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The end of America’s Protestant political majority gives Republicans cause to worry

The trends in the religious vote yesterday should overshadow whatever cheer Republicans take out of Election Day.

RNS photo illustration by Kit Doyle

(RNS) — A quick and dirty anaylsis of how the midterms played out in the religious landscape, according to Tuesday’s exit polls, shows that politically the United States is no longer a majority Protestant country.

The unsurprising fact of the election is that white evangelicals, the folks everyone from the White House on down has been focused on for the past two years, went 75 percent for the Republican candidate in races for the House of Representatives and 22 percent for the Democrat. The gap is five percentage points down from the 2014 margin of 78 percent to 20 percent margin in favor of the GOP, but holding form.

White evangelicals constitute 26 percent of the electorate, as they did in 2016, when they went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, 80-16. All in all, they constitute a constant one-quarter of the electorate, maybe trending slightly less Republican.

Overall, non-Catholic Christians (Protestants and others) preferred Republicans to Democrats by a 14-point margin, 56-42. That’s a little more than half the margin Republicans enjoyed in 2014 (61 percent to 37).

But for the first time in American history, Protestants constituted less than half the electorate, at 47 percent.

Catholics favored Democratic candidates by the slimmest of margins, 50-49. This represents a significant shift from 2014, when they split in favor of Republicans, 54-45. Catholics also voted in higher numbers, with their proportion of the entire vote growing by 2 percentage points over the last midterm to 26 percent.

Those shifts may reflect the higher turnout in the Latino vote, representing a larger, more Democratic portion of the Catholic vote as a whole.

The biggest shift in terms of faith may turn out to be the Jewish vote. In 2014, Jews voted 2-1 for Democratic House candidates, a pretty low margin for them that perhaps reflects unhappiness with President Obama’s relatively tough stance on Israel. On Tuesday, Jews went better than 4-1 for the the Democrats (79 percent to 17), showing that Trump’s embrace of Israel did nothing to counterbalance the rest of his agenda.

Very possibly, the increased margin was also a reaction to the Pittsburgh massacre, which, along with the bomb threats to Democratic politicians, suggested to Jews that resurgent anti-Semitism on the right is a clear and present danger — and that if it has not found a home in the Republican Party, it has found aid and comfort in Trumpian white nationalism.

Finally, there are those who identify as belonging to no religion, known as the nones. They voted Democratic 70 percent to 28, almost the same as in 2014, when they did so 69-29. Significantly, however, their portion of the overall vote has steadily increased over the past three national elections, from 12 percent in 2014 to 15 percent in 2016 to 17 percent this year.

A closely aligned group, those who say they never attend religious services, voted Democratic 68 percent to 30, a gap half again as large as the margin of 62 percent to 36 in 2014. As with the nones, their proportion of the electorate is growing, from 18 percent in 2014 to 22 percent in 2016 to 27 percent this year.

Meanwhile, voters who say they attend religious services weekly favored Republicans 58 percent to 40, holding steady at the 20-point (give-or-take) split that has been the case with them in most elections since 2000. But their proportion of the electorate shrank from 40 percent in 2014 to 32 percent in 2018.

The bottom line, as moving parts of the American religious system continue their recent trends, is clear: Republicans beware.

(This article has been updated to show that voters who say they never attend religious services favored Democratic candidates more heavily in 2018 than in 2014. A previous version erroneously indicated that the gap had grown smaller. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)