Religion in the 2000 Election

By Himmelfarb, Gertrude | The Public Interest, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Religion in the 2000 Election


Himmelfarb, Gertrude, The Public Interest


A RECENT survey of the role of religion in American life opens: "Few Americans were surprised to find religion a continuing leitmotif in the past year's presidential election." [1] In fact, most Americans were surprised when religion began to emerge as an issue in the electoral campaign. And they will be even more surprised to find just how prominent it proved to be in the election itself--and continues to be today, both in society and in the polity.

Perhaps we should not have been surprised. Yet we were, again and again, when Vice President Al Gore chose Senator Joe Lieberman (an observant Jew) as his running mate, and when, in the course of the campaign, both Governor George W. Bush and Senator Lieberman spoke candidly about their own religious beliefs. Even in the aftermath of the election we continued to be surprised, by a presidential inaugural address that was eloquently religious; by the controversy over John Ashcroft that focused on his religious beliefs; by the creation, as one of the first official acts of the new administration, of an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives-"faith-based," a term once associated with evangelicals, having now entered the public domain. Instead of complaints from the "religious right" (no longer so called because it no longer seems so much on the right) about the absence of religion in "the public square," we now hear complaints from the "secular left" (never so called because it was so dominant as not to require any label) about the ubiquity of religion in the public square.

We have come a long way in the course of only a year. Yet the evidence had been there for decades, obscured by a media and academia that were--still are--staunchly secular. There has always been statistical proof of the pervasiveness and depth of American religiosity, all the more striking because it is in such dramatic contrast to other Western countries. (American "exceptionalism" yet again.) But the barrage of statistics emerging from the recent election is more compelling than ever--and more instructive about the "cultural divide" that divides us, it now appears, politically, as well as religiously, culturally, socially, even geographically. [2]

Two cultures (more or less)

We have long been accustomed to some of the religious peculiarities of American politics: most notably, the odd bedfellows of Catholics and Jews who have traditionally voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic party. We remember the famous quip by Milton Himmelfarb: Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans. That has been uncannily and precisely confirmed in the recent election, when 77 percent of Jews and 76 percent of Hispanic Catholics voted for Gore. But there have been significant changes even here. In spite of Lieberman's candidacy, the Jewish Democratic vote was lower than it had been in 1996. And non-Hispanic Catholics for the first time crossed the party line, 51 percent voting for Bush and 46 percent for Gore. (The New York Times's report of 49 percent for Gore and 47 percent for Bush reflects the entire Catholic vote, including Hispanics.)

The more interesting statistics concern, the divide--or "polarization," as the Ethics and Public Policy Center report puts it--within the religious denominations, for here religiosity, rather than religious ethnicity, so to speak, is the defining trait. Thus those who voted for Bush include 57 percent of "more observant" Catholics and 41 percent of "less observant" 66 percent of more observant white mainline Protestants and 57 percent of less observant; 84 percent of more observant white evangelical Protestants and 55 percent of less observant; 88 percent of Mormons (almost all of whom are presumed to be more observant) and 35 percent of the nonreligious. Unfortunately, there is no breakdown for more and less observant Jews (or for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform denominations). And black Protestants are a conspicuous exception, the 96 percent who voted for Gore obviously including a very large proportion of the more observant. …

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