Spring 2003, Vol. 6, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2003

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Articles in this issue

In the South:
The GOP Gets Religion

What Christian Right?

The Undetected Tide

Church Notes

The New Governing Party

The Bible in Memphis

The Decalogue in Montgomery


A World of Hurt

James in the Box

O Brother, Who Art Thou?


What Would Jesus Drive?


In the South:
The Undetected Tide
By John C. Green

One reason religion received only modest attention in the news coverage of last year’s election results was that technical problems prevented the release of the Voter News Service’s exit polls. Lacking a snapshot of who went to the polls, journalists were unable to assess the role of that much-watched VNS category, the “white religious right.”

Had the white-religious-right measure been available, it might well have tipped off the media to an important story behind the Republican victory: the church-based mobilization of white evangelical Protestants in the South. This phenomenon appears to have been especially important in Georgia, where it contributed to the unexpected defeats of Democratic senator Max Cleland and Governor Roy Barnes.

Although the exit polls are lacking, we do have a survey taken just prior to Election Day (and graciously made available) by the Pew Research Center. I have weighted the survey to reflect the actual turnout (39 percent) and apportioned the “undecideds” to match the actual results (51 percent Republican; 46 percent Democrat, and 3 percent others).

This procedure provides a good estimate of how the major religious groups contributed to the election outcome—and powerful circumstantial evidence for the impact of church-based mobilization in the South. Although the survey does not include enough cases to break down the vote by state, it does make possible a comparison of the vote for the House of Representatives in the South and the rest of the country.

The table reports the political “holy trinity” of turnout, Republican vote, and the contribution to the GOP coalition by the ten largest religious groups in the United States. Starting at the top of the table are white evangelical and mainline Protestants, followed by black Protestants, white Catholics, Hispanic Catholics, Jews, and Seculars (non-religious people). The three largest groups are also divided into high church-attenders (once a week or more) and low.

The overall pattern is familiar: White Protestants voted on balance Republican, and the most Republican group was the high church-attending white evangelicals—the core of the “white religious right”—who gave three-quarters of their votes to the GOP across the country. Republicans also did well among white Catholics. In contrast, the Democrats had very strong backing from religious minorities: black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, Jews, and Seculars.

The turnout columns tend to support the view of most electoral analysts that the GOP benefited from a very late surge among key constituencies, especially in the many close Southern contests. For example, the 51-percent turnout rate for high church-attending evangelicals was the highest in the South, markedly greater than the same group displayed in the rest of the country (and surpassed only by Jews, one of the country’s most politically active communities).

White mainline Protestants and high church-attending Catholics in the South also turned out to vote at higher rates than their counterparts in the rest of the country, but by much smaller margins. Southern black Protestants and Seculars voted in significantly higher numbers than their counterparts elsewhere, but at rates nowhere near the high church-attending white evangelicals.

There are, however, conspicuous exceptions to this turnout pattern, and the biggest involves low church-attending evangelicals in the South. They voted at a rate of only 19 percent—32 percent less than their high church-attending co-religionists and eight percent less than low church-attending evangelicals in the rest of the country.

Significantly, the Southern low church-attenders were far less likely to vote Republican than all other white evangelicals. They cast their ballots for GOP House candidates only 51 percent of the time, exactly the same rate as mainline white Protestants and low church-attending white Catholics outside the South (groups that include many liberals from the East and West coasts).

What explains the discrepancy between high and low church-attending white evangelicals in the South? A prime candidate is church-based mobilization by the religious right: registering voters, passing out voter guides, and getting out the vote within white Baptist, Pentecostal, and nondenominational churches. Such efforts only reach the people who go to church regularly. As my colleague Lyman Kellstedt of Wheaton College likes to say, “If the people are not in the pews, they can’t pick up the cues.”

The documents that appear on page 6 indicate that church-based mobilization for the GOP was intense in Georgia—which should not be surprising given that the chairman of the state Republican Party was formerly executive director of the Christian Coalition. Outside the South, the much smaller differential in turnout between low and high church-attending evangelicals (16 percent) suggests far less in the way of church-based mobilization.

Certainly there was less to be gained. The final column in the table tells the story: In 2002, high church-attending white evangelicals constituted 41 percent of the Republican vote in the South, more than all other white Protestants combined and nearly twice the percentage for high church-attending evangelicals in the rest of the country.

Just as labor unions during the Great Depression became the institutional power base of the Democratic Party in America’s industrial heartland, so white evangelical churches have now become the GOP’s institutional power base from Virginia to Texas. It’s time for the news media to take note.

Table of Religious Groups and the 2002 Elections: Estimated Turnout, Republican Vote, and Proportion of the GOP Coalition.


                                    Republican            Vote Turnout          GOPCoalition**
                               Non-South   South        Non-South   South    Non-South   South


White Evangelical

High church attending    75%        74%           43%         51%         21%        41%

Low church attending     60%        51%           27%         19%          6%         6%  

White Mainline
High church attending    51%         65%           45%        46%           8%        11%
church attending     51%         59%           38%        40%          19%       14%

Black Protestants         10%          6%            32%        41%           1%          1%


White Catholics
High church attending    58%          68%          45%          49%          15%        9%
Low church attending     51%          67%          45%          28%          14%        4%


Hispanic Catholics      27%           39%          36%           7%           2%         2%


Jews                      22%           *               62%             *            1%          *

Seculars             35%          42%           28%          39%          10%     10%

 * not enough cases for analysis

** columns do not add to 100% due to small religious groups that are excluded

Source: Pew Research Center, 2002 Elections Weekend Poll, N=2950





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