Religious beliefs and political participation in US politics

From the Catholic voting bloc to American evangelicalism and progressive atheists, the groups are prone to being generalized as a distinctive bloc with a particular approach to politics. At a press briefing on “Religious Beliefs and Political Participation”, organized by the US Department of State, Professor David Campbell PhD, from University of  Notre Dame, debunked some of the myths surrounding these religious groups and how they vote.

There is no longer a “Catholic vote” in the US

In the past, it was the case that American Catholics, as a group, voted very much as a bloc. The first Catholic president of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy, was a prime example of how religious beliefs played a role in politics. In those days, Campbell said that roughly 80% of American Catholics voted for the Democrat, regardless of the candidate and his or her religion. It can be said that there was, once, a time of uniformity in the American Catholic vote.

That, however, is no longer the case. American Catholics, today, according to Campbell, look just like the rest in the population. There is no longer a single Catholic vote. Rather, there are Catholic votes, plural. Within the group, there are different segments which vote distinctively.

Data from the 2020 presidential election showed no significant difference between Catholics and non-Catholics in how both groups voted. The only slight difference is that Catholics, as a whole, were slightly less likely to vote for Joe Biden than everybody else, Campbell explained.

Catholics and non-Catholics, who have the same frequency of religious attendance, also appeared to vote similarly in the last presidential election two years ago.

The concept of a “God gap” in American elections, or the idea that frequent church attendees are either more or less likely to vote for one candidate or another, is not particularly true among Catholics.

Campbell stressed that votes among American Catholics are plural. At least, they can be divided racially, as white, Anglo and Hispanic or Latino. In the 2020 election, Hispanic Catholics were far more likely to vote Democrat than others. The expert said that the trend will also likely continue in the upcoming midterm elections this year.

Not all evangelicals are alike

Exit polls in presidential elections, at least from 2004, showed American evangelicals are the base of the Republican Party. According to Campbell, however, evangelicals of different colors vote differently.

White evangelicals are distinctive from other subgroups of the same religious belief. The expert explained that the mindset behind their vote lies in their sense of persecution. This idea explains why Republican politicians adopt particular policy positions. The stance, Campbell said, helped them mobilize the evangelical vote, as they played on the sense that they are losing status in American society.

Since at least 2004, white evangelicals have voted heavily to support Republican candidates in presidential races, whether it was George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, or Donald Trump twice. Those numbers have not changed very much. They have been somewhere between 70% and upwards of 80%. Donald Trump topped out at about 80% of white evangelicals voting for him.

Though Trump may not appear attractive to evangelical voters, Campbell noted that he had retained support from the group in the 2016 and 2020 elections since, in American politics, the party matters the most.

While white evangelicals get the most press in the US, the expert stressed that there is a growing number of evangelicals who are Latino, or come from a variety of backgrounds, grouped together as Spanish-speaking. Similarly, there is a small but growing number of evangelicals who are described as Asian American. While white evangelicals are staunchly in the Republican camp, data suggests that the other two groups are only about 50/50.

Secularism in the US

America has historically been a highly religious country and that is especially true when comparing the United States to other advanced industrial, liberal democracies. In the last decade or two, however, Campbell said a dramatic change has been seen, as the US has rapidly secularised.

The significance of this change, he elaborated, lies in the fact that secular Americans are generally on the political left. They are not found in the Republican Party. They are generally found in the Democratic Party. In the spectrum within the Democratic Party, secular Americans are on the progressive edge.

Secularism in the US can also be classified as those who do not attend worship services, those who have no religion, those who do not believe in God, and atheists. These groups also differ in their political participation.

According to Campbell, in the 2020 presidential election, people who are not religious were not overwhelmingly supportive of any one party or involved in politics at all. Secularists, or those who have an affirmative secular perspective, meanwhile, were staunchly Democratic. Completely different from the secular Americans, who were merely not religious, active secularists showed up at rallies, went out and knocked on doors in order to get people to vote, and donated to political candidates.

This group, however, got far less attention than, for example, the religious right. One of the reasons, Campbell pointed out, was that they were not nearly as well organized as the right.

By Chalanlak Chanwanpen


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