Religion and Class

by Kieran Healy on September 4, 2004

Berkeley’s “Mike Hout”: and my colleague “Fr Andrew Greeley”: have an “Op-Ed in the Times today”: making some good points about the Republican Party’s support amongst Evangelical Christians. Religious and political conservatism don’t line up as closely as you might think, and certainly not as much as the talking heads assume. The intervening factor is how much money you make:

bq. [N]either region nor religion can override the class divide: if recent patterns hold, a majority (about 52 percent) of poor Southern white evangelicals will vote for Mr. Kerry in November, while only 12 percent of affluent Southern white evangelicals will.

bq. Most poorer Americans of every faith – including evangelical Christians – vote for Democrats. It’s a shame that few pundits, pollsters or politicians seem to notice.

A related point is that the swing to the Republican in the South has not not been a uniform migration. More of the better off have drifted, but not necessarily the poorer Whites. Of course, the claim isn’t that all poorer White Evangelicals vote Democrat — Brayden can testify to that — but rather that a surprisingly large number do, even after the universally acknowledged success of the “Southern Strategy”: and the long-running tactic (going back to Reagan) of appealing to the Patriotism of poorer Americans in an effort to make them forget about their pocketbooks.



Cog 09.04.04 at 7:21 pm

Kieran, that link for Southern Strategy sucks. It’s nigh unreadable. Try the Wikipedia article.


Robbo 09.04.04 at 7:27 pm

Plus, what also rarely gets addressed (though somewhat more often than what Kieran mentioned) is that while an overwhelming majority of African Americans voted for the Democratic nominee the past few presidential elections, polls generally show that a majority of African Americans’ have views on moral/religious topics (Abortion, Homosexuality, etc.) which actually fall much more in line with Bush, et al.

I think the bottom line is that the vast majority of Americans think with their wallet first in the voting booth…


bob mcmanus 09.04.04 at 8:04 pm

What,we can now ignore Thomas Frank? Democrats put the DLC upper middle class strategy back into play? Just makes getting a majority back more complicated. Thanks.


Kieran Healy 09.04.04 at 8:56 pm

Thanks for that link cog.


Ron 09.04.04 at 9:58 pm

Religion and class but don’t forget, election fraud has been just as big a factor in the shift to Republican in the south (just as it was for the dixiecrats) and now with Diebold et al has become the dominate factor to consider.


Randolph Fritz 09.05.04 at 2:29 am

Just by the way, I wrote some of that Southern Strategy Wikipedia entry, so thank you cog and Kieran.

Ron, my impression is that electoral fraud, up to the introduction of the Diebold machines, has actually been much reduced. Post-machines, who knows?


Chris in Boston 09.05.04 at 2:35 am

I’m not buying it. I grew up in E. Tennessee, in a district which in my teen years switched from Democrat to Republican for reasons that had everything to do with religion and the politicization of religion in the 1980s. And the class dynamic worked in the inverse to push a veteran Episcopal-banker Congressman out of office in favor of a born-again part time high school health teacher.

Beyond anecdote, though, just look at the evidence in the NYT piece:

In the last two presidential elections, about 62 percent of white evangelicals voted Republican – or about 7.5 percent more than among other American Protestants. A majority, clearly, but nowhere near unanimity. And in terms of the electorate as a whole, it’s hardly fair to say evangelicals are a dominant political force. If we measure their overall political influence as that 7.5 percent differential multiplied by their share of the electorate – they make up about 21 percent of voters- it comes to about 1.6 percentage points. Yes, as the 2000 election showed, even an edge that small can be decisive in a close race. But it hardly amounts to an overwhelming base.

I see why it makes since to talk of the marginal votes at stake in some contexts. But that small share doesn’t negate the existance of an Evangelical base. For the total share of Evangelical Republicans is not .075 times 21 percent, but .62 times .21 times 2 (assuming an evenly divided electorate), which gives us 26% of Republicans. (Feel free to check my math… not my forte). Maybe pundits and particularly Blue-State Dems often act as if 95% of the GOP is born-again – and in that sense your anti-CW post is worthwhile – but a quarter of a political party is still a substantial force, particularly if this subgroup is at all inclined to see itself as more than a statistical aggregation.


Admiral Waugh 09.05.04 at 5:51 am

The notion that Reagan and his ilk have appealed to patriotism so that people will FORGET their paychecks is far, far from the truth. Republicans have been associated with certain measures of patriotism for a long time; it’s their issue to milk. When Reagan ran for President in 1980, in fact, he appealed very DIRECTLY to the wallet. He did so in 1984 too, and his economic policies were a badly needed revolution that helped regular people like you and me, not government, put money in our wallets. There was nothing in Reagan’s electoral strategy to suggest that his belief in Peace through Strength was a public choice-style diversion.

Far from it.


jif 09.05.04 at 3:16 pm

“The notion that Reagan and his ilk have appealed to patriotism so that people will FORGET their paychecks is far, far from the truth.”

Is this just about flag-waving, or is this actually about wearing a conservative “Christian values” face to get people to forget their paychecks (which they may not have at the end of the biggest spurt of job losses since Hoover) when they walk into the voting booth? A couple of weeks ago I was listening to npr and they were interviewing a woman at a gas station in Missouri for a string of reports on attitudes in battleground states. This is a state that just passed (with 72% of the vote mind you) to “protect” marriage. When asked what would be the deciding factors in her decision on who to vote for in November, the woman said (paraphrasing) “I’m voting on the issues. You know, abortion, gay marriage.” She was not asked if she was making $200,000 plus a year, so perhaps these issues were a cherry on top of her banana split. But these “issues” straight from the culture wars were what she put out on national radio as her deciding factors.

Are there evangelicals who are going to vote on the basis of economic issues rather than “culture” issues– no doubt. But if Reagan won purely on his appeal to the wallet (rather than the invitation to enter Ronnie-land, where the sun always shines, the Commies always lose, and you can leave your movie studio/army job at five every evening even if WWII is raging in far away places. Unless you are an air traffic controler.), then perhaps we should reiterate Reagan’s capping campaign question: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” If everyone voted purely on that question- and not on the pandering to cultural conservatism and whipping up fears among the church going crowd that the Dems might allow gay marriage and we would all be forced to marry someone of the same sex and have orgies with goats (we leave group sex to the Governator)- then there should be no such thing as a battle ground state, because no one making under a quarter mill would vote for Bush in their financial best interest. The top 1% income earners still only make up 1% of the vote.


Thomas 09.05.04 at 4:44 pm

1. I’m skeptical of commentators who believe that “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” are equivalent. They’re not.

2. The article says “there’s little correlation between religious conservativism and political conservativism” and offers as evidence the fact that 40% of those who believe in a literal interpretation of the bible are politically conservative. How many say they are liberal? How many say they’re moderate?

3. The focus on the last two presidential elections seems a bit… odd. Why not focus on party affiliation more generally, or focus on votes for Congress? Do those give the same answer? If not, is that influenced by the fact that the last two Democratic presidential candidates have both been Baptists from the South?

4. We’re told that the lowest 20% class favors Democrats by 24%, but that among poor white evangelicals, the margin is only 4%. Isn’t that a refutation of the rest of the article?


Zizka 09.05.04 at 10:20 pm

There are a lot of open questions here. The point I’d like to make is that there are a LOT of “conservative Christians” who are pretty well-educated and quite prosperous — sometimes VERY prosperous.

My hypothesis is that the educated ones were educated primarily in technical areas, and that they hated the “bullshit liberal-arts” classes they had to take (if any), and resented the arrogance of their liberal-arts teachers of their “distribution requirements” LA classes.

However, one prosperous conservative Christian I know had a full LA education and has been very successful as a novelist whose books have gotten generally good reviews in the secular media.

LA teachers tend to vastly overestimate and misunderstand their influence on their students. Just as in HS, a LOT of college students hate their teachers.


h. e. baber 09.06.04 at 1:48 am

From tabling and precinct-walking amongst the general public I got the impression that people, both left and right, were skeptical about the ability of any government policy to make a difference on bread-and-butter issues. Maybe they’re right when it comes to “job creation”–see this piece from today’s Times magazine.

Folks I talked to were fatalistic about the material conditions of their lives–debt, drudgery and the threat of unemployment were just part of the order of nature that no government could really do anything about. At the same time (consistently) they didn’t see any connection between taxes and services, including those they used like public schools and colleges, roads, etc. Tax money was just money down the toilet–cutting taxes was a cost-free benefit, and the only economic benefit the state could provide.

With economic issues off the table, what figures politically are “lifestyle” and policing issues that are really aimed at the same thing–maintaining order, keeping chaos and violence at bay: religion for social control, homeland security, cops and the military to keep them safe from terrorism. If my pessimistic take is correct then even if Kerry unveils a plausible, detailed economic agenda to benefit working class Americans it won’t make any difference because they don’t think government can make any difference. They don’t believe that Bush’s agenda will provide jobs by trickle-down either and are cynical about all claims to improve quality of life.


Randolph Fritz 09.06.04 at 5:18 am

H E Baber, I believe you are correct; this is despair that has become widespread. Much of the reasoning you describe is recognizable as the reasoning typical of clinical depression–the disconnection of cause and effect is especially noteworthy–, prompting the question of its extent throughout the rest of their lives.

Is it possible for an entire nation to get mild clinical depression?


abb1 09.06.04 at 11:06 am

What h. e. baber said. When have the Democrats ever done (or even offered to do) anything for the middle-class in the last 35 years? I know – one incredibly stupid attempt to pass a quasi-universal healthcare reform. What else?

Middle-class economic issues are simply off the table, just like h.e. said. There are two pro-business parties, one pro-gay and pro-abortion, the other anti-gay and anti-abortion; you can chose one you like.


h. e. baber 09.06.04 at 5:22 pm

The Democrats did plenty for middle-class women by promoting equal opportunity and affirmative action policies. 35 years ago help wanted ads in the paper were classified as “help wanted-male,” “help wanted-female” and the smallest category “help wanted-male or female.” Without state regulations and their enforcement over the years sex segregation in the labor force would be even more pervasive than it currently is and my life would have been very different. Women are at least half of the middle class and these regulations made a significant difference for women.

40 years ago , before Johnson’s Great Society programs kicked in quite a few middle class people became destitute in old age. Even on middle class salaries it isn’t easy to save enough to cover living expenses and the costs of medical expenses after retirement. Some formerly middle-class people ended up living on cat food. Medicare and other programs promoted by Democrats changed that.

Without student loans, equal opportunity and affirmative action regulations, medicare and all this other good Democratic stuff I would not have had a realistic chance at an academic career. I would have been a secretary. I would have spent much of my adult life caring for my elderly mother and supporting her on my meager women’s wages, and looked forward to spending my own golden years eating cat food.

Yes it really was that bad and if Republicans’ program to eliminate the safety nets and regulations that provide security and genuine opportunity goes through it will be that bad again.


Jonathan Dresner 09.06.04 at 11:48 pm

I read the article and was very surprised that they did not break down evangelicals by race. The last analysis I saw which did that found that the apparent weakness of Republicanism among ‘evangelicals’ was a mirage: white evangelicals overwhelmingly supported the Republican party while Black evangelicals followed racial, rather than religious, voting patterns.


NancyP 09.08.04 at 12:25 am

Religious right-wing issues are huge in Missouri, in all economic strata. The religious issues of abortion and same-sex marriage (and before that, stubborn defense of the sodomy laws, now obsolete thanks to the SCOTUS decision) are also frameable as Manliness issues – as are the right to carry concealed weapons, and the unqualified support for the war that is killing rural Missourian Bush supporters.

Anxiety about gender roles is more of a motivator than dollars and cents for a lot of Missourians.

Comments on this entry are closed.