Terry Mattingly: ‘Pew gap’ remains important force in American politics

As an emerging American voice, the Rev. Jerry Falwell visited South Carolina in 1980 to promote his new Moral Majority network while urging evangelicals to back Ronald Reagan instead of President Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist.

Then Furman University professor John C. Green was intrigued by the mixed reactions on three Baptist campuses in Greenville — his own “moderate” Baptist school, a mainstream Southern Baptist college and the proudly fundamentalist Bob Jones University. For example, Bob Jones Jr. called Falwell “the most dangerous man in America today” because of his efforts to unite religious groups in political activism.

This potent blend of politics and religion was an obvious topic for political-science research. Green’s colleagues agreed, but one said they needed to act fast, “since these kinds of trends burn out quick,” Green recalled, laughing. “Here we are in 2023 and arguments about religion and politics are hotter than ever.”

From the start, experts tried to show a clash between religion and secularism, noted Green, author of “The Faith Factor: How Religion Influences American Elections.”

The reality is more complex than a “God gap.” By the late 1980s, researchers learned that while most Americans remain believers, it’s crucial to note how often voters attend worship services. The more fervently Americans support religious congregations with their time and money, the more likely they are to back cultural conservatives.

This “religiosity gap” remains relevant. A new Pew Research Center analysis noted that, in the 2022 midterms, “The gap in voting preferences by religious attendance was as wide as it’s been in any of the last several elections: 56% of those who said they attend religious services a few times a year or less reported voting for Democratic candidates in the 2022 midterms. … But GOP candidates were the favorite among those who attend services monthly or more by more than 2-to-1 (67%, vs. 31% who voted for Democratic candidates).”

Meanwhile, Protestants supported the “GOP by nearly 2-to-1.” White evangelical support for Republicans hit 86%, while white Catholics “favored Republican candidates by 25 points, whereas Hispanic Catholics favored Democratic candidates by an even greater margin (34 points).” Jewish voters preferred Democrats — 68% to 32%. Atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” voters remained loyal to Democrats, with 72% supporting Democrats, and 27% backing Republicans.

In 2012, Green was part of the Pew Research team behind the landmark “‘Nones’ on the Rise” study, which documented the stunning growth of the “religiously unaffiliated.” The so-called Nones, he noted then, overwhelmingly reject ancient Judeo-Christian doctrines on marriage and sex. Thus, the unaffiliated have become a stronger presence among Democrats than Black 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,” Green told the press. “If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties.”

Over time, researchers documented a growing “polarization” in public life, with Americans increasingly divided by their choices in religion, politics, entertainment, news, education and ZIP codes. Pew noted: “Ideological polarization by party was nearly complete in 2022: Only 1% of self-described conservative Republicans voted for Democratic House candidates and less than 1% of liberal Democrats voted Republican.”

Since 2012, Green has stressed the importance of journalists studying changes in Latino voting, especially trends among evangelicals, Pentecostals and Catholics. Again, it’s crucial to probe the differences between those who frequent pews and those who do not.

Now, it’s time for pollsters to start asking “religiosity gap” questions about choices made by Black voters, said Green, who in retirement remains active with the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. In a 2020 Bliss poll, in cooperation with the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus Foundation, it was especially interesting to note differences — on “education choice,” parental rights, gender and other cultural issues — between Black Ohioans who were churchgoers and those who were not.

“We are starting to see divisions between Democratic Party leaders and foot soldiers at the local level, including many Black Protestants,” said Green. “They all agree that Donald Trump is bad, but there are many issues on which they are really divided. When you start asking questions, religion is part of those tensions.”

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi. Send comments to [email protected].