particular faith.
So there’s the rub. How do Democrats — those willing to think seriously about this issue — reach out to Republicans and culturally conservative Democrats who fear being forced to vote, again, for Trump. Many others (my hand is raised) voted third party in 2016 because they could not stomach pulling a voting-box lever for either of the main candidates.
How do the Democrats please the very powerful, woke social-media wing of their party while reaching out (click here for one idea on that) to, yes, the majority of voters in their own party?
In this new mini-essay, Green links to an earlier piece she wrote on a related theme: “Politics as the New Religion for Progressive Democrats.” Journalists covering politics and religion need to read the following very carefully. Yes, we are talking about those Pew Forum “Nones,” once again:
… Religiously unaffiliated voters, who may or may not be associated with other civic institutions, seem most excited about supporting or donating to causes, going to rallies, and expressing opinions online, among other activities. Political engagement may be providing these Americans with a new form of identity. And in turn, they may be helping to solidify the new identity of the Democratic Party.
Democrats have traditionally had a strong base of religious voters. A decade ago, more than 80 percent of self-identified Democrats were affiliated with some sort of religion, according to the Pew Research Center. The party was nearly one-quarter Catholic and nearly one-half Protestant, including mainline, evangelical, and historically black denominations. By 2014, those numbers had shifted significantly: Pew found that 28 percent of Democrats identified as religiously unaffiliated.
This year, the God gap also seems to be an enthusiasm gap. In the new PRRI survey of 1,811 respondents, conducted this year in August and September, religiously unaffiliated Democrats were more than twice as likely to have attended a rally within the past 12 months compared with their religious peers. During that time, they were significantly more likely to have contacted an elected official or to have donated to a candidate or cause. And nearly half of religiously unaffiliated Democrats said they had bought or boycotted a product for political reasons or posted political opinions online, compared with roughly one-quarter of their religious peers. “Culturally, this is the subgroup of the Democratic Party that feels most at odds with the direction of the country and what the Trump administration is doing,” said Dan Cox, the research director at PRRI. “These secular Democrats also tend to be the most liberal.”
Right there. That’s the train — journalistically speaking — that I hear comin’, once again.
Trump didn’t win in 2016 because Republicans voted for him. He won in the Rust Belt and elsewhere because many Democrats stayed home or did the unthinkable, which was voting for Trump. I will also note, once again, that journalists really need to see some kind of 2016 exit-poll breakdown in Florida, where I suspect Trump won his narrow victory because of the votes of Latino evangelicals, Pentecostals and Catholics.
You could see this pew-shaped split coming a long time ago, if you knew where to look.
For me, the key moment (I have mentioned it before) came in the summer 2008, at a Media Project seminar at the old (now rebooted in New York City) Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The speaker was pollster and scholar John C. Green of the University of Akron, who was already working with the Pew Forum team on what would become the famous “Nones” study.
Let’s flash back to that:
… Green stood at a whiteboard and described the changes that he was seeing in the landscape of American religion. Everything he said on that day showed up years later, in the 2012 Pew Forum study of the religiously unaffiliated.
On the right side of the American religious marketplace, defined in terms of doctrine and practice, is a camp of roughly 20 percent (maybe less) of believers who are seriously trying to practice their chosen faith at the level of daily life, said Green. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a growing camp of people who are atheists, agnostics or vaguely spiritual believers who define their beliefs primarily in terms of the old doctrines that they no longer believe. This is especially true when it comes to issues of salvation and sex. As the old saying goes, on these issues these spiritual-but-not-religious believers reject all absolute truths except the statement that there are no absolute truths.
In recent national elections this growing camp of secularists and religiously unaffiliated people have formed a powerful coalition with Catholic liberals, liberal Jews and the declining numbers of people found in America's liberal religious denominations (such as the "seven sisters" of oldline Protestantism). Add it all up, Green said in 2009, and you had a growing camp of roughly 20 percent or so on the cultural left.
The bottom line: This coalition was emerging as the dominant voice in the modern Democratic Party on matters of culture and religion. … This could, to say the least, shape the party's relationships with the Catholic Church, Orthodox Jews, Muslims and other major religious bodies.
Then, when the “Nones” study was ready in 2012, Green made these points — again — in his presentation to journalists at the reveal press conference.
A few religion-beat journalists noticed. I ended my “On Religion” column with this, noting that the “religiously unaffiliated”:
… overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters — with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.
"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."
Now, go back and read those Emma Green pieces again. Here’s some background music for that.