Nov 11, 2014

What the religious right cares about

The religious right is defined by its issues. The "social issues": Abortion, the family, prayer in schools, traditional values, bringing America back to God, and so on.

And yet, maybe that's wrong.

Last week's election saw massive turnout from voters identified with the religious right. White evangelicals, other conservative Protestants and white Catholics arguably made up the most significant bloc of voters in the midterms. They decided the election decisively for the Republicans. The landslides were their landslides. The victories their victories.

However, there's very little in those victories that really seems to connect with the social values that are supposed to be the big concerns of the voters who voted in such numbers last week. If you look at how Republicans won, if you look at how the elections were defined, if you look at how the results are being understood, it's not in terms familiar to definitions of the religious right.

The group that was, according to the data, so critical, did not seem to care about the things that they are said to care about most of all.

There are several explanations of this: Possibly this is a problem of a bad narrative, where the religious right's issues don't fit the expectations of those telling the story of the election, and thus get de-emphasized or even ignored. Possibly the religious right gets hijacked into an agenda it doesn't share.

Another possibility, though, is that this bloc of voters has been misunderstood and mischaracterized. Perhaps the issues of this election were their issues.

Maybe the media's not wrong and the voters actually know what they're doing. If that's possible, then there is another alternative account of the midterm election that opens up, where the religious right was influential even as none of their signature issues were at play, because they have been misunderstood, defined too rigidly and also just wrongly.

Consider:

The religious right was key to the Republican's plans for the midterm. Specifically in terms of turnout. In some races that were critical to the Republican's goal of taking the Senate, evangelicals showed up at the polls in disproportionate number, making up a majority of the voters.

Further, the extensively researched accounts of the election, published by the New York Times, Politico and the Washington Post, all say that the signature religious right issue, abortion, was critical to the Republican's victory. It wasn't critical in the typically way, though.

Look at the Washington Post story, which was partly reported by Robert Costas, who used to be an editor for National Review and is known for his solid and reliable reporting on conservatives. The Washington Post did four dozen interviews with candidates, campaign operatives, party leaders and Super PAC strategists. Their reporters found the Republican's successful plan was 1) to make the election about Barack Obama and 2) candidate discipline.

Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is quoted as saying: "We had to recruit candidates, and we had to train them . . . And we had to prevent the mistakes that have plagued our party."

By mistakes, Collins meant like those made famous by former Senator Todd Akin, whose election loss has been attributed to his indelicate statements of pro-life positions. To avoid a repeat of that, candidates were given training by the NRSC. The first lesson: when the candidates landed at the Washington DC airport, they were surrounded by Republican staffers posing as newspaper reporters shouting questions about abortion and rape.

"It's not about replacing what they believe," Collins said to the Washington Post. "Pro-life is a majority view in this country, so how do you talk about it in terms that are relevant and not characterized as extreme?"

In other words, candidates need to be disciplined not to appeal to pro-choice voters or voters who don't think abortion is a major issue. They need to be disciplined to win the confidence and support of pro-life voters. These voters are also sometimes known as the religious right. Collins is suggesting that training candidates not to go on crazy rants about abortion is a strategy designed to appeal to the people who care most about abortion, the people who make up more than a third of the voters in the midterm election, and in some states more than half.

The religious right has been defined most of all around its concern over this one social issue, abortion. It appears, though, that however committed they are to supporting pro-life candidates, the Republican party has recognized they won't support pro-life candidates who are bad candidates.

Perhaps the rank and file of the religious right have been misunderstood. Even on this issue of abortion, it seems white evangelical and Catholic voters who vote for Republicans are not as hardline as they've been imagined. In Tennessee, where a significant percentage of the voters are evangelicals, voters gave the legislature the right to further regulate abortion, a move that was widely understood to make getting abortions more difficult. In some parts of the state more than 70 percent of voters approved of this. The measure won a majority in every county. And yet in North Dakota, where a majority of voters are also evangelical, a pro-life amendment to the state constitution to say that life begins at conception failed. North Dakota voters rejected the "personhood amendment" by 2-to-1. The state was believed to be the most favorable state for this advancement of the pro-life agenda, but it failed by a lot. This, along with Mississippi's defeat of a personhood amendment in 2011, probably means this aspect of the pro-life political project is dead.

It just doesn't seem right that the religious right voted against a ballot initiative that was one of their key issues. Maybe, though, this is because the actual religious right voters, as opposed to those speaking in their name, have been misunderstood.

In Colorado, the Republican senate candidate not only opposed a personhood amendment, he reversed himself on the issue and came out for policies that would make emergency contraception more readily available to women. He got the votes of 83 percent of the evangelicals who voted, and evangelicals made up a quarter of the electorate. Similarly, in the contested senate races in Virginia and North Carolina, the Republican candidates came out in support of making the morning-after pill available to women without a prescription. Many pro-life advocates consider the morning-after pill and some other forms of contraception, such as inter-utero devices, to cause abortions (the FDA disputes this). Yet, in Virginia and North Carolina, the religious right came out in large numbers and in large percentages supported those candidates.

Maybe this can characterized as a big betrayal, where Republicans take the support of the religious right and ignore their issues.

On the other hand, maybe the religious right voters are not as doctrinaire as they have been imagined. And maybe their issues are not as defining as has been imagined. Is it possible these voters were more concerned about the economy than whether or not women had easy access to emergency contraceptives?

The economy was by far the largest issue that voters say they are concerned about. According to an ABC exit poll, 45 percent said the economy was their top priority this election. Seven out of 10 voters said the economy is in bad shape, with voters roughly evenly divided on whether or not it was getting worse, getting better, or staying the same.

In states with the large evangelical electorates, the economy was also the biggest concern. In West Virginia, 61 percent of voters were evangelicals, and the economy was named the number one issue, with 56 percent saying they were very worried about the direction of the nation's economy in the next year. In Kentucky, 52 percent of the voters were evangelicals, and 53 percent of the voters said the economy was their major concern. In South Carolina, 40 percent of the voters were evangelicals, and 45 percent named the economy as the most important issue in the election. In Georgia it was the same: 39 percent of the voters were evangelical and the economy was the number one issue.

This election doesn't support the idea that religious right voters should be defined by their commitment to social issues. They're opposed to abortion and moved by rhetoric about defending the family, to be sure. Those are issues, but not necessarily the issues.

If anything, it would seem, from this election, that concerns about religion in the public square and the country's Christian heritage just kind of combine with concerns about health care policy and Barack Obama's competence as president and the economy into a kind of soup of pessimism. That's why the first part of the Republican's plan was to make the campaign about Obama.

Voters in general were pessimistic, this election. Two-thirds of voters in the Washington Post's exit polls said America was "on the wrong track." The religious right's defining issue, more than any specific issue, might be just this sort of pessimism. Each issue could be thought of as standing in for this message, that America is going the wrong way. Abortion means America is going the wrong way. Federal deficits mean America is going the wrong way. Obamacare means America is going the wrong way. Gay marriage means America's going the wrong way.

This is not to say that the religious right doesn't have specific issues. They're concerned about the economy. They want competent candidates. They're concerned about the social issues. But the election results suggest that the religious right's concerns are more robust than has generally been allowed.