2012 flashback: Pollster John C. Green's prophecy -- sort of -- about Democratic debates in 2019

When news consumers think about politics and religion, they probably think about the clout that evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics have in the post-Ronald Reagan Republican Party.

Can you say “81 percent”? I knew that you could.

There is a very good reason for this state of mind in the news-consuming public. Many (perhaps most) journalists in elite American zip codes have always viewed the Religion Right as the modern version of the vandals sacking Rome. Thus, that is THE religion-and-politics story of the age.

What about the Democrats? What about the evidence of a “pew gap” (active religious believers tend to back the GOP, whether they want to or not) that hurts the Democrats in the American heartland?

It is very rare to see coverage of this kind of story, other than the evergreen (1) rise of the Religious Left news reports or maybe stories about (2) Democrats making new attempts to court people in pews.

In this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — we focused on a recent New York Times piece about the three major divisions inside the Democratic Party, right now, and the role that religion is playing in that drama. This was a follow-up to my recent post: “Thinking about modern Democrats: There are three kinds and religion may be a crucial factor.”

Before we get to that, check out the top of this interesting news report about the Democrats and their recent debates. Doesn’t the point of view here sound strange?

Former Vice President Joe Biden defended his recent reversal on taxpayer funding of abortion during a second Democratic presidential debate that barely broached the controversial issue.

Biden's reversal has wiped out any hopes pro-life Democrats may have had for a moderate on the issue among leading contenders to be their party's nominee. The Democratic field is filled with only abortion rights supporters.

While President Trump was the primary target for criticism, Biden found himself frequently challenged by other candidates Wednesday (July 31) on the second night of the latest debate in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. …

Sen. Kamala Harris of California questioned Biden's newly announced opposition to the Hyde Amendment. Biden supported the ban on federal funding of abortions through the Medicaid program while in the Senate, and his campaign reiterated his support for it in early June. After strong criticism, Biden reversed that position within 48 hours.

"Do you now say that you have evolved and you regret that?" Harris asked Biden, according to a transcript provided by NBC News. "Because you have only, since you've been running for president this time, said that ... you didn't agree with the decision that you made over many, many years.

"Why did it take so long until you were running for president to change your position on the Hyde?"

Can you guess the news source focusing on this development on the left? It’s Baptist Press.

As it turns out, the current “woke” position on abortion and federal dollars doesn’t appeal to lots of Democrats. It’s also interesting that the most conservative, or perhaps “moderate” is the better term, camp in the Democratic Party on cultural issues is also the one that includes the highest percentage of people of color, while receiving the least ink in terms of news coverage.

Here is a key piece of that Times essay I mentioned earlier, by Thomas B. Edsall — under this headline:

The Democratic Party Is Actually Three Parties

They have different constituents and prefer different policies. Satisfying them all will not be easy.

The numbers discussed here are from a CBS battleground tracking surveys of Democratic voters in the first 18 primary states (quoting Kabir Khanna, a senior elections manager at CBS):

CBS broke them into three roughly equal groups.

The first two groups are made up of those who say they are “very liberal” and those who say they are “somewhat liberal.” Both groups are two-thirds white and have substantial — but for the Democratic Party below average — minority representation. They are roughly a quarter African-American and Hispanic.

Those in the third group are Democratic primary voters who describe themselves as moderate to conservative. This group has the largest number of minorities; it is 26 percent black, 19 percent Hispanic, 7 percent other nonwhites, and it has the smallest percentage of whites, at 48 percent.

Want to bet that many of those conservative-moderate Democrats frequently sit in pews?

This brings me back to an eyebrow-raising moment that I had in 2012, interviewing social scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron. The setting was the press conference to roll out the highly newsworthy Pew Forum survey about the rapid rise of religiously unaffiliated (“Nones”) Americans, especially among the young.

Green saw an important trend in the numbers and wondered if political reporters would pick up on it. The key: Will Democrats be able to please woke Nones, while also pleasing the remaining pew-residing folks in the party — especially Catholics and African-American Protestants.

I have shared this “On Religion” column material before, but please read it again — carefully.

The 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. … 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."

Oh, Green said these divisions will also grow INSIDE the political parties, especially the Democrats.

Is that a news story?

Enjoy the podcast.

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