The 2008 presidential campaign was punctuated by pastor controversies. Barack Obama was troubled by Jeremiah Wright, his pastor for twenty years and an unapologetic proponent of black liberation theology. Press attention to Wright's past sermons and public appearances ultimately led Obama to disown his pastor, and shortly thereafter Obama also chose to leave his Chicago congregation because a visiting Catholic priest, Michael Pfleger, mocked Hillary Clinton from the pulpit. Pastor troubles vexed John McCain as well: He eventually rejected the endorsements of televangelists he had described as “spiritual advisers,” John Hagee and Ron Parsely, when past sermons critical of other faiths became public.
Controversy also swirled around Rick Warren, megachurch pastor and bestselling author. During the campaign, Warren invited both Obama and McCain to his California church for a televised interview, the first joint appearance by the major-party nominees. Both the occasion and Warren's questions drew criticism. When, after the election, Obama asked Warren to give the invocation at his inaugural, some liberals were furious that an opponent of same-sex marriage would be accorded this honor—while some conservatives were offended that an evangelical pastor would serve a pro-choice president in this capacity.
These pastor controversies were just the turbulent surface of the deeper faith-based currents in the campaign. Disputes over sexuality and social justice have long divided America's religious communities, but the 2008 election revealed some new developments. Black Protestants debated the meaning of the Obama candidacy, and white Evangelical Protestants fought over the proper priority of issues—and over John McCain. Progressive religious activists promoted a vision of the good they claimed was common to all religious traditions, while some sectarian voices insisted that Obama was a Muslim. The campaign began and ended with Mormons: Some religious conservatives opposed Mitt Romney in Iowa because of his faith and some gay activists demonstrated against the Latter-day Saints because of their support for banning same-sex marriage in California.
Rarely have so many different religious voices been heard in a single presidential election. Many of these voices were encouraged by the presidential candidates themselves. The Democrats made special efforts to reach religious voters, hoping to woo moderates and even some conservatives away from the Republicans without angering their liberal and secular followers. Obama was particularly effective in this regard, speaking about faith with a high degree of comfort (in a fashion reminiscent of George W. Bush). The Republicans also pursued religious voters, seeking to maintain the support of conservatives without alienating moderates or religious minorities. Here McCain was less effective, being reluctant to speak about faith (like John Kerry in 2004). The respective vice-presidential nominees highlighted the outreach efforts: Joe Biden, brought on board to encourage white Catholics to back Obama, and Sarah Palin, chosen to energize white evangelicals for McCain.
All this faith-based politics occurred in an election clearly dominated by the economy. Indeed, staples of the prior presidential election, such as the “God Gap” and “values voters,” largely disappeared from view. Some observers claimed this proved that socioeconomic class distinctions are more fundamental than ephemeral religious values. But other observers found the juxtaposition of this religious activism and economic woes perplexing. Has religion lost its purchase at the polls, pushed aside by questions of prosperity and peace? Is there a fundamental shift in the structure of faith-based politics, driven by crisis and charisma? Do the results presage a new era in religion and politics? All these queries presume a more basic question: What role did religious voters play in the election of Barack Obama?
The first three questions have straightforward answers. Religion has not lost its influence at the ballot box, although the economy did impact the vote. Despite changes in the issue agenda, there was little evidence of a fundamental shift in the structure of faith-based politics in 2008. Instead, variation within the structure favored the Democrats. Although the sum of this variation was large enough to put Obama in the White House, it gave no clear evidence that a new era in faith-based politics is in the offing.
The fourth question requires a more complex answer. Obama largely held on to the religious elements of the Democratic coalition, enjoying expanded support from religious minorities, and also made modest gains among some groups of white Christians. In the end, Obama gained some support among the most traditional white Catholics but lost some support among the less traditional.
These conclusions are based on special surveys conducted between 1992 and 2008 at the University of Akron. (Earlier reports on this research have appeared in First Things.) Like all survey results, these have limitations, but their strength is a detailed measure of key religious groups, allowing for a nuanced discussion of the faith-based vote.
A good place to begin is with the most significant religious groups in the 2008 electorate, as detailed in the table printed here below. The table lists fifteen groups in roughly descending order based on the numbers of those who voted for Obama. (The relative size of these groups as a percentage of the electorate is listed in the first column.) These categories are defined by religious affiliation and religiosity.
Religious affiliation has always provided—and still provides—a powerful connection between faith and the presidential vote. At present, for example, the Democrats have strong support from Black Protestants, and the Republicans have substantial backing from White Evangelical Protestants. Over the last three decades, however, religiosity began to influence the vote independently of religious affiliation, with less traditionally religious voters favoring the Democrats and their more traditionally religious coreligionists preferring the Republicans. The God Gap, where more and less frequent church attendance matches partisan voting, is a commonly cited version of this pattern.
Throughout American history, religious affiliation has been closely associated with race and ethnicity, together creating distinctive “ethnoreligious” groups. The first category in the table, Black Protestants, is a good example, and so are the third and fourth categories, Ethnic Catholics / Other Christians and Ethnic Protestants. Led by Hispanics, these composite categories include other nonwhites as well. The second category in the table, Other Faiths, is also a composite, made up of small ethnoreligious communities largely from outside of Christianity (particularly Jews and Muslims).
People unaffiliated with organized religion are the next category in the table. In some respects, the Unaffiliated are a product of the assimilation of ethnoreligious groups into the broader society. But in other respects they are a product of secularization and the decline of traditional religiosity. The Unaffiliated are hardly monolithic, ranging from atheists to the “spiritual but not religious,” but they share a detachment from organized religion.
The impact of both assimilation and secularization is evident in the remaining categories: White Catholics, White Mainline Protestants, a composite category of White Other Christians (Eastern Orthodox, for example, and Latter-day Saints), and White Evangelical Protestants. Most of these groups had their origins in immigration by European ethnoreligious groups, now largely assimilated (such as Scotch Presbyterians, Dutch Calvinists, and Polish Catholics). But they are also products of religious innovation, including revivals, schisms, and mergers. As a consequence, there is a good bit of diversity within these religious groups.
The influence of secularization is one aspect of such diversity, and it can be seen in the subdivisions based on religiosity within the three largest white Christian religious traditions: traditionalists (with the most traditional beliefs and practices), centrists (with moderate levels of traditional beliefs and practices), and modernists (with the least traditional beliefs and practices). These subdivisions are defined by basic beliefs, such as belief in a personal God, and practices, such as regular attendance at worship services.
This structure of the faith-based vote, based on combinations of religious affiliation and religiosity, is useful in reviewing the results of the 2008 election. The cornerstone of Obama's vote was strong support from racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. Obama did very well among Black Protestants, obtaining more than 9 in 10 of their votes. Conversely, McCain did much more poorly with these voters than Bush did in 2004—but roughly the same as Bush in 2000, when Black Protestants rallied to Al Gore. Black Protestants turned out in larger numbers in 2008, however, with some evidence suggesting that they cast ballots at higher rates than whites. As a consequence, Black Protestants accounted for about 20 percent of all Obama's ballots and roughly 1 percent of McCain's vote.
Obama also did well in the composite category of Other Faiths, winning some fourth-fifths of their votes, an improvement over the three-quarters Kerry obtained in 2004. Some members of this category, such as Jews, had been skeptical of Obama but ended up voting more Democratic than in 2004.
In addition, Obama improved with the composite category of Ethnic Catholics / Other Christians, garnering almost three-quarters of their votes, an increase over the two-thirds Kerry received in 2004. A large portion of these ballots came from Latino Catholics, but other nonwhite Catholics and Christians also voted Democratic. Obama showed the largest gains among Ethnic Protestants, where he won a majority, more than doubling Kerry's showing in 2004. Latino Protestants made up a large portion of this category, a group that Bush won in 2004 but that McCain was unable to hold in 2008, when they returned to their previous Democratic preference.
Although the Democratic vote of these religious minorities was not new in 2008, it was larger and more unified than in the past. Taken together, these religious minorities provided nearly two-fifths of all Obama's ballots. In contrast, McCain received one-eighth of his votes from these religious groups.
It is hardly surprising that the first viable African American presidential candidate, with an immigrant father and a childhood spent outside the continental United States, would have special appeal to these religious minorities. In this regard, the Obama coalition resembled Democratic coalitions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but with a different set of ethnoreligious groups. In 2008, these religious minorities gave very high priority to economic issues, but they reported similar priorities in 2004. And as in 2004, they tended to hold liberal views on economic policy and to oppose the Iraq War. (Ethnic Protestants were the most moderate on these issues.) Other issues, such as civil rights, immigration, and homeland security, may have been of special importance to one or another of these groups as well.
Black Protestants, Ethnic Catholics, and Ethnic Protestants nonetheless held conservative positions on cultural issues: A majority of each group was pro-life on abortion and opposed same-sex marriage. Indeed, African American and Hispanic Californians were crucial to the passage of Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage. The Other Faiths held strongly liberal views on these cultural issues.
Another key element of the Obama coalition was the Unaffiliated. Here Obama won almost three-quarters of the ballots, a figure only slightly higher than Kerry's total in 2004. Indeed, the Unaffiliated have become a major Democratic constituency, providing the single largest source of votes for Kerry. In 2008, this group fell to second place, though still accounting for one-sixth of the Obama vote. The Unaffiliated provided McCain with about one-fifteenth of all his ballots.
The Unaffiliated also gave high priority to the economy and were consistently liberal, especially on cultural issues. Some analysts speculated that the Obama campaign's religious outreach would alienate these less religious and nonreligious voters. This result apparently did not happen, despite an increased political prominence of secular activists. Maintaining strong support from this constituency was central to the Obama coalition: The combination of minority and unaffiliated voters made up more than half of all Obama's ballots.
A major target of the religious outreach program of the Obama campaign was White Catholics, widely perceived as swing voters in presidential elections. In this task Obama was assisted by newly energized progressive Catholic activists. The results were mixed and intriguing. First, Obama won two-thirds of the Modernist Catholic vote, but this figure was down substantially from the three-quarters won by Kerry in 2004. Kerry himself could be considered a member of this category, and that fact may help explain the difference. Another possibility may be that McCain's image as a maverick had some residual appeal. Still, Obama's margin among Modernist Catholics was higher than the Democratic margin in 2000, suggesting a long-term trend toward the Democrats. Modernist Catholics held consistently liberal positions on economic, foreign-policy, and cultural issues.
A strikingly different pattern occurred among Centrist Catholics. Obama lost this group, attaining about one-third of their votes, a figure down from Kerry's two-fifths in 2004. The Centrist Catholics also gave high priority to the economy but held conservative views on economic policy as well as being pro-life and supporting the Iraq War. Centrist Catholics were a bright spot for McCain, who needed to expand support among white Christians in response to Obama's appeal to religious minorities. Assistance from conservative Catholic activists may have helped McCain with this group.
As one might expect, Obama also lost the Traditionalist Catholics, obtaining two-fifths of their votes. Nonetheless, he did better with the Traditionalists than with the Centrist Catholics and markedly better than Kerry's one-fifth in 2004. This result is a surprise, being the only instance where a group of Traditionalists voted more Democratic than their Centrist coreligionists. This change represents a modest closing of the God Gap among white Catholics (although McCain still did well among regular Mass attenders overall).
Opposition to the Iraq War may account for Obama's gains among Traditionalist Catholics: In 2004 more than three-quarters supported the war, but a majority opposed it in 2008. The Catholic Church opposed the Iraq War and its leaders, from the pope to parish priests, regularly criticized it. In addition, prominent Catholics joined the debate on related policies, such as the interrogation, surveillance, and detention practices of the Bush administration. It is interesting, however, that such policies could influence these voters, given their other issue positions. For example, Traditionalist Catholics were staunchly pro-life on abortion and, like the Centrist Catholics, tended to hold conservative views on economic issues. And as in 2004, they gave lower priority to economic matters than many other religious groups.
If Centrist Catholics were a bright spot for McCain, then Traditionalist Catholics were a major disappointment. This outcome may reflect the often intense competition between progressive and conservative Catholic activists for the votes of the most committed Catholic voters. Overall, white Catholics made up one-sixth of the Obama vote and one-fifth of McCain's supporters. If white Catholic ballots are added to minority and Unaffiliated voters, the total accounts for almost three-quarters of all Obama's ballots.
The Obama campaign and its progressive religious allies also targeted White Mainline Protestants. As with White Catholics, Obama won the Modernist Mainline, obtaining three-fifths of the vote. But his margin fell behind the two-thirds Kerry won in 2004. Since Obama could be considered a member of this group of liberal Mainline Protestants, this pattern is a surprise, especially because these Modernists held consistently liberal issue positions. Here, too, McCain's maverick image may have retained some appeal. Nonetheless, Obama's performance with this group was better than that of the Democrats in 2000, when Bush won a majority of the Modernist Mainline. As with Modernist Catholics, the 2008 result suggests that a long-term shift toward the Democrats may be underway.
Obama also won a slim majority of Centrist Mainline Protestants, improving slightly over Kerry's performance in 2004. Unlike the Centrist Catholics, the Centrist Mainliners have been moving in a Democratic direction over the last several elections. Economic priorities may well have been a factor in this change, but there is also evidence of a liberal shift on economic and foreign policy.
As with Catholics, Obama lost Mainline Traditionalists, obtaining about one-third of the vote. Here he did slightly less well than Kerry did in 2004. This result was another positive for McCain, who needed strong support from this Republican constituency. The Traditionalist Mainliners provided something of a counterpoint to Traditionalist Catholics: They reported high economic priorities and were divided on economic policy and abortion but were strong supporters of the Iraq War. Overall, McCain obtained a bit more than one-sixth of his votes from white Mainline Protestants, and Obama a little less than one-sixth. If Mainline Protestants are added to the Obama coalition, the total comes to nearly 90 percent of all the Democratic ballots.
Another place where Obama gained was with the composite category of White Other Christians: He received more than one-quarter of the vote, up from Kerry's one-fifth in 2004. This result is also a surprise, because the largest denomination in the category is the Latter-day Saints, one of the most Republican religious communities in the nation. True to past form, the Other Christians were consistently conservative on the issues, especially cultural ones, though they gave the economy high priority in 2008. It is also possible that the Mormon controversies of the Republican primary season redounded to Obama's benefit. This group is another place where Obama made modest gains in a Republican constituency.
Speculation about White Evangelical Protestants dominated campaign commentary, in part because Obama and his progressive allies targeted these voters but also because McCain struggled for their support. As with Catholics and Mainliners, Obama did best with Modernist Evangelicals, receiving more than two-fifths of their ballots, a figures slightly less than Kerry received in 2004—and a much lower figure than the majority Al Gore won in 2000.
Obama gained modestly with Centrist Evangelicals, receiving a little less than one-third of their votes, up slightly from Kerry's showing in 2004 and basically in line with previous elections. In 2008, Modernist Evangelicals were pro-choice on abortion, moderate on economic issues, and strong supporters of the Iraq War. Centrist Evangelicals were more conservative on all these issues, especially on cultural matters, but gave very high priority to the economy.
Interestingly, the religious group perceived to be most skeptical of McCain during the campaign, Traditionalist Evangelicals, gave him about 90 percent of their ballots—about the same as they gave Bush in 2004. This group of values voters assigned the highest priority to cultural issues. As one might expect, this group held strong pro-life views on abortion, but they were also strong supporters of the Iraq War and strong economic conservatives. But this key Republican constituency appears to have had lower turnout than in 2004.
In sum, there was relatively little change among white Evangelicals in 2008: McCain substantially held the Republican Evangelical base and Obama made only modest gains. McCain did not obtain an increase in Evangelical ballots, something he needed given Obama's gains among religious minorities. Overall, White Evangelicals and Other White Christians provided McCain with more than two-fifths of all his ballots and made up about one-tenth of all Obama's votes. However, there is some evidence that Obama did better with White Evangelicals in battleground states, where the contests were very competitive, the Democratic outreach particularly intense, and the economy especially troubled.
Clearly race and ethnicity were powerful elements in the religious vote in 2008. Obama received unusually strong backing from nonwhites. If white Christians had been as strongly for McCain as the religious minorities had been for Obama, McCain would have won the election handily. The prospect of racial polarization received considerable attention during the campaign, but, in the end, it did not have the effects many predicted.
The religious coalition that elected Obama was much like the Democratic vote in recent elections: strong support from minority religious groups, the Unaffiliated, and white modernist Christians. In 2008, Obama expanded the level of support from religious minorities and made some modest gains among other groups of white Christians. The latter gains were offset somewhat by lost ground among white modernist Christians and Centrist Catholics. From this perspective, one can see why the pastoral controversies with Reverends Wright and Pfleger were problematic for the Obama campaign: They threatened this biracial expansion of religious support.
By the same token, the religious coalition that voted for McCain resembled the Republican vote in recent elections, with strong support from White Evangelical Protestants and traditionalist Christians. In 2008, McCain lost small parts of this coalition and failed to expand his support from key constituencies. One can see some fraying of the traditionalist core of the Republican coalition, including defections by Traditionalist Catholics and Other Christians. Here too one can see why the pastoral controversies with Reverends Hagee and Parsley were a problem for McCain: They threatened his appeal to religious voters, even conservatives, who were not Traditionalist Evangelicals.
This relative stability in the major parties' coalitions does not mean that religion was unimportant to the results. Even casual inspection of the table on page 45 reveals huge differences in the presidential vote across religious categories. The relevance of religion to the vote was surely the prime motivation for the extensive faith-based politics of the campaign. But it is also clear that a variety of issues mattered to the different kinds of religious voters. For example, the poor economy may well have helped Obama with some religious voters (such as Centrist Mainline Protestants), but it may not have mattered as much with other religious voters (such as Traditionalist Catholics).
Taken together, the results of 2008 reveal little evidence of a fundamental shift in the structure of faith-based voting. Just two groups showed changes large enough to alter their relative order in the presidential vote: Ethnic Protestants (who switched from Republican to Democratic) and Traditionalist Catholics (who became more Democratic than the Centrist Catholics).
Instead of a fundamental shift in the structure of the faith-based vote in 2008, there was variation within the structure. Evidence can be seen in the net Democratic vote between 2004 and 2008 (found in the last table column). Obama improved in 9 of the 15 religious categories, but, of those groups, just 3 showed double-digit gains, with another 3 matching or exceeding his overall gain of 5 percentage points. The remaining 9 groups showed small changes or losses.
Of course, the cumulative effect of these shifts was large enough for Obama to win the White House in a convincing fashion. Obama made the structure of faith-based voting work for him at the ballot box. But there is no clear indication that a new era in faith-based politics is about to begin. New candidates, controversies, and circumstances could easily produce other variations within the structure of the faith-based vote—and, as the 2008 and 2004 elections revealed, both Democrats and Republicans can elect presidents within the current structure of faith-based voting.
Nonetheless, some aspects of the 2008 vote suggest possibilities for longer-term structural change. One intriguing result is the apparent Democratic trend among Modernist Catholics and Mainline Protestants. If this trend continues, these modernist groups would eventually vote Democratic at the same levels as do the Unaffiliated or the Other Faiths. At the same time, McCain's backing from Traditionalist Mainline and Evangelical Protestants suggests that traditionalists could well maintain or expand their Republican vote. Under this scenario, the God Gap would grow larger. If this trend were taken to its logical conclusion, religious affiliation would cease to matter and religiosity would be the dominant factor in faith-based voting.
Such a development would seem to benefit the Democrats more than the Republicans. But if these differences spread to religious minorities—so that the traditionalists among Black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, Jews, and Muslims would vote Republican—the net effect would be a gain for the GOP. A crucial factor in this scenario is the priority assigned to cultural issues and thus the relative numbers of the values voters. How Obama handles issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage could have a long-term impact on the structure of the faith-based vote. And such an impact could be larger if Obama's tenure in the White House lessens the impact of racial and ethnic differences in the electorate.
Then there is the intriguing fact that Traditionalist Catholics voted more Democratic than did Centrist Catholics. If such a pattern were to expand, then Catholics would become less divided internally and the God Gap would grow smaller. If taken to its logical conclusion, this pattern could produce something like the “Catholic vote” of previous eras, with the political impact of religiosity fading away. A crucial factor in this scenario is the emergence of a consensus among Catholics on economic or foreign-policy issues. Obama's efforts in these areas could have a long-term impact on the faith-based vote by uniting—or further dividing—religious communities.
A final possibility reflects areas of Obama's strength that are tied to major demographic trends. For example, many of the religious minorities that supported Obama are growing in number, and, at the same time, the unaffiliated population is expanding as well. These two trends come together in Obama's strong support from younger voters, who are found disproportionately among religious minorities and more likely to be religiously unaffiliated.
Initially these trends would shift the center of gravity of the faith-based vote toward the Democrats, although eventually the effects might even out: Immigrants assimilate, the unaffiliated become converts, and young people age. But in the longer term, such trends and countertrends could change the structure of the faith-based vote. Both the Democrats and Republicans—and all manner of religious activists—will have strong incentives to respond to these trends in innovative ways. And it could be that some new aspect of religion and some new set of issues will alter the structure of the faith-based vote.
The seeds of these possibilities can be glimpsed in the controversy surrounding Rick Warren. As an evangelical pastor, he is part of the debate over cultural issues, which is a source of faith-based divisions. But as an institution builder, he represents the role of religion in fostering social order at home and abroad, a potential source of consensus within religious communities. And he seems acutely aware of the demographic trends that are transforming America and the world, especially among the young. The Obama administration may well encourage one of these possibilities, but, for the next four years, it will operate within the confines of the present structure of faith-based politics.
John C. Green is distinguished professor of political science and director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.