The Old and New Politics of Faith: Religion and the 2010 Election

Source: E.J. Dionne, Jr., William A. Galston, Brookings Institution, November 2010

From the summary:
Economic convulsions have a way of changing the priorities of voters. Although concerns for their own and their families’ well-being are never far from citizens’ minds, these matters are less pressing in prosperous times. At such moments, voters feel freer to use elections as ways of registering their views on matters related to religion, culture, values and foreign policy.

But when times turn harsh, the politics of jobs, wealth, and income can overwhelm everything else. Thus did the focus of the country’s politics change radically between 1928, a classic culture war contest dominated by arguments over prohibition and presidential candidate Al Smith’s religious faith, and 1932, when the Great Depression ushered in a new political alignment and created what became Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition.

The Great Recession has had a similar effect in concentrating the electorate’s mind on economics. But the evidence of the 2010 election is that it has not–up to now, at least–fundamentally altered the cultural and religious contours of American political life. Religion and issues related to recent cultural conflicts, notably abortion and same-sex marriage, played a very limited role in the Republicans’ electoral victory. Overwhelmingly, voters cast their ballots on the basis of economic issues, while the religious alignments that took root well before the economic downturn remained intact. Democrats lost votes among religiously conservative constituencies, but also among religious liberals and secular voters. They did not, however, lose ground among African-Americans of various religious creeds and held their own among Latino voters. To see issues related to religious or cultural issues as central to the 2010 outcome is, we believe, a mistake.

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