Culture Wars, Evangelicals, and Political Power
Lessons from the 2008 Presidential Election

Chip Berlet is Senior Analyst of the progressive think tank Political Research Associates. Frederick Clarkson is editor of the new book, Dispatches from the Religious Left: the Future of Faith and Politics in America (Brooklyn, New York: Ig Publishing, 2008). Both are members of the Public Eye editorial board.

It would be nice if conservative White evangelicals called off the Culture Wars that they started.

It would be nice if conservative White evangelicals called off the Culture Wars that they started and continue to aggressively pursue. It would be even nicer if liberal (and even some progressive) pundits stopped prematurely announcing the end of the Culture Wars and the demise of the Christian Right. Neither is likely to happen any time soon.

What progressives need to do is convince centrist Democratic Party honchos to end their quixotic quest for “values voters” among the rank and pew of conservative evangelical and Roman Catholic voters by sounding a rhetorical retreat on social issues such as reproductive justice and LGBTQ equity. That’s not exactly what the Obama campaign did, but it is what centrist Democratic Party consultants and their anti-abortion evangelical allies advocated. Whether the rhetorical retreat turns into a policy retreat remains to be seen.

Some Democratic political wonks who study polls and electoral outcomes have been selling, wittingly or unwittingly, a dubious narrative about the role of White evangelicals for several years now. It is time to take a close look at their product. There is convincing evidence that over the past 20 years a small percentage of White Christian evangelicals are swing voters when the Democratic Party stakes out clear and strong stands concerning peace, a fair economy, political corruption, a clean environment, and other issues that most Christians see as “moral values.” Many of these swing voters, however, remain rigid in their opposition to abortion and gay rights.

Instead of agreeing to disagree in a principled way on these hot button social issues, since 2004 we have seen what Reverend Daniel Schultz (blogging online as “pastordan” of Street Prophets) calls “the endless parade of Religious-Industrial Complex consultants and activists who tell us that Rick Warren is the epitome of the ‘moderate Evangelical’ that Democrats should be working to attract.” Warren may have an avuncular public persona, but he is hardly a progressive or even a progressive ally. Indeed, journalist Sarah Posner recently noted for example, that “Warren has argued that homosexuality disproves evolution and has compared prochoice advocates to Holocaust deniers.” As progressives we should be reaching out to people of faith, including evangelicals, but we need clearer criteria for those with whom we seek to work.

What Actually Happened?

Looking at early exit poll data, Damon Linker of The New Republic observed that in terms of “the roughly 26 percent of Americans who describe themselves as white evangelical/born again Protestants,” the efforts of “Obama, who aggressively courted these voters with religious appeals…must be judged a disappointment.” And Linker adds that a “glance at Obama’s success at wooing white Catholic voters, who make up roughly 19 percent of the electorate, reveals results only slightly less sobering.” His caution holds up when we look at some more pre- and post-election data.

The God Gaps: 2000-2008

See Larger Version of Table One

See Larger Version of Table Two

See Larger Version of Table Three

Table Sources: CNN, National Election Survey, 2000, 2004, 2008; Pew Research Center for the People and the Press; MSNBC; University of Akron, Bliss Center.

What pollsters call “The God Gap,” is the range between the percentages in a specific religious demographic group voting Republican or Democratic between two elections. If the God Gap increases while the percentage of voters choosing the Democratic Party candidate shrinks, it reveals not only the small but important number of religious swing voters, but also a major failure of the Democratic Party to make a compelling case for its overall policies to a broad range of religious voters. See the God Gap in 2004 among White evangelicals and Protestant voters who attend church at least once a week, so-called “High Attendees,” when President George W. Bush crushed Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry in this demographic.

Note these charts do not track the Christian Right. The Christian Right over the past 30 years has been roughly 15 percent of voters. The core of the Christian Right, electorally speaking, is conservative High Attendee White Protestant evangelicals. There is no reason to suspect this figure has changed dramatically, and as yet unreleased in-depth polling may eventually give us the percentage for 2008.

Obama picked up a higher percentage of voters in each category—Whites, Protestants, Evangelicals, and High Attendees—than did Democratic candidate Kerry in 2004, and reduced several key “God Gaps.”

The voting patterns in 2004, however, were atypical, and made for an unusual election in terms of exit polls. Kerry was a very unpopular Democratic candidate for many centrist voters, in part because of vicious smear campaigns waged by conservatives. At the same time, Bush was very popular among White evangelicals, drawing 78 percent.

By comparing the Gore vote in the 2000 election with the Obama vote in the 2008 election a different picture emerges. For example, among White Protestants, Obama did two points better than Kerry, but the same as Gore, as both Gore and Obama picked up 34 percent of the White Protestant vote. In 2000, however, Gore attracted 30 percent of the more specific White evangelical vote based on some estimates, while Obama only garnered 24 percent in 2008, a loss of 6 points for Obama.

Where Obama in 2008 did especially well was with moderate Protestants, Roman Catholics, and evangelicals (the latter being mostly Protestant but including some Catholics). Comparing Obama’s numbers with Gore’s reveals a small but significantly higher number of High Attendance churchgoers voted for the Democrat Obama in 2008—39 percent for Gore compared to 43 percent for Obama—a 4 point gain for Obama; however, many of these voters are devout Roman Catholics who are Latina/o, a growing demographic.

There are several indicators that McCain failed to fully mobilize evangelicals in general.

There are several indicators that McCain failed to fully mobilize evangelicals in general. Karl Rove speculates that more than four million High Attendees who “voted in 2004 stayed home in 2008. They represented half the margin between Obama and McCain.” Bush carried 78 percent of White evangelicals in 2004, while McCain only attracted 74 percent of White evangelicals in 2008. With Protestant High Attendees, Bush pulled 70 percent in 2004 to McCain’s 67 percent in 2008.

Regional differences are very significant for White voters. Ten of the 16 states where 60 percent or more such voters picked McCain were members of the old Confederacy that fought for the South during the Civil War. Six of those states seceded before Lincoln’s inauguration, reports scholar Howard Schuman. Large numbers of fundamentalist Christians also reside in these states, raising the issue of whether it is race or religion or both that guides the voting patterns here.

Wishful Thinking versus Reality Check

A January 2008 study by the Barna Group of Americans identifying themselves as “born again” (including theological evangelicals in this sample) reported they were “more concerned than were non-born again adults about illegal immigration (68 percent), abortion (67 percent), the content of television and movies (60 percent), homosexual lifestyles (51 percent), and homosexual activists (49 percent).

As the election heated up, however, reports surfaced stressing that younger evangelicals were changing. In June 2008, the New York Times reported that some “17 percent of the nation’s 55 million adult evangelicals are between the ages of 18 and 29, and many are troubled by the methods of the religious right and its close ties to the Republican Party.” The Times cited a Barna Group study which found that “47 percent of born-again Christians ages 40 and under believed that ‘the political efforts of conservative Christians’ posed a problem for America.”

Just before the election, pollster Robert P. Jones conducted a survey for the liberal Washington, D.C. think tank, Faith in Public Life. The study showed that younger White evangelicals are more tolerant (by small margins) than their elders, and considerably more skeptical of the power brokers of the Religious Right. Good news, but hardly evidence that the Culture Wars are over. Yet the spin doctors turned a pig’s ear into a silk purse. “Survey: Culture War Truce on the Horizon” was an October 2008 Washington Post headline based on the Jones survey. The Post reported that in the then-upcoming election, the Culture Wars “may be on the wane” or perhaps “shifting or weakening.” The Post quoted Jones as stating, “What we see is younger Americans, including younger Americans of faith -- they are not the culture war generation… [they] are bridging the divides that have entrenched the older generation.”

Only the most optimistic interpretation might suggest such claims were accurate. Even the executive summary of the survey data admitted “Young white evangelicals are strongly opposed to abortion rights with two thirds saying that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.”

In this pre-election survey, White evangelicals leaned 25 percent for Obama and 68 percent for McCain (7 percent others). The final election polling showed 24 percent for Obama, 74 percent for McCain. Among young White evangelicals, ages 18 to 34 the pre-election figure was 29 percent Obama, and 65 percent for McCain (6 percent Others).

Obama apparently made some small gains among younger evangelical voters, and made small but significant gains over Kerry among all religious voters in states where the campaign targeted appeals to moderate Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Obama essentially returned the Democrats to their percentages garnered by Gore among these groups in the 2000 campaign.

Roman Catholics are about 25 percent of the electorate, and from this group Obama culled 54 percent of the vote to McCain’s 45 percent. “Most of the Catholic boost for Mr. Obama came from Hispanic Catholics, who are now 6 percent of the electorate,” Laurie Goodstein reported in The New York Times.

But lost in the heated run up to the election was another important story in the Times. Back in June the Times’ Neela Banerjee had debunked claims about a major shift in the evangelical youth vote as liberal wishful thinking. After agreeing that younger evangelicals were critical of the older generation, and were concerned about issues such as “care for the poor, the environment, immigrants and people with H.I.V.,” she observed,

None of that means younger evangelicals have abandoned the core tenets of their faith, including a belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus and the literal truth of the Bible. They think abortion and homosexuality are sins.

And so far, there is no clear evidence that supporting a broader social agenda has led young evangelicals to defect from the Republican Party in great numbers, as many liberals have predicted.

John Mark Reynolds, a professor of philosophy at the evangelical Biola University in La Mirada, California, told the Times that “This is the most pro-life generation I’ve seen… I don’t have any evidence that being green is going to trump pro-life issues in the voting booth.”

Around the same time, the Reverend Daniel Schulz was prescient in his explanation of potential evangelical voting patterns, especially when he wondered if Obama could break 40 percent of the evangelical vote. Schultz speculated that the answer was yes,

… as long as he brings out young blacks, Latinos, and a few sympathetic white Evangelicals. I have every confidence that he’ll be able to do that… [the] real question, it seems to me, will be how far past 40 percent he goes. With the right combination of turnout and realignment, he could slide toward 45 percent. Anything past that would be a blowout of Biblical proportions, if you’ll excuse the phrase.

Obama’s capture of 41 percent of the evangelical vote was very good and a net gain of 7 percent over Kerry, but it was not a “blowout of Biblical proportions.”

Early in the campaign some centrist Democrats were urging that the Party’s candidates steer clear of openly defending separation of church and state; back away from supporting gay marriage, and call for the reduction in the number of abortions. This was ostensibly designed to appeal to evangelical voters. But there is little evidence that it made any significant difference.


An example of how the progressives in the Obama campaign pursued a more sophisticated path than centrist Democrats in framing issues involves abortion. Steven Waldman of BeliefNet wrote an essay on the “Real Story of the Democrats’ Abortion Plank & What It Reveals About Obama” that listed the anti-abortion advisers to the Democrats as including the reverends Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Tony Campolo, (who sat on the platform committee) and Joel Hunter of the Northland Church, (a one-time head of the Christian Coalition and a registered Republican). According to Waldman, the Roman Catholic anti-abortion position was represented by Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

“On the pro-choice side, reports Waldman, “the key players represented” at meetings at the Democratic Party headquarters were NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List and the National Organization for Women. The two camps never met together.

The anti-abortion religious advisers to the centrist Democrats were outmaneuvered by prochoice advocates who pushed the Democrats to craft a compromise that used carefully worded language that spoke of reducing the “need” for abortion rather than the “number” of abortions.

Democratic Party platform director Michael Yaki told Waldman that he intentionally wrote the plank so that “either side could put their own moral gloss on the language.” Yaki explains that,

We deliberately steered the language from having any morality put into it because it would have been difficult to agree on the definition of morality – Biblical, societal, individual. Once you go down that path, the ability to reach a compromise would have been limited.

The compromise language allowed both sides to point out that they support the right of women to carry a pregnancy to term, without stigmatizing the choice to have an abortion. It also opens the door to a frame of reproductive justice that would include government support for prenatal care, universal health care, day care, and comprehensive sexuality education.

Gay Rights versus Gay Marriage

McCain lost Florida and California, but antigay marriage amendments passed in both states. Some Black and Latina/o voters helped push the measures to victory, but this has been overplayed by the media who tend to brush aside the overwhelming White Christian base of these votes.

It appears that younger evangelicals have more tolerant views about gay people, and many would not vote for measures that deny gay people basic rights. Yet for these young evangelical voters, marriage is not defined in their minds as a civil and secular institution, but a religious rite.

It is significant that the Obama campaign was able to increase its percentages of contested faith-based demographic groups in states that were these folks were specifically targeted. What is not yet clear is the role of the statewide initiatives involving social issues in relation to the differing strategies employed by progressive opposition groups who sought to defend reproductive justice and gay equity.

Palin and the Struggle for the Republican Party

Last fall the centrist, Washington, D.C.-based, Democratic think tank Third Way, issued a “Memo on the Culture Wars” which stated:

The selection of Governor Palin suggests that the dormant culture wars will be reignited in the coming weeks. Senator John McCain’s choice of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate indicates that part of the conservative strategy over the next two months will be to reignite the dormant culture wars.

The presumption that the culture wars were ever “dormant” was preposterous on its face, especially given the God Gap figures for the Kerry campaign in 2004. (See related story, “The Culture Wars Are Still Not Over.”) The selection of Sarah Palin proved that the Religious Right, far from being dead or unable or uninterested in waging a Culture War – was powerful enough to impose the selection of a vice presidential candidate on McCain.

Jane Mayer, writing in The New Yorker, reported that McCain’s senior campaign staff insisted that McCain’s personal choice – the prochoice Senator Joe Lieberman would spark a disastrous convention revolt and floor fight. McCain was also considering former Pennsylvania Republican Governor, also prochoice, Tom Ridge. Palin was not even on the long list of most political junkies. She was, however, the darling of the Christian Right and the neoconservatives.

According to Tom Minnery, top political aide of Christian Right leader James Dobson, Sarah Palin met secretly with the Religious Right-dominated Council for National Policy prior to her selection as McCain’s running mate. Leading CNP members such as James Dobson and Richard Viguerie, who had been skeptical if not opposed to McCain, completely changed their minds about the ticket after McCain picked Palin.

Religion writer and Revealer editor Jeff Sharlet does not think the Christian Right is going to dissolve after one election defeat. Sharlet points out,

…American evangelicalism, particularly the politicized, conservative variety… endures because, despite its reverence for authority, most of its members believe in a higher authority than that of whichever ambitious pol or preacher says he (or, occasionally, she) is speaking for the masses. And what is that authority decreeing right now? That’s the question, and it won’t be answered on Sunday chat shows.

Sharlet notes that D. Michael Lindsay, “a more conservative scholar with his finger on the pulse of elite evangelicalism,” also does not think that “the Obama presidency [is] the final nail in the coffin for the Religious Right.” According to Lindsay, “political movements like the Religious Right don’t need a ‘god’ to succeed, but they do need a devil. Nothing builds allegiances among a coalition like a common enemy.”

“Much of the media is going to forget all about Christian conservatives now, just like they did in 1992, 1996, 2006, and, for that matter, 1925, when the death of William Jennings Bryan following the Scopes monkey trial supposedly spelled the end of fundamentalism in America,” muses Sharlet.

The pre-election Washington Post headline, “Survey: Culture War Truce on the Horizon,” was wishful thinking— written despite what the data actually showed at the time and show now. If Beltway insiders define the Culture War as disagreements over social issues especially abortion and homosexuality and the role of religion in public life, then they have no data to indicate that the Culture War is over.

Back in June 2008, Reverend Daniel Schultz cautioned that progressives should be, “very suspicious of the people who will inevitably spin Obama’s inroads as the result of a “new Democratic attitude toward faith” or a willingness to fudge on social issues or the “new evangelical agenda.” None of those things is true. If Obama makes significant headway among evangelicals, it’ll be a simple matter of demographics. The more diverse this nation becomes, the better it is for Democrats, and the worse it is for the small regional party based in the South.

We are already seeing a struggle developing within the Republican Party between pragmatists and the Religious Right as the party reinvents itself for the post-Bush era. But this is essentially the same struggle we have witnessed for more than two decades.

How the struggle for the soul of the Republican Party ends up is anyone’s guess, but according to a Pew study conducted just after the election:

“Roughly two-thirds (68 percent) of Republican and Republican-leaning voters identify themselves as conservative, and three-quarters of these voters think the party should turn further to the right. While a majority of the moderates and liberals within the party advocate a centrist approach, they make up fewer than a third (31 percent) of Republican voters overall.”

For the Democratic Party, the contest over how to design outreach to evangelicals and other faith-based voters is not just about future electoral strategy but also about a power struggle between progressives and the centrists (especially the Democratic Leadership Council) who want to move the Democratic Party to the political right. The path of the Obama administration will also depend on the same struggle.

Centrist “Religious-Industrial Complex consultants” want to pursue broad evangelical outreach by retreating on some social issues.

The strategy being offered to the Democrats by centrist “Religious-Industrial Complex consultants” is to pursue broad evangelical outreach by retreating on some social issues. In the absence of countervailing pressure from an authentic religious left, this centrist strategy may push the politically ascendant Democratic Party to the right on social issues including reproductive justice and LGBT equity. This is not about Democrats ignoring evangelicals, but determining how to reach out to people of faith without undermining the gains of women and gay people.

The lesson of the Religious Right takeover of the Republican Party here is instructive. Social movements pull political parties toward them, not the other way around. A strong religious left can help keep the Democratic Party on the proper path forward on issues of equity and equality.

Winter 2008
Vol. 23, No. 4 :


End Notes

  1. Schultz credits noted blogger “Digby” for having coined the term.
  2. Sarah Posner, “Battling for the Soul of the Democratic Party,” Religion Dispatches, December 8, 2008.
  3. Damon Linker, “Sticking With the Devil They Know,The New Republic, November 7, 2008. For consistency, all percent signs in the text have been converted into the word “percent” in this report.
  4. Karl Rove, “A Way Out of the Wilderness,” Newsweek, November 24, 2008, p. 43.
  5. Barna Group, “Americans Describe Their Moral and Social Concerns, Including Abortion and Homosexuality,” January 21, 2008. Barna uses a tighter standard for defining evangelicals than self description, basing his term on theological beliefs.
  6. Neela Banerjee, “Taking Their Faith, but Not Their Politics, to the People,” The New York Times, June 1, 2008.
  7. Banerjee, citing Barna Group, “Americans Describe Their Moral and Social Concerns.”
  8. Michelle Boorstein, “Survey: Culture War Truce on the Horizon,” The Washington Post, October 8, 2008.
  9. Laurie Goodstein, “Obama Made Gains Among Younger Evangelical Voters, Data Show, New York Times, November 7, 2008.
  10. Goodstein. “Obama Made Gains.”
  11. Steven Waldman, “The Real Story of the Democrats’ Abortion Plank & What It Reveals About Obama,” BeliefNet, August 20, 2008.
  12. Waldman.
  13. Waldman.
  14. Waldman.
  15. Rachel Laser and Jim Kessler, “Handling the Culture Wars,” Third Way, September 8, 2008. (PDF)
  16. Jane Mayer, “The Insiders: How John McCain Came to Pick Sarah Palin,” The New Yorker, October 27, 2008.
  17. Max Blumenthal, “Secretive Right Wing Group Vetted Palin,” The Nation, State of Change Blog, September 1, 2008.
  18. Jeff Sharlet, “Who Will Lead Them?” The Revealer, November 12, 2008.
  19. Reverend Daniel Shultz (pastordan), “Can Obama Get 40 percent Of The Evangelical Vote?” Street Prophets, June 6, 2008.
  20. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “High Marks for the Campaign, a High Bar for Obama: Republicans Want More Conservative Direction for GOP,” November 13, 2008.


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