It’s more or less an article of faith that religious Americans, especially white Americans, have abandoned the Democratic Party. And indeed, a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute confirms that the Republican and Democratic Parties are drifting further apart in terms of religious affiliation.
In 2006, more than eight in ten Republicans identified as white Christian, as did 50% of Democrats. Overall, some 96% of Republicans professed a faith, as did about 90% of Democrats.
But today, while 75% of the GOP is still white Christian, the percentage of white Christians affiliated with the Democratic Party has slid to under one-third (29%). And while just under 90% of Republicans still profess a religious affiliation, only about 75% of Democrats do.
But a deeper dive into the survey suggests a more nuanced picture than a complete abandonment of the Democratic Party by people of faith, especially Catholics.
To be sure, the Democratic Party has lost historic numbers of white evangelicals. Just a decade ago, white evangelicals were still the largest faith group in the party, at 17% of the total. Today, white evangelicals account for just 8% of the Democratic Party, while remaining the bedrock of the GOP. The percentage of white evangelicals in the Republican Party declined only two percent over the same decade—from 37% to 35%.
At the same time, black Protestants remain the bedrock of the Democratic Party, their share of the total party declining only one point from 18% to 17% over the same period.
But both parties have lost white Catholic voters, although the Democrats’ losses have been larger. The share of white Catholics in the GOP dropped from 20% to 16%, down about 20%, while the share of white Catholics in the Democratic Party went from 16% to 10%, a decline of about 37%.
At the same time, some 35% of white Catholics now identify as Independents, which is greater than the 34% who call themselves Republicans and the 26% who call themselves Democrats.
But the story of the Catholic vote and the Democratic Party doesn’t end there. The share of Hispanic Catholics in the GOP held steady over the decade, at a miniscule 3%. But the share of Hispanic Catholic voters in the Democratic Party, which was larger to begin with, increased from 8% to 10%, somewhat offsetting the decline in white Catholics. As a result, both the Republicans and Democrats lost 17% of Catholic voters over the period.
This means the percentage of Catholics in both parties in 2016 was about the same: 19% for the GOP and 20% for the Democrats. (The poll didn’t break out African American Catholics, but according to PRRI about 6% of African Americans are Catholic and historically they have been affiliated with the Democratic Party.)
This means that the narrative that Catholics have abandoned the Democratic Party—and therefore that the party needs to take drastic action like reversing its position on abortion—is largely unsupported by the data. Only white Catholics, an aging and shrinking part of the population, have abandoned the party.
It’s also worth noting that the survey found that the white evangelicals associated with the Republican Party are overwhelmingly—and unsurprisingly—politically conservative. Six in ten identify as conservatives and only 12% identify as liberals. And White Catholics were twice as likely to say there were conservative than liberal—42% vs. 22%.
Critically, this means that there’s very little low-hanging fruit for the Democrats to attract with limited tweaks to their party platform—like abandoning support of abortion or LGBT rights. Most white Christians are fundamentally conservative in their political ideology.
And according to the most recent General Social Survey, Democratic-leaning Independents, a group that presumably includes many former Catholic Democrats, are the single most liberal group on abortion, with 62% supporting a woman’s right to an abortion for any reason. Similarly, Republican-leaning Independents are more liberal on abortion than Republicans in general, with 39% supporting the right to abortion under any circumstances.
Clearly, as the PRRI survey notes, there has been a tectonic shift in the religious landscape of the United States. But it would be a mistake to think that shifts in religious affiliation are all favorable to the Republican Party. Just as the “nones” are remaking the religious landscape, so too are Hispanic Catholics remaking the Democratic Party.