The Republicans' Religion Problem

UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 17: Republican Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during his rally at the Life Ch
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 17: Republican Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during his rally at the Life Church in Mechanicsville, Va., on Friday, Dec. 17, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Republicans have a religion problem of a kind neither major party has ever had before. The GOP has become the preferred choice of the intensely religious, and that is seriously affecting how Republicans choose their 2016 presidential nominee. In Iowa, the first place where delegates to the 2016 GOP national convention will be chosen, surveys suggest that most participants in the GOP caucuses will be evangelical Christians for whom religion is the central thing in their lives, not just one source of values. Of course, not every state is like Iowa, but enough of them now are to give those kinds of Republicans a disproportionate share of influence within the GOP. And that is a problem for the Republicans this year precisely because intensely religious voters are putting pressure on the party to choose a nominee outside the mainstream of the nation's general electorate when it comes to matters of religion.

Of course, parties have had problems with religion and religious groups in the past, but not like this one. Historically, the major cleavages over religion in American politics were denominational, with Catholics and Jews more oriented toward the Democrats and white Protestants more oriented toward the GOP. And then there was the era of the 1970s and '80s, when the Democrats struggled with a different kind of religion problem. At that time, the national Democratic party took stands on social - cultural questions such as abortion, the ERA and homosexuality that turned off many religious people. The Democrats then were seen more as the party of urban seculars than suburban churchgoers. While still a problem for Democrats, it has lessened in recent years, mostly because attitudes toward social - cultural issues among younger voters have changed in the Democrats' favor. The Democrats have also narrowed that gap somewhat by moving back toward the center during the years of Bill Clinton's presidency, as part of a conscious effort to reconnect with middle-class white suburbanites. The Democratic Party still remains, to be sure, somewhat alien to traditionally religious people, but less so than during the polarizing years of the '70s and '80s.

The roots of the Republicans' religion problem can be found in that era, because GOP leaders decided then that one of the best ways to build a Republican majority nationally was to embrace the rapidly growing evangelical Christian community, which was strongest in the Sunbelt. This marked a major change for the GOP, because in the past most such voters had been Democrats, during the era when the South was dominated by them. The GOP magnified the power of that constituency by granting to the most reliably Republican states in presidential elections a disproportionate share of delegates to the party's nominating conventions. And so the "reddest" states, to use contemporary terminology, have more delegates than their populations alone would ordinarily entitle them to.

While those factors have been in play for a while, what is truly new in the last decade is the decline in participation in some GOP primaries and caucuses as a result of the unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration during its second term. By 2008, Bush's last full year in office, the Republican "brand" had been so damaged as to drive down turnout in some caucuses and primaries, most notably Iowa. Turnout there in 2012 was similarly depressed. Only the most intensely committed conservatives, many of them Christian evangelicals, have continued to participate, and 2016 may well continue that pattern. Given Iowa's outsized importance to the presidential nominating process, the net result has been to skew the GOP presidential nominating process in a way that distances the party from religious moderates.

This same process has also played out at the state government level, most notably in Virginia, which has moved from reliably red to purple in the last ten years precisely because GOP candidates for statewide office there have leaned so heavily in the direction of the social and cultural views of the intensely religious. Other factors peculiar to Virginia (such as the state's heavy dependence on federal military spending and the influx of more moderate Yankees into rapidly growing northern Virginia) have contributed to that partisan shift, of course, but the disproportionate influence of evangelical Christians on the state's GOP has been the most important.

The clearest sign of the adverse results brought by that situation has been among suburban women, who have been pushed away from the GOP in recent years, in Virginia and elsewhere, by its edgy, traditional family values message, which seems too old-fashioned to modern suburban women, including many upper middle class ones who might otherwise be inclined to vote Republican.

And so as we enter 2106, the two parties could nominate two very different kinds of presidential candidates with respect to religion. The Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, is a moderately religious person, who grew up attending a Methodist church in Park Ridge, Illinois (a Chicago suburb) at a time when theological moderation was the norm. She is religious, but not very religious, which was then, and still remains, the sweet spot in terms of national political appeal. The Republicans, in contrast, could nominate for president someone preferred by very religious people, which is a choice that would be popular in the Sunbelt, but much less so elsewhere.

David Stebenne teaches modern U.S. History at Ohio State University.