If Barack Obama’s win proves one thing, it’s that Republicans can no longer count on the religious Right shepherding its flocks to the polls to produce a GOP victory.
It’s not that evangelicals didn’t try. As the 2012 election cycle gasped and wheezed to a close, religious activists on the Right rushed to render the whole ghastly spectacle as a stained-glass diptych of a runaway secularist state facing off against an affronted-but-energized piety.
Ralph Reed’s PAC, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, dispatched some 15 million voter guides to more than 100,000 churches, urging the evangelical faithful to turn out en masse, “specifically in the battleground ‘swing states’ and districts that will decide the [election’s] outcome … and whether freedom can be saved in America.”
Billy Graham, the 94-year-old éminence grise of the evangelical movement, took out a series of full-page newspaper ads, urging readers “to vote for those who … support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.”
Graham placed the ads after meeting with Romney and vowing, “I’ll do all I can to help you.” (Just in case there might be any lingering doubt about Graham’s agenda, the keepers of his eponymous website carefully excised a prior mention of Mormonism in an entry on illegitimate non-Christian “cults” shortly after Graham’s sit-down with the Mormon candidate.)
Yet all this hurried sanctimony in the house of conservatism may have been mere sound and fury. Long-term trends in opinion polling suggest that the evangelical Right would have been hard-pressed to repeat the Kulturkampf clamor to the ballot box that Reed famously engineered to help George W. Bush over the top in 2004. For one thing, the movement’s pet crusades — bans on abortion and gay marriage — have shown little drawing power beyond the narrow demographic of 94-year-old preachers living in the North Carolina mountains.
In a survey released this September by the Washington-based non-profit Public Religion Research Institute, white working-class Americans — i.e., wage-earning workers without a four-year college diploma, who are the traditional recruiting corps for evangelical political leaders — voiced a striking disinterest in the culture wars. Just one in 20 of the respondents to the Institute’s national phone survey reported that “either abortion (3 percent) or same-sex marriage (2 percent) is the most important issue to their vote,” while 53 percent cited the economy. And drilling down on matters of economic policy, the poll found that “white working-class Americans display a strong strain of economic populism.” Among these findings:
• 46 percent of white working-class Americans believe that capitalism is “at odds with Christian values.”
• 78 percent say that corporations that move jobs overseas are responsible for America’s economic distress.
• 62 percent favor raising taxes on households with incomes of more than $1 million a year.
Reed and his coalition were mindful of this broad shift, and so ensured that their mailings and voter guides were steeped in the high Randian paranoia of the Tea Party. “Barack Obama wants a society where … Capitalism is destroyed (by Obama’s manic spending and debt) and replaced by Obama’s Socialistic economic theories,” goes one typical refrain in the Reed mailing. But that’s a tricky case to make to an electorate inclined to believe that capitalism and Christianity may be incompatible — and that is as likely to endorse trade unionism as Tea Party propaganda: 32 percent of the respondents in the Public Religion Research Institute survey said that labor unions represented their values, as opposed to 30 percent who said the same about the Tea Party.
In the end, exit polls showed 78 percent of white evangelicals casting their votes for Mitt Romney, versus 21 percent for Barack Obama.
Going into 2013, the coveted constituency of “values voters” seems more up for grabs than ever before — and, if anything, this trend could prove a significant opening for an economic populism from the Left that speaks to voters in a persuasive language of faith.