Evangelicals Stay Loyal And Lose

11/05/2008 04:06 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So where were those white evangelicals last night?

From early reports it looks as if they were in about the same place they were four years ago. A little shift, maybe 4 percentage points toward Obama and away from McCain.

But by and large, McCain took about three fourths of the white evangelical vote, just as God's man George W. Bush did. We won't know for sure until more exit polling comes in.

But from several accounts, the evangies didn't stay home. They didn't greatly shift their support.

And all those young white evangelicals who were going to desert in droves and become Obama-ites? They didn't do it.

All that outreach Obama did to attract white evangelicals? It didn't do much.

That big, scary, unstoppable white evangelical vote, call it whatever you want, the King-maker vote, the values vote, the God vote. It turned out. It stayed loyal. And it didn't deliver the election.

So what gives?

The obvious answer seems to be that other voters turned out and overwhelmed that evangelical vote.

That's true. Certainly it's true in states like Florida and Virginia.

But that explanation doesn't quite get to the important truth that Americans need to understand if we are going to stop being manipulated by white evangelical extremists. I've said this before. And the election results confirm it.

The great bulk of what's being called the evangelical vote is by and large what used to be called the white Southern vote. The Religious Right claims to control that vote. But actually the Religious Right and the Southern vote merely travel along some of the same paths.

Many evangelicals may have deserted the Republican Party. Many others were already progressives or moderates ready to swing away. But the South didn't desert the Republicans. And it's the Southern states, not those self-identified evangelicals that pollsters are mistakenly lumping with the Religious Right who have the big numbers.

Look at the Pew Center map of the U.S. Click on evangelicals. Now compare it with an election map.
Evangelical numbers are highest in the South. Southern states are red states. What's been called the evangelical vote is merely the Bible Belt renamed and cleaned-up. (Western states also go for Republicans but not because of evangelicals or the Religious Right, as both maps show.)

The Southern vote went for McCain. Just as the Southern vote has gone for Republican presidents since Nixon. Nixon didn't call on God. He captured the Southern vote with racist appeals and Republicans have been doing that ever since. I won't say McCain captured the South in the same fashion. He consistently painted Obama as "the other."

But any white Southerner who looks at Obama won't have to be told that he's "the other."

Do Southerners vote Republican because Southerners are evangelicals? Yes.

But the number of fervent church-going evangelicals is declining in the South, not increasing. A large and growing number of Southerners are merely cultural evangelicals. They talk nice about Jesus. They think God and patriotism are linked. They bridle at disrespect to the flag. They favor states rights over the federal control.

But they don't go to church much, if at all. They don't take marching orders from the evangelical preachers. They aren't followers of the Religious Right. They are, instead, fellow travelers on some issues because Southerners are cultural conservatives, just as they were even before the Civil War.

As one piece of evidence, I'd offer Colorado. Despite his widely disseminated and publicized letter predicting that an Obama victory would bring every kind of horror, Focus on the Family's James Dobson couldn't even deliver Colorado, where his organization is based.

The takeaway?

The Religious Right isn't some new, huge and fearsome development in the United States that tells something frightening about the kind of people Americans are becoming.

It's the Southern vote. And a small, but loud and organized minority elsewhere.

By and large, what we saw in this election and the last two shows a political split that preceded the Religious Right by hundreds of years.

Christine Wicker is the author of "The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church." Her website is