Will Declining Numbers of White Evangelicals Change the Senate?

Try to make sense of this puzzle: white evangelicals, as a percentage of the American population, are on the decline, even in the South. Still, though, Republicans appear poised to gain control of the Senate, where several of the key contested races are in Southern states. What gives?

At the Atlantic, pollster Robert Jones points out the decline in white evangelicals in the South. He zeroes in on Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky, and North Carolina, where, Jones argues, “polling shows that the Senate race margins are less than five percentage points indicates that 2014 may be the year that the underlying demographic trends finally exert enough force to make themselves felt.”

The New York Times Upshot blog ranks three of those states—Georgia, North Carolina and Arkansas—competitive, giving Democrats an 81% chance of winning the North Carolina seat, Republicans a 61% chance of winning the Georgia seat and a 77% chance of winning the Arkansas seat. Republicans have a better than 90% chance, the Upshot predicts, of winning the Kentucky and Louisiana contests. What’s more, six other Southern states—Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi, and West Virginia—are in the likely Republican column, with the Upshot forecasting a 99% chance that the GOP candidate will win. Only one Southern state, the notoriously purplish Virginia, is in the likely Democratic column.

If you look at the data Jones cites, white evangelicals still make up a significant portion of the population in those Southern states, even if their numbers have declined. In North Carolina, for example, they still comprise 30% of the population. And, as this Politico piece about religious right get-out-the-vote efforts makes clear, several powerful organizations, including Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, are pouring millions into turning out white evangelicals at the polls. (The Politico piece, which has has the evergreen feel of a story you’ve read before, maybe four years ago, taps into a familiar theme: Republicans lost the last presidential election cycle; someone like Reed asks what might have happened if there were even greater evangelical turnout at the polls; new tweaks in GOTV strategies are tested in the midterms, with the not-unintended benefit of actually giving evangelical turnout a boost when many other categories of voters stay home for midterm elections.)

The Politico piece also details the by now well-worn angst of conservatives: how to keep the reliably Republican, older conservative Christian voters without alienating the younger ones, particularly now that only one out of 10 people between the age of 18 and 29 is a white evangelical, and even a lot of them support marriage equality. There’s the usual handwringing about same-sex marriage, as well the odd aside that “greater acceptance of birth control, premarital sex and cohabitation before marriage has created a cultural distance with the church,” which sounds more like conservative Christian talking points than any serious analysis of trends in the 21st century, at least.

On LGBT issues, we’re now seeing the first hints of how conservatives are going to deal with marriage equality in 2014 and 2016: find another way to talk about it. That’s why the Houston subpoenas of pastors were the greatest gift anyone could have given the religious right. Although the subpoenas have now been modified, the horse galloped out of the barn at full-speed last week and there’s probably no turning back.

Here’s how it’s being spun across conservative media and advocacy organizations: Lesbian mayor pokes her nose into the sanctity of the pastor’s office, computer, sanctuary. As Mike Huckabee wrote in his email blast to supporters, Christians “shouldn’t expect taxpayers to fund their Gestapo-like attempts to shut down the free exercise of religion and to establish a religion of godless secularism.” How has this happened? Huckabee asks rhetorically. You got it: “Mainly because Christians don’t vote.” What’s the answer? “Get off the couch and vote.” 

While the religious right is comparing a subpoena to Nazism, there’s another strategy afoot, one aimed at supposedly softening perceptions of conservative Christians as anti-gay bullies. Concerned Women for America, which has never been shy about being anti-LGBT rights, is chastising a congressional candidate’s “mean characterizations” (yes, that’s a direct quote) about gays. Anthony Culler, the Republican challenger to South Carolina Democrat James Clyburn, said in a Facebook rant, among other things, “Same-sex couples that seek to destroy our way of life and the institution of marriage are NOT cute and cuddly but rather (for those of you that are old enough to remember the movie), Gremlins that will only destroy our way of life.” 

CWFA’s president, Penny Nance, said in a statement, “neither side should engage in unkind, foolish verbal vomit. Anthony Culler has neither the temperament nor the judgment to thoughtfully represent the good people of the 6th district of South Carolina, and he certainly doesn’t represent the millions of Americans who support traditional marriage.” This is an easy call, isn’t it? At TPM points out, Clyburn is not going to lose the seat anyway, and Nance can paint her organization—which just two short years ago conducted a “Homosexual Agenda Impact Survey,” which “asked our members their opinion of the activities to normalize homosexuality which are taking place in our public school classrooms”—as being more tolerant than the “mean” Republican.

In the end, are we really going to see demographic shifts impact the outcome at the polls this November? As Jelani Cobb writes in the New Yorker, in an important piece focusing on how elected officials are overwhelmingly white and male in comparison to the electorate as a whole, “Conversations about the shifting demographics of the country have presumed that these changes will be reflected in our politics. We need look no further than Congress to recognize that there may be strength in numbers, but numbers alone do not automatically translate into strength.”

And numbers alone do not automatically translate into weakness. The religious right spent decades building get-out-the-vote operations and candidate recruitment and training grounds. Those efforts do not vanish with demographic changes, particularly if evangelical turnout is outsized compared to other demographic groups. Which is why Texas may play an outsized role in our national politics once again.

5 Comments

  • GMG248 says:

    Sarah. Excellent observations, as always. I will be closely following Southern Baptists’ conference on “homosexuality and marriage” in Nashville (Opryland – Oct. 27-29). I expect we will hear some of the same words about the need for “a kinder rhetoric” juxtaposed with some harsh words about those who are “viciously attacking their right to expressions of religious freedom (i.e. religiously inspired discrimination).” Interpreting and parsing these two very contradictory themes will require wisdom like yours. As the white Christians institutions move from a majority to a minority mindset the “persecution myth” will become a consistent paradigm. I suspect that litigation over the religious right to discriminate will proliferate in the coming two years. I am toying with the idea that as the white conservatives of this nation are moving toward a less than majority status they are intentionally working overtime to corral all of the resources they can (economic, political, religious, institutional, etc.) so as to blunt and manipulate the effects of a coming numerical marginalization.

  • Dennis.Lurvey@live.com' GeniusPhx says:

    True. Christians are still being taught that this is their country, settled by christians for christians, founded by christians. None of that is true, but they will fight harder for what they think is theirs for the taking. The small numbers of very angry christians won’t go down without a fight, but they will go down.

    Christians see persecution everywhere, but what they really see is a leveling of the field between xnity and all other religions and atheism. They are having their preferentialism taken away and they don’t like it.

  • dakotahgeo@hotmail.com' George M Melby says:

    Thank you so much for this excellent article! It amazes me that the conservative white christians are suffering from unbelievable persecution, while every Christian church denomination in my city seems to be doing well and spreading joy, happiness, and peace of mind. And yet the AcT (American christian Taliban) seem to be losing theirs. True… what they are losing is the power and impact they’ve held over the populations by their train of thought and theological insinuations. Over time, saner people see through this charade and simply ignore the ‘noise.’ Inch by inch, folks…!

  • dakotahgeo@hotmail.com' George M Melby says:

    Very, very well put and succinct! Thank you!

  • awerling@gmail.com' andrew123456789 says:

    I have nothing helpful to say except that I hate these people. And that really isn’t helpful either.

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