If you believe the conventional wisdom, the 1996 elections were “valueless.” And indeed, moral concerns played a very modest role in the campaign. Religious conservatives complained about voters’ indifference toward abortion and President Clinton’s evident character flaws, while religious liberals lamented public apathy toward social injustice and Speaker Gingrich’s ethical lapses. These complaints fit nicely with the most common explanation of the electoral results, namely, that “the economy did it.” Prosperity led self-interest to trump all other values; personal gain, present or prospective, skewed the country’s moral compass. In this view, the absence of all but material concerns ensured that the elections were seen as valueless”they resolved little. A chastened Democrat renewed his lease on the White House, humbled Republicans retained their grip on Congress, and a majority of voters stayed home on election day. It was as though the nation had experienced a pervasive hardening of the heart and deliberately chose to settle for half a loaf.
There is much to be said for this portrayal of the 1996 campaign, but like most conventional wisdom, its insights are overstated. In reality, the 1996 elections reflected not the absence of values but rather a clash of values. The campaign revealed both the death throes of an old political order and the birth pangs of a new one. These changes are creating new electoral alignments, altering the framework through which short-term economic forces are interpreted politically, and perhaps setting the stage for an eventual resolution of the current impasse.
A good way to illustrate this transition is to look at the 1996 presidential and congressional vote of the most important religious traditions. Religious traditions are critical repositories of cultural values and intimately connected to national politics. It is worth reviewing the political role of such traditions in American elections before taking a closer look at 1996.
When we analyzed for First Things the results of the 1992 election (“It’s the Culture, Stupid!” April 1994), we argued that a full understanding required attention to the cultural underpinnings of national politics. Conventional explanations of that election exaggerated the role of short-term economic forces, ignoring the contexts in which such factors were interpreted by voters. Members of distinct religious traditions saw the issues differently, and as a result these religious groups were critical both to the formation of party coalitions and to the way individuals voted.
Religious traditions have been important elements in electoral configurations throughout American history. But with changes in the nature of American religion over the past generation the links between religion and politics have been transformed. Historic conflicts between major American religious traditions such as the classic confrontations of Protestant and Catholic are being replaced by vigorous disputes within traditions. This development is creating cross-tradition alliances, as religious “liberals” from several traditions battle their “conservative” counterparts. This shift from “ethnocultural” to “ideological” coalitions has important implications for national politics.
The key feature of historic ethnocultural party coalitions was that conflicts were between , not within , religious groups. Particularistic religious beliefs, practices, and identifications, often intimately linked to ethnicity or race, combined to produce and maintain characteristic group values. In other words, believing, behaving, and belonging reinforced each other to produce distinctive religious traditions. In this sense, “identity politics” is nothing new, but has long been the stuff of American party politics. As historians have amply demonstrated, these distinctive values linked the members of religious traditions to specific parties and candidates. Political leaders have always been keenly aware that religious traditions represented a reservoir of potential support and frequently appealed to voters on the basis of religious values. Because of the country’s great ethnic and religious diversity, and the constraints created by the two-party system, such appeals inevitably created coalitions of diverse groups. These alliances were fragile and easily disrupted, inevitably evolving in response to political and social change. Some changes resulted from the shifting strategies of party politicians, but most reflected developments within the religious sector itself. Immigration and revivalism, for instance, created new traditions, while cultural assimilation and social accommodation altered old ones.
Although the New Deal Democracy is often seen as an economic coalition of the “have-nots” against the economic elite, FDR’s alignment was also a classic example of ethnocultural politics, an alliance of southern evangelical Protestants, northern Catholics and Jews, black Protestants, and the small secular population. While these religious traditions often quarreled among themselves, they were all outsiders, united against the culturally dominant mainline Protestants in the “Grand Old Party.” The often bitter conflicts between the Democratic “coalition of minorities” and the Republican “WASP alliance” still echo in contemporary politics. Such disagreements were rooted in the distinctive values of religious traditions, arising from the reinforcing effects of believing, behaving, and belonging.
Ethnocultural divisions are still a basic element of contemporary party coalitions, but they have been reshaped in important ways since the New Deal. Some changes are variations on the old ethnocultural theme: Catholic-Protestant animosities have faded, the increase in Hispanic numbers has altered the Catholic community, racial concerns have pushed Black Protestants ever deeper into the Democratic camp, and so on. Other changes in the American religious landscape, however, may be more portentous. The secular population has become much larger, culturally distinctive, and politically aggressive. Of equal import is the rise of conflict within major religious traditions. Key aspects of religion”believing, behaving, and belonging”no longer reinforce each other, but instead create sharply divergent values among members of the same religious tradition.
These internal divisions are principally between “modernists” and “traditionalists.” In the largest sense, both groups represent responses to social modernization and secularizing tendencies in American life. Modernists in each tradition have responded to such forces by revising historic religious beliefs, producing new rituals or practices, and identifying with religious movements seeking reform or “progress” in religious communities. In contrast, traditionalists have reacted to change by reemphasizing orthodox religious beliefs, stressing historic religious practices, and identifying with religious movements working to maintain or restore the “old-time religion.” This new divide is ideological in the sense that it creates religious “liberals” (who would liberate religion from the past) and “conservatives” (who would conserve the religion of the past) within each religious tradition.
Not surprisingly, these new rivals often dislike each other, sometimes with a fervor once reserved for competing religious traditions. In a few instances, the conflict actually splits religious communities, as in the Southern Baptist case, or threatens such division, as among Catholics. But even where less intense, the impact of these disagreements is pervasive among American religious groups and widely recognized. Robert Wuthnow has described the process as the “restructuring of American religion,” while James Davison Hunter has offered the more martial rubric of “culture wars.”
These new religious divisions have had substantial political consequences. One result has been the development of what Robert Bellah has called the “caucus church.” Within many denominations there are growing numbers of organizations dedicated to pressing rival agendas on both religious issues and public affairs. Another result has been the attempt to form ideological alliances across religious communities, as traditionalists in different religious groups find that they have more in common with each other than they do with their modernist coreligionists, while modernists discover similar congruities. Both Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition envisioned an alliance of traditionalists, a true “religious right.” Liberal counterparts such as the Road to Renewal and the Interfaith Alliance anticipate a coalition of modernists, an analogous “religious left.” These new organizations and new alliances have been steadily incorporated into Republican and Democratic leadership elites, and from there into voter alignments.
What were the implications of these fundamental changes in the religious order for the 1996 elections? The accompanying table reports on the religious vote, based on a large national survey of the adult population (conducted before and after the election at the University of Akron with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts). The table lists the 1996 presidential and congressional votes, and the relative size of the largest religious traditions and subtraditions. (Figures for the entire sample are given at the very bottom of the table.)
Three factors were used to define the sixteen categories listed here: degree of religious commitment, denominational affiliation, and ethnicity or race. First, the sample was divided into secular and religious populations. This initial cut produced the two categories at the top of the table: the “fully secular” and the “nominally religious.” The fully secular were respondents who claimed no religious belonging and reported no significant religious beliefs or behaviors (reporting no religious “preference,” holding few traditional beliefs, and seldom or never attending religious services). The nominally religious were much more diverse, including individuals claiming a religious affiliation but exhibiting few signs of religious belief or religious behavior, and those who reported no affiliation but held some religious beliefs and engaged in a modicum of religious behavior. Note that this collection of nominal Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and others closely resembles the fully secular group in voting behavior. Our incorporation of the nominally religious with the secular camp does reduce the size of the major religious traditions, at least in comparison with estimates by most other scholars, but seems to us to have ample empirical warrant.
Religious Traditions and the 1996 Elections
|Dole||Clinton||Perot*||GOP||DEM**|| Pop. |
| SECULAR |
| NON-CHRISTIAN |
| CATHOLIC |
|Traditionalist|| 52 |
| 39 |
| 9 |
| 63 |
| 37 |
| PROTESTANT |
|Modernist|| 48 |
| 42 |
| 10 |
| 60 |
| 40 |
|Traditionalist|| 74 |
| 22 |
| 4 |
| 79 |
| 21 |
|Traditionalist|| 63 |
| 31 |
| 6 |
| 72 |
| 28 |
| OTHER CHRISTIAN |
|Mormon|| 74 |
| 21 |
| 5 |
| 79 |
| 21 |
| ENTIRE SAMPLE |
| Italics: Voted Democrat ; Bold: Voted Republican |
|*In each row, Dole, Clinton, and Perot voted add to 100%|
|**In each row, GOP and Democratic vote add to 100%|
|***Entire column adds to 100%|
|Source: 1996 National Survey of Religion and Politics, University of Akron.|
Thus, nearly three-quarters of the population are “religious,” but in many different ways. We captured this diversity in two steps. First, we used combinations of denominational affiliation and ethnicity or race to identify eleven traditions and sub-traditions: Non-Christians (Jews and all others); Catholics (white, Hispanic, and black/other non-whites); Protestants (white evangelical and mainline, black, and Hispanic/other non-whites); and Other Christians (Mormons and all others).
Second, we subdivided the three largest traditions (white evangelicals, mainliners, and Catholics) into “modernist” and “traditionalist” categories, using combinations of beliefs, behaviors, and belonging peculiar to each tradition. Among evangelicals, for example, belief in biblical literalism, church attendance, and identification with fundamentalism or other sectarian religious movements defined these groups, while among Catholics, we used traditional Catholic beliefs, church attendance and confession, and identification with “traditional” or “progressive” movements in the Church. Although the distinctions reported here are fairly crude, they are also quite robust: alternative measures produce very similar results. The methods employed do not allow us to equate evangelical and Catholic traditionalists”only to say that evangelical and Catholic traditionalists are different from their modernist co-parishioners. The modernist/traditionalist distinction was not applied to some religious traditions because of the small number of respondents (Jews) and to others because the division revealed no political differences (black Protestants).
This categorization is very helpful: we can identify religious groups with distinctive voting behavior while also showing substantial political differences between “traditionalists” and “modernists” in each major tradition. The patterns show the outlines of both the old ethnocultural coalitions and the new ideological alliances. On the first count, the Democrats still comprise a coalition of minorities, but have also become a party of modernists and secularists. Note the strong backing for Clinton from blacks and Hispanics, Jews and other Non-Christians (the unanimous Democratic vote here is a statistical artifact). Among whites, though, modernists were by far the most Democratic, especially among mainline Protestants and Catholics. The Democrats did as well among the two secular categories.
The GOP is still largely an alliance of white Protestants, but increasingly also a party of religious traditionalists. All the white Protestant categories gave Dole substantial, if not always majority, support. Among white Protestants and Catholics, however, traditionalists were by far the most Republican in both presidential and congressional voting. Similarly, the GOP did well among smaller traditionalist contingents, such as Mormons. (The mixed results for the Other Christian category reflects its diversity, including groups as different as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Greek Orthodox.)
The 1996 vote clearly shows the transformation of the New Deal political alignments. The ancient cores of the Democratic and Republican parties”white Catholics and white mainline Protestants”have become swing constituencies, divided between modernists and traditionalists. Meanwhile, the growing numbers of nonwhites have moved to the center of the Democratic coalition, joined, at least for the moment, by the expanding secular population. White evangelicals, especially the most traditionalist, have become the core of the GOP electorate. Although white traditionalists tend to be outnumbered, the electoral scales are balanced somewhat by their greater turnout: ethnic and racial minorities, white modernists, and seculars voted less frequently.
What do our results reveal about the nature of voting coalitions? Dole received 37 percent of his votes from evangelicals and only 22 percent from the former mainstay of the Republican Party, mainline Protestants. More important, however, was that over half the Dole vote came from the three traditionalist groups within evangelical and mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, plus the religiously conservative Mormons. When modernist evangelicals are added to the mix almost two-thirds of the tenuous GOP coalition is accounted for.
The Clinton vote, in contrast, was strongest among minorities, the two secular groups, and religious modernists. Together, these groups accounted for close to 80 percent of the votes received by the President. Yet the Democratic coalition is fragile. The minorities are closer to traditionalists on social issues, but closer to modernists on economic matters. Finally, the Perot vote came substantially from the two secular groups (45 percent) while religious modernists made up another 25 percent of the Perot constituency.
The table results are quite potent. Statistical controls for income, gender, region, education, and age do not appreciably alter these patterns, although each has its own influence on the vote. As one might expect, the rich supported the GOP, and the gender gap benefited the Democrats. But, in fact, these religious categories were twice as powerful in predicting the vote as the next strongest demographic variables, income and gender. By the standards of public opinion research, these results are quite impressive, and are worth a little more exploration. We do that by focusing on the candidacies of Clinton, Perot, and Dole and their major constituencies”Catholics, seculars, and Protestants, respectively.
To win reelection in 1996, Bill Clinton’s task was straightforward: to retain the voters who elected him originally and expand his support enough to undercut his opponents, who collectively out-polled him in 1992. Clinton achieved the former goal and made some progress on the latter, expanding his vote share by 6 percent (from 43 to 49), although the decline in turnout (from 55 to 49 percent nationally) meant that he actually gained relatively few new votes.
White Catholics, especially the modernists, were key to Clinton’s success in both respects. In 1992, he received only about two-fifths of the modernist vote, with Perot getting almost one-fifth and Bush better than one-third. But in 1996 the President attracted 57 percent of modernist Catholics, with the increase coming almost equally from former Perot and Bush voters. Clinton also slowed the erosion of Democratic support among Catholic traditionalists, some three-fifths of whom backed other candidates in 1992 and 1996, and voted Republican in 1994. When combined with the strong Democratic leanings of Hispanic and other nonwhite Catholics, these trends explain the widely touted Democratic “revival” among Catholics.
No doubt the President’s carefully crafted appeals on social issues, from school uniforms to V-chips, and his rightward moves on economic questions, from balanced budgets to reinventing government, helped with Catholics. Of course, the President also irritated many Catholics by vetoing the late-term abortion bill and signing what some viewed as harsh welfare reform legislation. In fact, Clinton’s relative liberalism on all these issues was probably more important to his success than his studied “moderation.” For example, only 37 percent of the modernist Catholics held pro-life positions on abortion and more than half gave economic problems top priority. In contrast, 68 percent of traditionalist Catholics were pro-life, while only 40 percent gave priority to economic matters. While Catholic traditionalists are not yet as conservative as white Protestants on economic questions, they appear headed in that direction.
These patterns reveal the deep-seated differences among Catholics, which Clinton handled adroitly and his opponents failed to exploit. These differences are rooted in religion and culture, and appear to be widening. A good illustration of this point is the impact of age on the Catholic vote. In an important article in Commonweal (September 27, 1996), University of Notre Dame political scientist David Leege pointed out that older Catholics are mostly Democratic, while their younger coreligionists are more likely to turn to the GOP”a generation gap, if you will. And in fact, age still matters: the oldest cohort of Catholics, those who came of age during the New Deal, voted the most Democratic in 1996. But the modernist/traditionalist divide is clearly evident in this group, with 64 percent of the modernists voting for Clinton, but only 46 percent of the traditionalists. This division drops slightly for the Baby Boom generation, with 50 percent of modernists for Clinton, versus 33 percent of traditionalists, but widens among the Busters, whose modernists gave the President 61 percent, compared with 33 percent among traditionalists. Not surprisingly, this tendency extended to white nominal Catholics as well, where majorities backed Clinton in all generations (these data are subsumed in the “nominally religious” category in the table). Thus, although age helps explain the 1996 vote among Catholics (as well as other groups), it does not reduce the impact of religious differences.
Whatever else the Ross Perot phenomenon meant, it reflected widespread dissatisfaction with the major political parties and their candidates. And although Perot’s total declined sharply in 1996, it was still sufficient to deny Clinton a popular vote majority and Dole a shot at winning. Given the historic linkage between religious groups and party coalitions, it should come as no surprise that the Perot vote came substantially from secular voters, those disaffected from both religious and political institutions. In fact, as noted previously, the two secular categories produced almost 45 percent of Perot’s votes.
Although voters in the two secular categories are quite diverse, they have several things in common. Only about one-fifth of the fully secular and less than one-third of the nominally religious are pro-life on abortion. Similarly, few gave moral issues top priority, emphasizing economic matters instead. Second, these groups are also most likely to respond to short-term economic forces, given the lack of conventional religious ties that might anchor their political behavior. And the absence of institutional connection helps account for their rather weak turnout. Even so, the large size of the two secular groups helps explain the power of social liberalism in national politics.
So, Perot voters have in common conservative views on the economy and liberal views on social issues. While many supported the GOP in the 1980s and in the 1994 congressional election, relatively few see themselves as Republicans. They do, however, follow the direction of the cultural groups to which they have some residual attachment: for example, traditionalist evangelicals who voted for Perot supported Republicans in congressional contests, while secular Perot voters supported Democrats for the House and Senate.
As the Republican nominee, Bob Dole’s task in 1996 was also straightforward: to retain the support George Bush received in 1992 and find enough new voters to win. Dole largely achieved the former goal, but failed on the latter. He improved slightly on Bush’s share of the presidential vote, moving up from 38 to 41 percent, but because of the overall decline in turnout, actually polled fewer votes.
The key to Dole’s limited improvement were white Protestants. Among traditionalist evangelicals, GOP support rose from almost two-thirds in 1992 to 74 percent in 1996; similar gains occurred for traditionalist mainline Protestants (from 55 to 63 percent) and other traditionalist groups like Mormons (from 59 to 74 percent). More modest increases appeared for modernist evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics. Most of these gains came at Perot’s expense. In addition, Dole was aided by the fact that the general decline in turnout was smallest among traditionalists.
Thus, it is easy to understand why social conservatism is so central to Republican politics. All of the traditionalist groups were strongly pro-life, especially compared to their modernist counterparts, and all gave high priority to social issues in 1996. Despite the claims of moderate Republicans and the warnings of liberal journalists, it is hard to see how Republicans could ignore such a large constituency. In fact, the GOP could expand its support among traditionalist groups. Indeed, there is considerable merit to the argument that Dole’s lukewarm approach to late-term abortions and other social issues failed to mobilize the full potential of the traditionalist vote.
This last point brings to mind the so-called gender gap, the disadvantage Republicans have among women, a phenomenon that received much attention during the campaign. The usual presumption is that the gender gap is caused by social conservatism, but most studies show this is not the case; our own data suggest that the matter is quite complex. In 1996 the gender gap occurred even in strong GOP constituencies. For example, among traditionalist evangelicals, men gave 85 percent of their vote to Dole, compared with 64 percent for women, a twenty-one point difference; comparable figures for traditionalist Catholics were 58 and 47 percent, respectively. As one might expect, the gap was even larger among modernists, with modernist evangelical men backing Dole with 61 percent of their votes, while their female counterparts gave him only 35 percent. Among modernist Catholics the Dole percentages were 43 percent for men and only 20 percent for women. Interestingly, the gender gap was much smaller among traditionalist mainline and secular voters.
Thus, the Republicans had problems with women in both traditionalist and modernist groups. While the gender gap is significant, it did not diminish the effects of religion on the vote. These patterns tend to confirm the suspicion that the gender gap resulted as much from economic as social conservatism: women tend to be more liberal on social welfare concerns than men. If women had simply voted Republican at the same rate as their male religious counterparts, the election would have been much closer. Economic issues are important to closing the gender gap, but also for expanding the GOP coalition beyond the traditionalist camp.
Two large groups suggest themselves as potential candidates for inclusion in a larger Republican coalition: seculars and white Protestant modernists. Both groups contain a fair number of economic conservatives, and the GOP’s free market philosophy attracts some of these voters and could attract more. The stumbling block is, of course, social issues, which have produced intra-party differences that have attained legendary status. Here the GOP walks a tightrope: moderation is necessary to expand the party coalition, but too much moderation undercuts the party’s base. Of course, Dole’s tax plan, coupled with an arms-length approach to abortion, was designed to assemble just such a broader electoral coalition. It is hard to tell whether the failure of this strategy was in the original design, or in its execution by the Dole campaign.
The fragility of the major party coalitions is amply demonstrated by looking at the other victors in 1996, namely, the congressional Republicans. Altogether, GOP House candidates captured one-half of the vote, some nine percentage points better than Dole. And the pattern of support is quite similar: Republican House candidates assembled an alliance based on religious traditionalists. Note, however, that they did markedly better than Dole in each traditionalist group. To this traditionalist base, they added significant gains among modernists (especially modernist evangelicals), ethnic minorities, and even seculars. Much as Bill Clinton did at the presidential level, Newt Gingrich and associates assembled a fragile coalition to remain in power.
There are, of course, important differences between several hundred House races, spread across the country, and a presidential campaign. For four decades, the Democrats held Congress by responding to the dominant concerns of voters in individual districts, while their presidential candidates often failed to assemble a winning coalition. Now the Republicans seem to confront a similar dilemma: the traditionalist core of the party can produce majorities in many places, but is insufficient to carry the presidency by itself. In any case, a comparison of the presidential and congressional votes starkly reveals the lack of consensus on values that characterized the election.
In his comprehensive review of the 1996 vote ( America at the Polls 1996 ), Everett Ladd argued that the link between religion and politics was changing from “denomination” to “religiosity,” that is from the old ethnocultural coalitions to the new ideological alliances. There is much to be said for this interpretation. The old coalitions based on conflicts between groups are being replaced by new coalitions based on conflicts within groups. This change has important implications for the nature of electoral alignments, the framework through which short-term economic forces are interpreted, and the resolution of the present impasse in government.
Under these circumstances, the logic of party coalitions will make cultural values increasingly important. For the Democrats, victory requires maximizing the vote from ethnic minorities, modernists, and secularists. Securing both the necessary turnout and party loyalty will be difficult without stressing values central to these traditions. By the same logic, Republican success demands maximizing traditionalist votes, which dictates stressing “family values.” But, as we have seen, neither party can win with its core supporters alone, and thus must leave elbow room to chip away at the other party’s base. As a result, a complex weave of values is likely to be the norm, sometimes cast in big, bright colors and sometimes, as in 1996, sewn in small, gray stitches.
This emphasis on values will influence the ways in which short-term economic forces are interpreted politically. Modernists and their allies may increasingly evaluate economic performance from the perspective of social reform. Thus, even good times could be suspect if the benefits are not distributed justly or if the environment is degraded. And more modest economic performance could be accepted with equanimity if social equality or environmental quality were enhanced. A similar tradeoff may appear for traditionalists, who would evaluate the economy from the perspective of personal responsibility and social order. Thus, rapid growth may be criticized if it disrupts communities and customs, while a more settled economy may be praised if it encourages thrift and industry. None of this is to suggest that economic issues do not matter, but how and why they matter depends on the cultural context.
Finally, the new cultural divide may help resolve the present political impasse. The sorting out of modernist and traditionalist coalitions may ultimately give the Democrats the votes to recapture the Congress or, alternatively, allow Republicans to regain the White House. From the perspective of our findings, either option seems plausible, and depends on winning the values argument with a relatively small number of voters. But besides party government, the impasse could be resolved in another fashion: the emergence of a common agenda. Michael Barone suggests such an agenda as a “Tocquevillian” society that is “egalitarian, individualistic, decentralized, religious, property-loving, and lightly governed.” Modernists and traditionalists surely disagree on the meaning of these values, but just as certainly regard them all as worthy of disagreement. This is an agenda that both Bill Clinton, who has called for “the end of big government,” and Newt Gingrich, who talks of “reviving American civilization,” could embrace with joy, if only the joy of combat. If any of this is so, then the 1996 election was hardly valueless.
Messrs, Green, Kellstedt, Guth, and Smidt are professors of political science at the University of Akron, Wheaton College, Furman University, and Calvin College respectively. They are the co-authors of Religion and the Culture Wars (Rowman and Littlefield) and The Bully Pulpit (forthcoming from the University Press of Kansas).
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?