Religion Matters, Regionally

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January 1, 2012
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Mark Silk

In American politics, religion matters in three ways. First, religious identity matters. Mormons and evangelical Protestants vote solidly Republican. Jews and the non-religious are in the Democratic camp. Catholics, who used to be loyal Democrats, are now a swing constituency, divided between strongly Democratic Latinos and modestly Republican-leaning whites.

Second, the intensity of religious commitment matters. Over the past two decades, the more religious have become disproportionately likely to vote Republican; the less religious, disproportionately likely to vote Democratic. This so-called “God gap” is substantially larger than the older and better-known gender gap, and it shows no sign of disappearing. It applies to all ethno-religious groups except for African-Americans. In the Jewish community, Orthodox Jews are more likely to vote Republican than either Conservative or Reform Jews.

Finally, religion matters regionally. That’s because regions vary significantly according to religious identity and intensity. Evangelicals dominate in the South, Lutherans and Catholics have a hold on the Upper Midwest, and Catholics remain by far the largest religious body in New England. At the same time, the West has lower levels of religious commitment than the East, with the exception of the “Mormon corridor” that stretches from southern Idaho through Utah and into northern Arizona. The least religiously identified region of the country has long been the Pacific Northwest (including Alaska).

Voting patterns reflect these religious variations. The turn of the South toward the Republicans is intimately related to the increased appeal of the GOP to religious voters. The same goes for the Plains states, where religious commitment is every bit as strong as it is in the Bible Belt.

By contrast, the Pacific Northwest, which once was narrowly divided between the parties, has turned increasingly Democratic. New England, which has seen a notable growth in the proportion of the nonreligious, has likewise shifted in a Democratic direction.

But the religious variables do not operate in a social vacuum. Historically, they have interacted with other demographic, geographic, and economic factors to create distinctive regional political cultures. And politicians bring these cultures with them when they go to Washington.

In New England, for example, bitter tensions between Protestants and Catholics during the 19th and early 20th centuries led to a tacit understanding after World War II that overt appeals to religion would no longer be an acceptable part of electoral politics. John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic to win the presidency by successfully making the case for a New England-style approach to religion in national politics. But in the era of the religious right — post-1980 — New England politicians like Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Howard Dean showed themselves ill-equipped to address a more publicly religious style of performance on the national political stage.

This style — evangelical and confrontational — derives in significant measure from the Southern Crossroads, the trans-Mississippi region comprised of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri. This region has long been characterized by sectarian conflict — among Protestant groups as well as between Protestants and Catholics — that has helped shape a civic culture that often resembles trench warfare. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush hailed from the Crossroads, and their presidencies provided the troops and the style to engage the contemporary culture wars with gusto.

The promotion of Barack Obama from Illinois senator to the presidency held out the hope of putting the culture wars behind us in favor of a spirit of community building that historian Mark Noll has linked to Midwestern Methodism. But while Obama himself strenuously tried to create common political ground, the Americans — grinding through economic hard times — seemed little inclined to beat their swords into plowshares. Indeed, the Midwest, where the major religious groupings are better balanced than anywhere else, has become the country’s central political battlefield.

Where do Jews fit into this regional picture? They carry the greatest weight in the Middle Atlantic States1 — the region where ethno-religious communities remain potent players in a political culture grounded in tribal identity. Elsewhere, they are increasingly concentrated in a few urban areas where they have, like most other small religious minorities, retained their own distinctive outlook.

The Orthodox notwithstanding, Jews in the aggregate are more committed to abortion rights and same-sex marriage and the rest of the liberal social agenda than any other religious group in America. And when Christians are on the march, Jews — for good historic reasons — tend to run in the opposite direction. While evangelical Protestants embrace the State of Israel and some Jewish leaders (in Israel as well as in the United States) embrace evangelicals, the Jewish rank and file retains a sense of allegiance to the Democratic Party. And in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, where their numbers are relatively large and the electoral margins are small, they can make the difference.

1 The Middle Atlantic States include New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington D.C.

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Mark Silk is director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life and professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. He blogs at www.spiritual-politics.org and is co-author of One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics.

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