The Common Good

Evangelical turnout for Democrats in Ohio shows diversity, experts say

Date: March 11, 2008
Polls showing that 43 percent of white evangelical voters who participated in Ohio’s recent primary election voted for Democrats are further evidence that mainstream media are missing a key story, according to a group of pundits.

Figures from the March 4 contest also showed that no single candidate -- from either party -- won a majority of white evangelicals’ support.

The poll was another in a series commissioned by organizations critical of the media consortium that has sponsored the most widely-reported statistics from the primary elections and caucuses. The consortium -- comprised of the Associated Press and the major broadcast and cable news networks -- have asked only Republican voters if they consider themselves "born-again or evangelical Christians."

That oversight, said Christian leaders in a March 10 conference call with reporters, is leading media to miss "something big afoot" for the 2008 election.

Jim Wallis, author of The Great Awakening and president of the Christian anti-poverty group Sojourners, said evidence pointing to a significant change in white evangelical voting patterns has remained the same throughout primary contests nationwide.

"My question for the media really is: How much data does it take to change old media scripts?" he asked. "Because this data is consistent; it will shape the outcome of the election. And I just wonder when the media script is going to change. I mean, the data is now clear all around the country. There has been a dramatic sea change in the evangelical agenda."

Wallis, whose group was one of the sponsors of the poll, said the apparent shift of white evangelical voters away from the Religious Right reflects a "wider and deeper" agenda than evangelicals seemed to embrace in 2004. Poverty, climate change and war are joining abortion and sexuality as core evangelical issues, he said.

Indeed, the survey found that 42 percent of white evangelical voters said job security and the economy were the most important issues to them. Only 14 percent said abortion and same-sex marriage were paramount.

Economics eclipsed the traditional hot-button issues even among white evangelicals who voted in the Republican primary, with 29 percent citing jobs and the economy as their lead issues and 23 percent citing abortion and gay marriage.

Rich Nathan, pastor of the Vineyard Church of Columbus, Ohio, said he has seen a similarly growing diversity of voting patterns among his flock over the last eight years.

With 12,000 members, Nathan’s congregation is Ohio’s second largest. And while sexuality and sanctity of unborn life are certainly important to his members, he said, they’re not definitive anymore.

"At our church, we run a free medical clinic, a free legal clinic, job-training programs, after-school programs, and dozens and dozens of services for immigrants, and all of that is volunteer-based. And as people are engaged with people who have needs, that also impacts their political perspectives," he said. "That’s changing the people in the church."

Church attendees overall may not be as monolithic as previously supposed, the poll suggests. In Ohio, 59 percent of voters who said they attended church at least weekly voted in the Democratic primary.

Past primaries seemed to show the same results. The Feb. 5 "Super Tuesday" primary in Missouri saw 53 percent of total voters reportedly attending church weekly. Democrats got 47 percent of those voters. Meanwhile, in Tennessee’s Super Tuesday contest, 61 percent of voters reported attending church at least once a week. Fifty-four percent of those voted in the Republican primary, while 46 percent voted in the Democratic race.

Shaun Casey, a visiting fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said the shift is accelerating because evangelicals have lost their previously held illusions that Republicans would end abortion and ban gay marriage. That, in effect, has "loosened them up" to realize a "growing moral horizon," he said.

"This poll indicates a real political and theological restlessness among evangelicals," said Casey, who is an ethics professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. "It’s too early to tell where they’ll end up, but we may have seen the high water mark for evangelical voting."

The poll included results from 400 Republican voters and 400 Democratic voters, with an over-sample of 200 Democratic and 200 Republican white evangelical voters. The left-leaning groups Center for American Progress and Faith in Public Life also sponsored the survey.

Wallis and others cautioned Democrats that just because the shift away from the Religious Right means a broader evangelical agenda, it doesn’t mean that most evangelicals will automatically join the Democratic Party. And it certainly doesn’t mean abortion and gay marriage aren’t important any more.

Evangelicals will respond "to a candidate who speaks the moral language of politics," he said.

"I think my own view is if Democrats make a woman’s right to choose the only language they use in this election campaign, they will not speak to this concern" about abortion, Wallis said.

But, he added, "If abortion reduction is a primary plank … if Democrats speak to this with some substance, they will win many of those votes."

The bottom line, each of the experts said, is that white evangelicals are realizing that no party’s platform will ever square completely with the gospel. That, they added, is a healthier, more limited view of the capabilities of political involvement. It also makes presidential politics less predictable than in recent years.

"Half the evangelical electorate is in play," Wallis reiterated. "Now where it comes down is not clear, but it is in play. It’s real. I’m telling you, I’m on the road every single day. It’s very real."