Donate to RNS

Obama narrows, but doesn’t end, electoral `God gap’

c. 2008 Religion News Service (UNDATED) The first take on exit polls dissecting Barack Obama’s historic presidential victory indicates the famous “God gap” dividing American politics is still largely in place, but Obama fashioned a victory by cutting it down nearly everywhere _ among those who worship frequently and those who don’t. Classically described, the […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The first take on exit polls dissecting Barack Obama’s historic presidential victory indicates the famous “God gap” dividing American politics is still largely in place, but Obama fashioned a victory by cutting it down nearly everywhere _ among those who worship frequently and those who don’t.

Classically described, the God gap is this: People who attend worship more frequently tend to vote Republican; less frequent attendees and non-attendees tend to vote Democratic.

That was vividly on display in 2004, when President Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry with huge support from churchgoing Catholics and evangelicals.

Now that’s less true than before.

Overall, the one-quarter of the electorate who go to church weekly or more still preferred Republican John McCain 55 percent to 43 percent, according to exit polls cited by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public.

But that’s only a sliver of the population. And as in 2004, Democratic preference in 2008 grew as worship became less frequent.

For example, while McCain led among those worshipping weekly, the 15 percent who attend services a few times a month preferred Obama by a 7-point margin. That grew to 19 points among those worshipping “a few times a year” (about 28 percent of the electorate) and to 37 points among the 16 percent who said they never attend a house of worship, according to the Pew data.

But significantly, Obama did better than Kerry among all those groups _ even among the weekly worshippers he didn’t win outright.

For example, while McCain enjoyed a 12-point lead among weekly worshippers, Bush’s lead was 17 points four years ago, according to the Pew data.

Analysts pointed out two major reasons for the shift:

_ Most important, perhaps, voters said their decision-making was dominated by economics, not cultural issues with strong religious dimensions such as abortion and same-sex marriage that were so important in 2004.

_ Moreover, Obama worked harder than Kerry in reaching out to faith groups; he also won some hearts in faith communities by speaking about faith in his own life more fluently than Kerry did.

Within religious affiliations, Obama won over Catholics and made inroads among Protestants compared with 2004. He even made a measurable dent among white evangelical Christians, the religious group least disposed to him overall.

Catholics, with a little more than a quarter of the vote, swung from favoring Bush by 5 percentage points in 2004 to favoring Obama by 9 percentage points in 2008, according to the Pew data.

This came in the face of scores of Catholic bishops’ outspoken opposition to Obama’s abortion-rights position.

Some bishops were memorably blunt, such as Bishop Joseph Martino, of Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pa., who told his people:

“Being `right’ on taxes, education, health care, immigration and the economy fails to make up for the error of disregarding the value of a human life.”

Catholic preference appeared to be driven by solidarity among black and Hispanic Catholics, who preferred Obama so strongly that they trumped white Catholics’ 5-percentage-point preference for McCain.

Moreover, while white Catholics stayed Republican, Obama peeled off a chunk. The 5-point win for McCain had been a 13-point win for Bush in`04.

Meanwhile, Protestants of all stripes, who make up 54 percent of the electorate, favored McCain by a margin of 9 percentage points _ but again, the Republican lead was much larger four years ago, at 19 points.

People who described themselves as born-again evangelicals, presumably energized by the vice-presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin, were firmly behind McCain by a huge margin of 47 percentage points.

But there again, the evangelical support for Republicans was wider four years ago, at 58 points.

The Pew Forum’s John Green, one of the country’s most respected analysts of religious voting behavior, noted that much of Obama’s improved performance among both Catholics and Protestants appeared to come from black and Hispanic voters, supplemented by white voters.

“This is a coalition that includes white Christians,” he said. “It’s just that white Christians aren’t the senior partners.”

(Bruce Nolan writes for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)

KRE/DEA END NOLAN

700 words