The Common Good

Polls, authors say white evangelicals embracing political independence

Date: February 12, 2008
A raft of recent polls and books suggest that the evangelical vote may be turning -- or returning -- to a more even distribution between the Republican and Democratic parties.

A Zogby International poll released Feb. 11 showed that about one-third of white evangelicals who voted in two Super Tuesday states voted in the Democratic primaries.

The poll -- of 400 voters from each political party in Missouri and Tennessee -- was taken by phone Feb. 5 and 6, immediately following those states’ primaries. In the Show-Me State, 34 percent of self-identified white evangelicals voted Democratic, while 29 percent of their Volunteer State peers did.

Extrapolating from overall voter numbers, "that’s 160,000 people in Missouri; that’s 182,000 people in Tennessee," said Robert Jones, a religion-and-politics consultant for Faith in Public Life and the Center for American Progress, in a conference call with reporters. The two organizations commissioned the poll in response to Christian leaders who criticized the media consortium conducting the most widely used exit-poll data. In every primary and caucus so far, the consortium has neglected to ask Democratic primary voters if they are evangelicals but asked that question of voters in all Republican contests.

"The media is operating with an outdated script, and the experience I’m having on the road confirms the data," said Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners/Call to Renewal movement. The Christian group fights poverty and war. He said that in recent speaking engagements at evangelical college and seminary campuses around the country he has seen far more enthusiasm for Democratic candidates than he has in years.

In 2000 and 2004, white evangelicals voted for President Bush by about a 3-to-1 margin.

"I would say that all the data, the Barna data, the Pew data, this data, shows that evangelicals are leaving the Religious Right in droves, and the Religious Right is being replaced by Jesus, and that’s progress," Wallis said. He referred to another recent survey -- from evangelical pollster George Barna -- that showed 40 percent of born-again voters said they will vote for the Democratic presidential in November while only 29 percent plan to vote for the Republican. The remainder remain undecided or said they would vote for a third-party candidate.

However, Wallis added, "That does not mean that people are moving from being partisan Republicans to being partisan on the other side." White evangelicals -- after years of close identification with GOP politics -- are going to be more independent, Wallis said. And that’s a good thing for both politics and religion.

"People of faith shouldn’t be in any party’s political pocket or candidate’s but evaluate whoever by our moral compass," he said.

Polls show that more than a third of white evangelicals voted for Bush’s Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, in the 1992 and 1996 elections. Asked if the new polls didn’t mark a turning point so much as a return to pre-Bush dynamics, Wallis said evidence he has seen among younger evangelicals shows disenchantment not only with the Republican Party but also with the issues that have defined conservative evangelical leaders in recent elections: abortion and homosexuality.

Instead, he said, even younger evangelicals who previously were committed to Religious Right organizations are defecting because they are as concerned with issues like global warming, poverty and the Iraq war as with saving unborn children.

"There are still these old white men that are standing in the river and they have their arms up in the air and they’re saying, ‘Stop, stop! There are only two moral-values issues,’" Wallis said. "And the water is rushing right past them, including their own young people."

A variety of recent books by Christian journalists and scholars also notes the seeming trend of evangelical Christians away from the political agenda that has defined them in the public’s eye. Later on Feb. 11, panelists discussed Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne’s new contribution to the genre, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right.

Dionne said conservative Christians are merely rediscovering Scripture’s call to concern themselves with multiple issues. "The end of the Religious Right does not signal a decline in evangelical Christianity," he said. "On the contrary, it is a sign I believe … of a new reformation among Christians, who are disentangling their great movement from a political machine."

He continued, "Linking religion too closely to the fortunes of one political party or one leader or one group of leaders is always a mistake."