Religion and Politics in the United States: Nuances You Should Know

By Chip Berlet
Adapted from The Public Eye Magazine, Summer 2003

In one recent study, about half of the people in the United States in the year 2000 reported they were adherents of an organized religious belief system.[1] Depending on how the question is asked, some 25-45 percent of the population report that they see themselves as either Born-Again Christians, or, in the broadest sense of the word, Christian "Evangelicals." What does this mean? Why is it important? How do these people influence elections and politics?

About 14 percent of the electorate in 2000 identified itself as part of the "Christian Right," with 79 percent of this sector voting for George W. Bush.[2] But contrary to the impression fostered by the direct-mail rhetoric of many liberal groups, not all Evangelicals are part of the Christian Right, and some Evangelicals are actually politically liberal or progressive. Black Evangelicals, for example, overwhelmingly vote Democratic, but they are conservative on some social issues: tending to favor a social safety net for the poor and unemployed, but believing homosexuals are sinful.

There are three ways to look at Christian Evangelicals: as people of faith that follow a set of specific doctrines; as an organic network of traditions; or as a self-identified coalition that emerged during World War Two.[3] These doctrines, according to historian David Bebbington, are the belief in the need to change lives through conversion; expressing the message of the gospels through activism; a strong regard for the Bible as a guide for life; and stressing the importance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.[4]

According to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE), when viewed as an organic network of traditions, evangelicalism "denotes a style as much as a set of beliefs. As a result, groups as disparate as black Baptists and Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites and Pentecostals, Catholic charismatics and Southern Baptists all come under the evangelical umbrella—demonstrating just how diverse the movement really is."[5]

The terms Fundamentalist, Born-Again, Pentecostal, and Charismatic denote specific and sometimes overlapping subsets of Christianity, and primarily are found within Protestant evangelicalism. To be Born-Again implies a specific personal religious conversion experience that involves a powerful sense of being imbued with the spirit of God. Fundamentalists tend to read the Bible literally, reject liberal church doctrine, and often shun secular society. Pentecostals and Charismatics believe they routinely manifest gifts from the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues or being swept up into physical ecstasy by the Lord of the Dance.

In the broadest sense, according to Gallup polls, the number of persons in the United States who described themselves as either Evangelical or Born-Again between 1976 and 2001 fluctuated between 33 percent and 47 percent with a reasonable estimate being 35 percent of the population or just over 102 million people in 2003.[6] There seems to be a small long-term increase in the number of people reporting themselves in this category with 34 percent in election year 1976 and 45 percent in election year 2000. Using a different methodology and set of definitions, Barna Research has found that 41 percent of the population identifies as Born-Again using a broad definition, but only 8 percent accept all the tenets in a list of strict conservative doctrinal beliefs.[7]

Significantly, Christians, including Evangelicals, do not vote as a bloc, even within specific denominations. In the year 2000, when 45 percent of the population told the Gallup poll they were Evangelical or Born-Again, 84 percent of White Evangelical Protestants who voted cast ballots for Bush and 16 percent for Gore. One study found that 40 percent of the total vote for Bush in 2000 came from Christian Evangelicals, making it the largest single voting bloc in the Republican Party. However, Black Protestant voters, a majority of whom are Evangelical, voted 96 percent for Gore and only 4 percent for Bush. Contrast this with Jewish voters who voted 77 percent for Gore and 23 percent for Bush; and Roman Catholic voters who voted 57 percent for Bush and 43 percent for Gore.[8]

When all Evangelicals were polled regarding their Party and voting preferences, some of the results were surprising. Not surprising is that almost half of all Evangelicals are Republicans, while only one-quarter are Democrats. Yet, the single biggest bloc (among all Evangelicals) in 2000 was non-voters at 52 percent, followed by Bush voters at 37 percent and Gore voters at 11 percent. Even among Republican partisans (comprising 47 percent of all Evangelicals), while 77 percent voted for Bush, 33 percent chose not to vote; making non-voters the second biggest voting bloc in the Christian Right. Independent Evangelicals gave 19 percent and 18 percent of their votes to Bush and Gore respectively, but the biggest bloc for Evangelical Independents was also non-voters at 41 percent.[9] Many Evangelicals are "swing voters" oscillating between the Republican and Democratic Party; and many more simply feel neither Party represents their interests.

While on average older Evangelicals tend to lag slightly behind the average U.S. resident in education and income, there is a "continuing trend toward the GOP, as younger, better-educated, and wealthier Evangelicals replace an older, less upscale Democratic political generation."[10] Evangelicals who are politically or socially active, especially conservatives, seem to be increasingly upwardly mobile, suburban, highly-educated, and with above-average incomes, contrary to many popular stereotypes.[11] One group of scholars found that between 1978 and 1988, "Christian Right activism occurred predominantly in rapidly growing—and relatively prosperous—suburban areas of the South, Southwest, and Midwest."[12] Conservative Evangelicals also do a better job at rallying their own forces to vote. In 2000, 79 percent of Evangelicals who voted for Bush had been contacted at least once by a politicized religious group or individual, as compared to 36 percent of Gore voters.[13]

Many in the Christian Right tend to get their information—and thus their political worldview—not from major corporate media, but from alternative media produced within the large Christian Right subculture.[14] The most exclusionary and antidemocratic members of the Christian Right are often members of Christian political action groups such as Concerned Women for America.[15] These are groups that regularly spread alarmist and frequently inaccurate claims about liberals, radicals, gays, and feminists. The more frequently a self-identified Evangelical/Born-Again person attends church functions, and the more conservative the theological doctrine and social beliefs they follow, the more likely they are to vote Republican.[16] This especially stands out on the issue of abortion, with 73 percent of Evangelical Bush voters responding that abortion should be illegal in all cases, compared to only 23 percent of Evangelical Gore voters.[17]

Protestant churches with socially conservative agendas, that also require a high level of participatory commitment, are the fastest growing sector of religion in the United States. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) increased its membership between 1990 and 2000 by 19.3 percent to a total of over 4.2 million. Following in order of growth are the Churches of Christ and the Christian Churches, both with 18.6 percent growth rates; the Pentecostal Assemblies of God with 18.5 percent; and the Roman Catholic Church with 16.2 percent. At the same time, traditionally more liberal denominations—such as the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ—are losing membership. The Catholic Church is still the nation’s largest single religious belief system, with over 62 million adherents in the year 2000 (some 22 percent of the population), but if all Protestant religious groups are combined, they number 66 million adherents (some 23 percent of the population).[18]

One study has suggested that as the more socially conservative and doctrinaire Christian Right Evangelicals have expanded their control of the Republican Party, members of more liberal major Protestant denominations have backed out of being active in the Party, and many have stopped voting Republican, some going so far as to declare themselves as Independents.[19] They are reluctant, however, to vote Democratic without a compelling reason.

The arguments from the Democratic Leadership Council that Democrats need to move to the center to attract these and other voters and thus win elections, however, are not based on persuasive factual evidence. Teixeira and Rogers have found that when Democratic candidates offer clear leadership and stress progressive and liberal issues such as economic fairness, health care, education, and the environment, that many voters will set aside their conservative social issue concerns and reject Republican candidates. According to Teixeira and Rogers, many of these voters are part of the White working class.[20] This is the same demographic group among Christian Evangelicals that tend to vote Democratic or not vote.[21]

While we unequivocally defend reproductive rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, we have to leave some space in the public square for those who disagree with us. Veteran organizer Suzanne Pharr, director of the Highlander Center in Tennessee, urges progressives to find ways to challenge the ideas of the Christian Right while agreeing to disagree with individual followers in a respectful manner that would allow us to trade a cup of sugar with them if we shared a backyard fence as neighbors.[22] When we ridicule those who have spiritual values and conservative politics, we force them to defend themselves by challenging us. Why antagonize them when our goal is resisting oppression?

We need to distinguish between people who believe abortion is a sin and those who attack clinics—a tiny fraction of Christians who oppose abortion. We can challenge both groups without unfairly lumping them together. We need to abandon focus group phrases such as "religious political extremist" that demonize observant Christians by falsely implying they are linked to neonazi race hate groups. Every direct mail letter that raises funds by demonizing Christian evangelicals in general as "The Radical Right" sets back the movement for progressive social change.

In election 2000 in state level races, when Blacks and labor union members turned out and voted for a specific candidate, the Christian Right and conservative candidates often lost the election.[23] This shows that if we build truly democratic progressive coalitions that include Blacks and other people of color, labor union members and other wageworkers, women, people in LGBT communities, environmentalists, and progressive people of faith, we can consistently outvote the Christian Right.

1) Goodstein, Laurie. 2002. "Conservative Churches Grew Fastest in 1990's, Report Says." New York Times, September 18, 2003; based on research by the Glenmary Research Center,
2) Kellstedt, Lyman A., Corwin E. Smidt, James L. Guth, and John C. Green. 2001. "Cracks in the Monolith? Evangelical Protestants and the 2000 Election." Books and Culture Magazine/Christianity Today.See,
3) Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE). 2003. "Defining Evangelicalism." See,
4) Ibid.
5) Ibid.
6) Princeton Religion Research Report. 2002. "Describing Self as Born-Again or Evangelical," bar graph, online. See,
7) Barna, George. 2001. "Religious Beliefs Vary Widely By Denomination." Barna Research Online. See,
8) BeliefNet. 2000. "How Religious Groups Voted in the 2000 Presidential Election." Faith and Values in Politics section. See,
9) Kellstedt et al., op. cit.
10) Ibid.
11) Smith, Christian, with Sally Gallagher, Michael Emerson, Paul Kennedy, and David Sikkink.1998. American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Smith, Christian. 2000. Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want. Berkeley: University of California Press.
12) Green, John C., James L Guth, and Kevin Hill. 1993. "Faith and Election: The Christian Right in Congressional Campaigns 1978-1988." The Journal of Politics. Vol. 55, no. 1 (February). Pp. 80-91.
13) Kellstedt et al., op. cit.
14) Smidt, Corwin E., Lyman Kellstedt, John Green, and James Guth. 1994. "The Characteristics of Christian Political Activists: An Interest Group Analysis." In Christian Political Activism at the Crossroads, edited by William R. Stevenson. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
15) Ibid.
16) BeliefNet. 2000. "2000 Exit Poll Results." Faith and Values in Politics section. See,; Kellstedt et al., op. cit.
17) BeliefNet. 2000. "2000 Exit Poll Results."
18) Goodstein, op. cit.
19) Manza, Jeff, and Clem Brooks. 1999. Social Cleavages and Political Change: Voter Alignment and U.S. Party Coalitions. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
20) Teixeira, Ruy A., and Joel Rogers. 1998. "Mastering the New Political Arithmetic: Volatile Voters, Declining Living Standards, and Non-College-Educated Whites." In Unraveling the Right: The New Conservatism in American Thought and Politics, edited by Amy E. Ansell. Boulder, CO: Westview. See also, Teixeira, Ruy A. and Joel Rogers. 2000. America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters. New York: Basic Books.
21) Smidt et al., 1994;" Kellstedt et al., op. cit.
22) Pharr, Suzanne. 1996. "A Match Made in Heaven: Lesbian Leftie Chats with a Promise Keeper." Progressive. August 1996.
23) See, for examples of this argument, Americans United for Separation of Church and State. 2000. The Religious Right and the 2000 Election." Online report; Gavel, Doug. 2001. "Gun Lobby, Labor Unions Flex Muscle in 2000 Campaign." Harvard Gazette. Online, see,; Hill, Norman. 2001. "The Black Labor Vote and the 2000 Election." BMWE News. Online, see,; Labor Tribune. 2002. "Labor Leads Get-Out-Vote Effort in Final Days of Campaign." St. Louis/Southern Illinois Labor Tribune. Vol.66, no.13. November 7, 2002. Online, see,

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