Sunday, June 15, 2008

Of religious voters and Bishop Robinson's Storm


The U.S. electorate is an awful lot of people -- 130 million or maybe even more will vote in November 2008. Changes in the shape and behavior of such a large group don't occur easily. When I cite the news that the average age of a Democratic primary voter has decreased for about 52 in 2004 to 49 in 2008, it doesn't seem like a huge movement. But the change is large -- we're looking a different people voting, and, given what we know about generational opinions, people voting differently.

There's also been a fascinating shift in the political affiliation of at least some religious people. According to a study by the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College available for download here, changes are afoot in the political behavior of mainline Protestants. Everybody knows that (white) Evangelical Protestants have become the grassroots of the Republican Party over the last generation. Roman Catholics have tended to vote Democratic and still do, though less solidly.

Mainline Protestants -- those traditional denominations including Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and others that were the home of "respectable" U.S. religiosity throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century -- have made a major move in their affiliation in the last decade. Despite declining prominence, their adherents are still 25 percent of the electorate. These churches used be where solid bourgeois Republicans worshiped. As recently as 1992, 50 percent of these people identified as Republican as opposed to 32 percent Democratic. Not this year:

But, in 2008, Mainline Protestants are for the first time since at least the beginning of the New Deal more Democratic than Republican in their partisan identifications (46 percent to 37 percent, respectively).

Like the declining age of the electorate, apparently a small shift, but involving many voters.

The study goes on to pull out just who these mainliners are that are moving to a new party inclination. It uses the categories "traditionalists," "modernists" (I interpret that as ecclesiastical liberals) and "centrists" (all those movable moderates who usually avoid church controversies.)

... traditionalists remain almost as heavily Republican in 2008 as they did in 2004, while modernist Mainline Protestants continue to be heavily Democratic in their partisan identifications. However, there has been a large shift to the Democratic Party among centrist Mainline Protestants, as centrist mainliners went from being Republican in their partisan identifications in 2004 (46 percent Republican to 33 Democratic) to being Democratic in 2008 (28 percent Republican to 52 percent Democratic).

Good news for Democrats; what does it mean in their internal church politics, I wonder?
***

I was thinking about this while reading Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson's new book, In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God. This is not an earthshaking volume, though Robinson has undoubtedly been much shaken about on the ecclesiastical roller coaster ride he's endured since becoming Anglican-land's first openly gay Bishop. I'd call the book more sensible, calming, thoughtful and love-filled. You gotta like the guy (full disclosure, I have met him.)

Robinson was an early endorser of Senator Obama; he's from New Hampshire, so he got an early look. He has this to say about Christians and political participation:

I believe all Christians should get involved in politics. Just as "liturgy" is the worshipful work of the people, so is "politics" the work of the polis, the people, the body politic. As people in the world, Christians must assume their rightful role in helping shape the choices we make as a nation, as citizens of the world. ...We'll disagree of course on which candidates and approaches best speak to [our] issues; there's nothing wrong or fearful about that. We'll prefer different economic and diplomatic strategies, and the candidates who propose them; nothing wrong with that either. And then, as good citizens, we'll support and respect the will of the majority. That is what is great -- even miraculous -- about democracy.

I am drawn to the part about supporting and respecting the will of the majority. We don't trust each other to do that. We have reason to fear we'll be manipulated, our passions stirred, by politicians of every stamp. Granting respect to well-meaning folks with whom I disagree is hard; for example, I know I can't give respect to the result of the election of 2000. And I'm not over it. I cannot concede that the court-determined outcome was well-meaning or democratic.

But in a larger frame, Robinson is right -- unless most of us can find a way to agree to disagree without throwing out the other side, in our churches or in our democracy, our communities won't work. That's a tough message, so quietly stated as to sound simply clichéd. But can we do it?

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