Piety Or Pocketbook?: Religion, The Economy And Voting In Election 2008
Rob Boston printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 01:23:38 PM EST
Political junkies continue to pore over the results from last week's election. One question that has been on many minds is to what extent Barack Obama's religious outreach was successful.

The Los Angeles Times has already pronounced the effort a success. "Religious voters helped propel Obama to victory," blared a Nov. 9 headline.

But you know what they say: There are lies, damn lies and statistics. In this case, it's worth taking a closer look at the statistics.

Obama did do better among people who say they go to church every week than John F. Kerry did in 2004. Obama got 43 percent of these voters, as opposed to Kerry's 35 percent.

But here's the interesting question: Was it Obama's religious outreach that helped him - or were the people in this group just like everyone else and worried about the economy?

Obama did better than Kerry with lots of groups. He did better among men. He did better among blue-collar workers. He did better among rural voters.

Obama even did better among atheists, agnostics and the religiously unaffiliated. Seventy-five percent of them voted for Obama, a jump of 8 points over Kerry's total. Yet who would argue that it was frequent talk about religion and an emphasis on Obama's Christian faith that swayed this group? Chances are, they voted for Obama for the same reason so many others did: the pocketbook.

One group Obama did not win over is white evangelicals - the one faction that continues to base its vote on contentious social issues. Seventy-four percent of them voted for McCain, a slight drop over the 78 percent George W. Bush won from this group in 2004 but an increase over Bush's 2000 total (68 percent).

Roman Catholics supported Obama by 54 percent. This is a 9-point jump over 2004, and it happened despite the efforts of some bishops to steer church members away from Obama. Bishops in Scranton, Pa., St. Louis, Paterson, N.J. and Denver (among others) issued statements basically asserting that no faithful Catholic could vote for a pro-abortion candidate.

Plenty of faithful Catholics read the statements (or listened to them read to them aloud in church, as occurred in Scranton) and voted for pro-choice candidates anyway.

As columnist Peter Steinfels of The New York Times astutely noted, "Many Catholics may understandably feel that the bishops are talking out of both sides of their mouths: Catholics are not supposed to be single-issue voters, but, by the way, abortion is the only issue that counts. The bishops do not intend to tell Catholics how to vote; but, by the way, a vote for Senator Obama puts your salvation at risk. Catholics are to form their consciences and make prudential judgments about complex matters of good and evil - just so long as they come to the same conclusions as the bishops."

The Catholic vote gives us a clue as to what happened on Nov. 4: Voters largely put religion aside and voted on the economy. (A story in today's Washington Times, a conservative paper, makes the same argument.)

More and more, American Catholics are rejecting the bishops' ham-fisted approach. As Catholics for Choice noted prior to the election, 69 percent of American Catholics now tell pollsters they do not feel compelled to slavishly follow the bishops and vote against every candidate who opposes legal abortion.

Individual Americans are, of course, free to be single-issue voters if they want to be, and it's likely there are some who will always be that way. But increasingly, voters are realizing that a host of issues must be considered in the voting booth and even that "life" issues are more complex than some religious leaders would have us believe, that these issues can and must include discussions of war, poverty, economic strategy, indefinite detention and torture.

So I must disagree with the analysts who say Obama has cobbled together some type of new coalition of religious voters with his soaring rhetoric about faith. Rather, I think the results of Nov. 4 can be best explained by two factors: One, while many Americans respect their religious leaders, they don't necessarily look to them for advice on how to vote, and two, a lot of people are worried that they won't have a job next year.

Sometimes, the simplest explanations are the best.

It's my impression (though, of course, I could easily be wrong) that the Catholic faith community is more integrated into mainstream culture in the USA than the evangelicals and thus are more amenable to an ever changing world.  

The non-Catholic religious right have, if anything, been moving in the opposite direction, setting up their own schools and colleges, home schooling, and creating megachurches that create communities where people can get most of their social needs met without having to venture elsewhere.

So, if America does continue to move to the left after this election (sort of depends on how well Obama and the Dems do in office over the next few years) then I would expect the Catholics, in general, to follow.  The only way that would happen with the evangelicals is if people started to defect from their ranks.  

Obama tried when he went to Saddleback to talk, but I am sure he knows now it was a futile gesture.  Not only that, but once he reverses Bush's executive orders on funding overseas family planning (including abortion) and stem-cell research and then nominates a left-of-center judge for the Supreme Court, there's no chance of getting any of their support in 2012, no matter who he's up against.

by tacitus on Tue Nov 11, 2008 at 03:01:46 PM EST

into mainstream culture. There is no such thing as separatist (standard) Catholic lay culture. The typical Catholic K-12 schools teach standard history, standard science, and differ from secular schools mainly in having prayer, religion class, and mass, if locally accessible (can walk to church). They don't take the providential approach (every historical event happened because God wanted it that way - eg a homeschooling and conservative evangelical trope that slavery was God's will for the black west Africans of the 1600s-1800s, since it brought blacks into contact with Christianity).

The Catholic Church has given up on censoring believers' media choice - no more Index (list of prohibited books) or movie rating. The amount of Catholic media production is miniscule compared with that of the conservative evangelicals - Catholics are expected to browse at will and consume mainstream news and entertainment not specifically labeled as Catholic or Christian. Catholic publishing is explicitly religious, whereas evangelical publishing enters sidelines such as genre fiction (romance, westerns, apocalypse, thrillers, mysteries),  weight-loss manuals, and the like. The evangelicals have created an alternate media universe: children's cartoons, teen fashion magazines, heavy metal and rock bands, news shows, American history textbooks, political magazines, "modest" romances in which the couple doesn't touch until married, fantasy movies, movies marketed only through churches and evangelical media (Left Behind movies, God Bless America feel-good movies in response to movies showing some problem in US society, and so on.

The neoconservative Opus Dei style and pre-Vatican II ("vacant see") Catholics do have some restrictions on media use (depictions of sex) and some prohibited books (mostly "unCatholic" theology and philosophy, some history) for the low-level people (not senior members or leaders), but by and large, members are expected to be aware of current events and secular range of opinions on those events.

by NancyP on Fri Nov 14, 2008 at 01:51:30 AM EST

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