11/05/2012 04:41 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2013

Voting Against the Tribe: The Year of the Sophisticated White, Conservative, Churchgoing Voter

It's been 32 years since the much ballyhooed take over of the Republican party by the so-called Religious Right and a narrative has emerged, especially among young Christians that many of their forbears like James Dobson, Chuck Colson, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have been far too closely wedded to the Republican party. White conservative churchgoers, the story goes, have become unsophisticated robots who pull the lever for whatever Republican happens to be running at the time. This thinking was famously crystallized at the keyboard of a Washington Post reporter named Michael Weisskopf who once famously described such voters as "poor, uneducated and easy to command."

But as I look at the history of Christian political activism especially leading up to the 2012 election, I see a far different picture, one that actually shows that this community has become an increasingly sophisticated one at the ballot box, capable of making rather realpolitik political judgments that would have been unthinkable a generation ago and in so doing, are rejecting a kind of tribalism that in the past caused them to vote for fellow Christian candidates like Jimmy Carter in 1976 despite strong disagreements with them over the issues.

For these voters 1980 was a seminal moment in three respects and one that would show the first inklings of this emerging sophistication at the polls: First, they were able to overcome the obstacle that was Ronald Reagan's status as a divorcee, convincing themselves that the circumstances of the divorce mattered (it had been initiated by his then wife Jane Wyman) and that Reagan was closer to them on the issues in spite of that divorce. Second, they set aside doctrinal differences with co-religionists like Mormons and Catholics with whom they had serious theological differences, and cooperatively worked toward a common purpose of electing somebody they agreed with on the issues. Finally, they were able to vote against a fellow member of the tribe named Jimmy Carter whose status as a born-again Christian they acknowledged, but whom they decided to throw out of office anyway because of issue-based differences.

Thirty-two years later they appear poised to go to an even higher level of sophistication at the ballot box by rejecting the candidate who has regaled them with some of the clearest language about his own conversion to Christianity, Barack Obama, in favor of the candidate who most of them are convinced worships a different Jesus then the one they learned about in Sunday School, Mitt Romney.

And in a year when tribal voting seems to be at its zenith, with 84 percent of Mormon voters intending to vote for a fellow Mormon and 94 percent of African Americans voting for a fellow African American, it is the much maligned white conservative churchgoer who is setting aside tribal voting and pulling the lever for the candidate whose salvation they may doubt but whose policies they favor.