The journal Foreign Affairs, in a recent article looking at the impact of religion on U.S. foreign policy, noted that evangelicals actually tended to identify more with the Democratic Party even into the 1970s, helping to elect self-styled “born-again Christian” Jimmy Carter in 1976.
But that changed with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, who courted the religious vote like no other Republican before him. The GOP has continued that approach ever since, taking stands seen as biblically based on abortion, gay rights, and other social issues.
It makes sense that the tea-party movement is more like a wing of the GOP. Although the movement is largely viewed as a politically inspired effort concerned primarily with fiscal issues, many tea-party supporters have roots in the old religious right, which also mostly sat in Republican pews.
“Tea partyers are more likely than other Republicans to say that U.S. laws and policies would be better if the country had more ‘deeply religious’ elected officials, that it is appropriate for religious leaders to engage in political persuasion, and that religion should be brought into public debates over political issues,” said the Foreign Affairs article.
It also pointed out, however, that the tea-party profile doesn’t match the rest of the country’s. Surveys show the percentage of Americans who believe religious leaders should stop trying to influence government decisions has grown from 22 percent to 38 percent since 1991, and that 80 percent of respondents said it is not proper for religious leaders to tell people how to vote.
Those numbers aren’t surprising when you consider the related decline in church attendance. The mega-churches, with 2,000 or more members, may get a lot of media attention, but they represent less than 1 percent of all churches. A more typical congregation today has fewer than 200 members — and in most mainline Protestant churches, a third of the members are retirement age.
Given that fewer people attend church, and most of them are older, one might wonder why candidates try so hard to get church folks’ votes. A Foreign Affairs survey showed that even religious leaders seem to have retreated from politics, with only 19 percent of churchgoers saying they heard a sermon with political content in 2011, compared with 32 percent in 2006.
Politicians aren’t really bothered by that. They know church members are reliable voters. They should also know faith alone won’t direct those votes.