February 21, 2008

Is the ’God Gap’ Closing?

Washington, D.C.

One significant pattern in the 2004 presidential election was the tendency of religiously observant Americans to vote Republican and the less observant to vote Democratic. But recent events suggest that this pattern, dubbed the “God gap,” may be changing, as reflected in the results of the 2006 midterm elections and the increased references to faith by Democratic presidential candidates. Is the “God gap” closing in 2008?

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life invited E.J. Dionne Jr., author of Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right; Amy Sullivan, author of The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap; and Ross Douthat, co-author of the forthcoming book, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, to discuss the issue.

More from the Pew Forum

Report: Religion and the 2006 Election

Report: A Faith-Based Partisan Divide

Analysis: Do the Democrats Have a ‘God Problem’?

Event: Defining Ourselves as Catholic Democrats

Event: Religion, Moral Values and the Democratic Party

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E.J. Dionne Jr., Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution; Columnist, The Washington Post; Senior Adviser, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Amy Sullivan, Nation Editor, Time magazine

Ross Douthat, Associate Editor, The Atlantic

John Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Navigate this Transcript
Sullivan on the changing evangelical vote
Dionne: The era of the religious right is over
Catholics as swing voters
Douthat on religion in politics
Points of tension for liberal Christians
Sullivan and Dionne respond
Q&A with journalists

John Green

JOHN GREEN: Welcome to another one of our ongoing series of luncheons with journalists. Today we have a particularly exciting event because all of our panelists are also working journalists and very fine ones on top of that. My name is John Green. I’m a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which is a project of the Pew Research Center. As you all know, the Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan organization that does not take positions in policy debates.

Let me first just talk about how we’ll proceed and then I’ll introduce our panelists and then we’ll get started. Our format is going to be really pretty simple. I’ll introduce our participants and ask each of them to talk for just a few minutes about their books. Then we’ll have a response from our respondent, who I’ll get to in just a moment. Then we’ll have a little bit of colloquy up here at the head table, as they say in the Senate. I’ll ask a few questions using my prerogative as the chair of this meeting. Then we’ll turn to you all and have questions and answers.

Let me introduce our guests today who, of course, need no introduction, but it’s customary. To my immediate right – your immediate left, well, whatever – is E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, who has written a new book that he is going to talk about today, which is called Souled Out. And we have some copies of these books out on the table. Please feel free to pick one up.

Then, right beyond E.J. is Amy Sullivan of Time magazine, and she is going to talk about her book, The Party Faithful, which has a very fetching picture of a donkey. I think that’s really very clever. And then, to respond to both E.J.’s and Amy’s remarks about their books is Ross Douthat of The Atlantic, who is on the far right.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Absolutely.


GREEN: Well, down there, who is going to give us some comments. But let’s begin with Amy Sullivan. Amy, why don’t you tell us a little bit about The Party Faithful.
Amy Sullivan

AMY SULLIVAN: Sure, well, John had asked us to spend just a few minutes telling you kind of what brought us to write our books, and in my case, writing about Democrats and religion came somewhat naturally. I grew up in a home where we had portraits of Jesus and Bobby Kennedy hanging on the walls, and that was assumed to be quite natural in my house. I grew up in Michigan, going to a pretty conservative Baptist church but with obviously liberal Democratic parents.

I returned to that church in the summer of 2004 when the campaign was in full swing and was sitting in the pew just a few feet from where I’d become a Christian decades before, when I heard the pastor of the church say in the sermon that you couldn’t be a good Democrat and be a Christian, or a good Christian and be a Democrat. Sorry, that makes a difference.

That was a little disturbing to hear. But I admit I had heard rumblings like that, particularly from the religious right over the last few decades, as all of us have. What disturbed me even more, I guess, was after the election – after George Bush was re-elected and there was all the uproar about values voters and whether they swung the election -. I think E.J. and I share the view that they did not in fact, that that was overblown. But in any event, that was seen to be the case, and there was a backlash. Even though there had been kind of a brewing discontent and suspicion on the left, particularly of evangelicals, that really just went into full boil after the election.

I’m sure many of you saw the Internet graphic that was emailed around sort of gleefully that depicted the United States of Canada, which was all of Canada and then the two coasts of the U.S. and “Jesusland” in the middle. That was kind of the “us vs. them” mindset after the election. And I started to hear more and more comments that I guess I have an ear for, being an evangelical who used to work in Democratic politics.

I spoke on a panel in Manhattan a couple of months ago about Democratic efforts to reach out to religious voters, including evangelicals. After I was done, a man stood up and said, well, don’t you think that Democrats reaching out to religious voters is the same as collaborating with Nazis, to which I said, no. I spoke again in Palo Alto last fall, and was approached by a woman afterwards who tried her very best to convince me that illiteracy rates had actually skyrocketed since evangelicals had become more popular in the country, which again actually is not true.

And most consistent, I guess, throughout all the comments that I would hear from people about evangelicals was the idea that they were absolutely not Democrats and that there was no way that they could become Democrats. And the only possible way for that to happen would be for the party to change itself so radically and move so far to the right that it wouldn’t be worth it. It would be betraying the Democratic Party to even try to reach out to these voters.

What we know when we actually take a look at the numbers is that’s just not the case. Time magazine did a poll a few weeks ago of under-30 voters. And what we found – this wasn’t the point of the poll, but it was an interesting little data point that I found when I looked through the demographic numbers – was that 35 percent of under-30 Democrats are evangelicals. And 35 percent of under-30 independent voters are evangelicals as well. That’s probably the largest group that’s been moving away from the Republican Party. There’s a real generational shift going on in the evangelical community. It represents an opportunity for Democrats, but certainly not if they write off evangelical voters as completely un-gettable or not worth their time.

There has also been a change going on at the same time in the evangelical community. Before the 2004 election, Rick Warren , who is really one of the rising leaders if not already a leader in the evangelical community, sent out a blast email to a couple hundred thousand pastors with his list of five non-negotiable issues for that election. They were abortion, human cloning, gay marriage, stem cell research and euthanasia.

I had a chance to ask him about this last fall, and I couldn’t even finish my sentence before he said, that was wrong. That was absolutely wrong. It was wrong first to send out a message like that right before the election – he thought that was inappropriate. But second, it was very wrong, he thought, to imply that those were the only issues that mattered to evangelicals. He said, I’m still pro-life; I still care about all of those issues. But in the three and a half years since that election, he’s now become a leader on everything from environmental causes to battling Third World poverty, AIDS in Africa, anti-torture, a number of different issues that have really broadened the plate of priorities among evangelicals.

And so, we’ll – I’m sure – have time to discuss this, but we’ve seen changes in the Democratic Party, kind of reacting to this but also coming out of the wakeup call that 2004 represented. I think a lot of religious Democrats themselves were upset by the characterization, both from their own side as well as from Republicans, of the “God gap” being split into religious voters voting for Republicans and secularists voting for Democrats. What we know from consistent public polling is that about 85 to 87 percent of Americans say religion is an important part of their lives, and Republicans are not getting 87 percent of the vote, which means a lot of Democratic voters consider religion important to them.

GREEN: Well, Amy, one of the things I thought was most interesting about your book was you talk about a lot of this diversity among evangelicals. And that won’t come as a great surprise to most of us here today. But why do you think that there is this stereotype or this sense among a lot of people that evangelicals are monolithic?
Amy Sullivan

SULLIVAN: Well, I think there would be three main reasons. One is not irrational at all, which is coming off of the last election when I think it was the mid-80 percent of conservative evangelicals voted for Bush. Now again, those are conservative evangelicals. And I think it’s the Pew polling that’s found that a good 40 percent* of evangelicals are politically moderate. So you’re not talking about all of the evangelical community. But I think that’s related to the second reason, which is that conservative evangelicals really have been the face of evangelicalism for the last few decades. That’s a combination of the fact that leaders like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell really were much more media-savvy and did much more organizing than moderate leaders.

But I think it also was a reaction or a result of the marriage between the Republican Party and some leaders on the religious right. It just was a natural combination but also led to those figures having much more visibility than others. I think the third point comes out of that as well, which is that folks like me, progressive evangelicals, really kind of silenced ourselves. You didn’t want to be associated with the Pat Robertsons of the world.

And in my case, in fact, one of the interesting outcomes of the process of writing this book for me has been discovering that I still am an evangelical. For a while I would describe myself as someone who grew up evangelical or used to be evangelical. And it was only realizing that I had made the mistake as well of conflating a theological description with a political identification that I realized, no, if I go through all the steps, yes, I believe in the authority of the Bible and a personal relationship with God and all this. Oh, I am an evangelical too.

I think that’s a process that’s happening right now. In fact, I’ve seen through writing the book a number of people within Democratic politics who kind of come out of the closet to me when I’m speaking at Democratic events, through reading my writing will say, you know what, that’s me too. And we haven’t provided models either for the general public or for our colleagues in Democratic politics to see that you can be an evangelical and not sound like Ralph Reed.

GREEN: In your book, you talk a lot about how the Democrats have made a bigger effort to appeal to religious voters, evangelicals but others as well. But realistically, what chance do Democrats have with evangelical voters this fall?

SULLIVAN: Well, fortunately, we had the example of the midterm elections in 2006 , so I no longer have to just put out these crazy theories and not have to back them up. We actually – it’s a testable hypothesis and we tested it in 2006. There were a couple of different states, including your state of Ohio and mine of Michigan , where the state parties spent a good year focusing on religious outreach. And it wasn’t an attempt to try to change the minds of religious voters. It did not involve moving to the right or moderating their positions.

It really was literally as simple as spending a year sitting down with 500 pastors and Catholic leaders and voters and saying, all right, let’s get to know each other. We haven’t talked to you in years. Explaining where they came from, sitting down and – although they had feared that abortion would be where the conversation started and stopped, what they found was when they got a chance to talk about the moral complexity of abortion, when they got a chance to discuss the fact that whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice, you want to see fewer abortions and there must be ways to protect women and reduce the abortion rate at the same time, they really got past the suspicions on both sides. The end result was two pro-choice, pro-gay rights Democrats, Jennifer Granholm and Ted Strickland won the governorships of those two states with about half of the evangelical vote in their states.

And again, they did that without moderating their positions at all. They allowed the leaders in their states to see that even if they differed, the Democrats had moral principles from which they drew their positions on any number of issues. They had a chance, finally, because they weren’t so scared of coming to a standstill on abortion that they could actually get through to other issues. So they got to talk about health care and education and the economy and find that they had a lot of things in common.

At the end of the day, even if those pastors didn’t end up voting for the Democratic ticket in November, what they accomplished was far more important because those pastors didn’t get into the pulpit the week before the election and tell their congregations that it was their Christian duty to vote against Democrats. And that sounds, again, very simple but it’s extremely influential. It then kind of frees the congregants to use their own judgment.

GREEN: Well, thank you very much, Amy. Now, let’s turn to E.J. E.J., tell us about Souled Out.
E.J. Dionne

E.J. DIONNE: Well, the first thing I want to say is I look forward to the next generation of religious Democrats having pictures of Amy Sullivan up on their wall. And I want to thank Ross for agreeing to do this today. Ross is about to publish a book of his own. That puts one, one hopes, in a compassionate frame of mind toward others’ books, so his sharp mind will be devoted to compassionate conservatism today.

Just a brief point on where this book came from. I note in the book that I grew up in one of those households where we violated the rule that you never talked about religion or politics at the dinner table. We always talked about religion and politics at the dinner table. And one of the most fun parts of the book to write was a kind of rather personal introduction, where I talked about how I had been obsessed with this question pretty well my whole life.

I am one of the handful of people you’ll meet whose favorite course in college was called Eschatology and Politics, a great course taught by Harvey Cox up at the Harvard Divinity School. I always told people that students often ask, what are useful courses to take professionally? And I always said that actually Harvey’s Eschatology and Politics was the most useful course that I ever took because when it came to cover the Vatican back in the ’80s and we were covering liberation theology and the condemnation of folks like Gustavo Gutierrez , Harvey Cox had had us read these guys in mimeograph up from Latin America.

I wrote papers on subjects such as Stalin’s relationship with the Orthodox Church during World War II and the way in which different Catholic diocesan papers dealt with McCarthyism in the ’50s and the relationship between the Spanish mystics and the Spanish anarchists. And so, it’s been something that’s fascinated me for a long time.

This is about the only book on religion that actually begins with a joke. Some of you have been subjected to this joke many times. I promised my friends that once it was at the beginning of the book, I’d stop telling it. But the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak. And besides, the joke still works for the purpose of the book.

For those of you who haven’t heard it, it’s the story of Mrs. O’Reilly and her son who was dutifully taking her to the poll