Forget about guns.
The Democratic Party’s attitude toward religion may be one of its most significant challenges moving forward.
A new study finds Americans, with the notable exception of strong Democrats with little or no religious commitments, are significantly less likely to vote for a secular candidate.
Instead, U.S. voters, including independents, are far more disposed to cast ballots for candidates who are members of worshipping communities and describe themselves as people of faith.
The support only grows deeper among many Americans the more the candidate is perceived as highly religious, such as having a strong personal relationship with God, the study found.
Researchers from Central Michigan University and the University of Notre Dame and the University of Akron reported the findings in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
The findings reflect a gradual shift in American politics away from taking for granted religious voting blocs, such as assuming most Catholics will vote Democratic.
What appears to matter more today is not so much what denomination a voter belongs to – although that still is important – but the voter’s own level of religiosity.
The study results also suggest Democrats may have squandered an opportunity in the 2016 presidential race. Their candidate, a lifelong United Methodist, ran against a largely secular candidate who boasted of his sexual conquests with married women. Yet she was reluctant to discuss her religious beliefs with voters.
Overall, Democrats likely will benefit from the increase in religiously unaffiliated Americans in recent years.
Still, the study results suggest, “It is going to be helpful for Democrats to talk about their faith,” lead researcher Jeremiah Castle said.
God and politics
Researchers in the latest study analyzed data from some 3,000 respondents to the 2009 Cooperative Congressional Election Study.
Respondents were asked to evaluate different versions of a state legislative candidate.
The secular version of the candidate described himself “as a man of science.” The moderately religious candidate was a churchgoer who said he was running as “a man of faith.”
The highly religious candidate explained, “As someone who has a personal relationship with God, I believe that we need people of faith in government.”
Even when the candidates were not identified by party affiliation, “voters seem to infer that religious candidates are Republicans and cultural conservatives while secular candidates are Democrats and cultural liberals.”
And that is not necessarily good nor accurate for Democrats. They were more likely to vote for a secular candidate, but far less likely to vote against a highly religious candidate.
In fact, more Democrats said they were very likely to vote for a highly religious candidate than a moderately religious candidate or a candidate from the control group where no beliefs were disclosed.
“Even among Democrats, it seems like there’s a positive reaction to candidates with a strong level of religiosity,” Castle said.
But candidate religiosity – or lack thereof - made a major difference for other voters, especially for Republicans.
Even if a candidate was a culturally conservative Republican, being secular negates those advantages among party members, the study found.
“Republicans perceive that candidate as no better than a Democrat,” Castle said.
The takeaway on candidate religiosity: “While support among strong Democrats is unaffected, independents and strong Republicans become markedly less likely to vote for the candidate when he is described as secular,” researchers noted.
One of Barack Obama’s biggest missteps when he ran for president in 2008 was a comment he made about working class voters clinging “to guns or religion.”
But he recovered well, courting religious communities and effectively weaving a narrative of the importance of faith in his life in a way that did not alienate the Democratic base.
For example, Castle noted, Obama spoke of accepting Christ in his life while working as a community organizer.
In contrast, while Hillary Clinton stumbled in calling half of Donald Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables,” she did relatively little outreach to religious communities and was reticent in talking about her faith, observers noted.
It can be a difficult balancing act for Democrats, said religion and politics scholar Corwin Smidt of Calvin College.
The largest single base of the Democratic Party is secular, he noted.
“That makes it very difficult for a candidate to use religious language,” said Smidt, author of “American Evangelicals Today” and an editor of “The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics.”
Trump showed no such hesitation.
Recognizing the need to shore up his credentials with religious voters, he actively courted religious leaders, and selected a vice-presidential candidate with strong credentials as a person of faith.
In the vice-presidential debate, Mike Pence spoke with sincerity about how “a society can be judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable - the aged, the infirm, the disabled and the unborn. I believe it with all my heart.”
That may make the religion issue even more critical down the road.
Since a sitting vice president traditionally is in a prominent position to run for president, Pence may be a formidable opponent.
Based on the study results, Castle noted, Pence “is exactly the kind of beneficiary of the dynamics we note here.”
Image by Obama White House, via Flickr [PD United States Government Work]