Evangelicals: Voting Bloc or Mosaic?

The moment Rick Santorum dropped out of the presidential race, one question left standing was whether Mitt Romney could win the votes of Santorum enthusiasts, those who identify as “very conservative” or as evangelicals – as though evangelicals, 26 percent of the US population,(1) are a mono vocal bloc of conservative, religious outliers.

The candidates certainly approached them this way, wooing them in a joust to be the most religious, anti-abortion prince of all. The US press, after a moment’s pause when primaries didn’t show an evangelical monolith, returned to the usual story as soon as evangelicals went for Santorum in a few states: evangelicals are religio-political lemmings.

Barely noticed was that the voting tallies say otherwise. Evangelicals voted variously in the 2012 Republican primaries and, increasingly, some vote Democrat. Commenting on the primaries, Gary Bauer, president of the conservative American Values, noted: “These voters do not vote in lock step.”(2) Indeed. Some vote on religious grounds most of the time. But most vote out of a mix of concerns shaped by faith, but also income, education and critically, local socio-political culture.

When evangelicals vote Republican, they – like other party members – span the range from populist to business interests. Where there is less populist tradition, in Maine, Nevada, Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire,(3) evangelicals favored Romney. His supporters set up the web site Evangelicals for Mitt. In Virginia, they preferred Romney more strongly (62 percent) than did other Republicans (57 percent).(4)

Where evangelicals are divided populist/business, the vote is also split – in Maryland, evangelicals voted 41 percent for Romney, 39 percent for Santorum; in Arizona, 36 percent for Romney, 37 percent for Santorum. In Florida, 36 percent voted for Romney, 38 percent for Gingrich, who was there seen as the populist. Only 19 percent voted for Santorum, who there was the “religious” candidate. In Wisconsin, 43 percent voted for Santorum, 39 percent for Romney.(5)

Where there is significant populism, the candidate who succeeded in positioning himself as the populist hero, won. That was Newt Gingrich in South Carolina and Georgia;(6) Santorum in the February rural-state flurry;(7) Santorum for the rust-belt populists in Michigan;(8) and both Santorum and Gingrich in Mississippi and Alabama, yielding near-ties.(9) When Gingrich no longer looked electable, Santorum won Louisiana voters, evangelical and otherwise.(10) Commenting on the Illinois primary, Santorum summed up: “We won the areas that conservatives and Republicans populate”(11) – the rural and western regions. In the more urban, prosperous regions, Romney ran ahead and won the state.

Yet, evangelical political views are even more divided than this. While most vote Republican, many since 2005 have left the right, so to speak, owing to growing concern with environmental protection, poverty reduction and immigration reform. In 2008, a third of evangelicals under 40 voted Democrat; 26 percent of older white evangelicals did(12) (a five-point rise over 2004). Two evangelical ministers, Joel Hunter and Tony Campolo, helped write the Democrat Party platform and a third, Leah Daughtry, served as CEO of the 2008 Democratic National Convention Committee.

Is this a failure of faith? Should evangelical religious beliefs yield more unified political ones? Not necessarily, looking at evangelical history and doctrine, which holds a distinction between government and Gospel. Grounded in Augustine (his idea of “two cities”) and Luther (two kingdoms), the distinction notes that the jobs governments do differ from the “jobs” Jesus asked us to do to bring peace and justice. The Bible says, love your enemy, for instance; states don’t do that – they fight enemies. Noting this difference is meant not as a recommendation or justification for unjust states, but as description of our human, imperfect world. On the evangelical view, governments, though flawed, are needed to avoid chaos and crime. So, people “give unto Caesar” by choosing who’s best for the jobs governments do – and about that, citizens differ. But most of life is not a political election, so it’s serving, aiding and loving others everywhere that will, in the evangelical vision, create a better world. “The distinctly Kingdom question,” Midwestern megachurch pastor Greg Boyd writes, “is not, How should we vote?” but “How should we live?”(13)

This is not to say that believers sequester their religious values when they vote. They’re powerful principles in the mix – the way when you pick a plumber, you want her/him to be just and honest, but also able to unclog pipes. It’s more that maintaining the government. Gospel distinction allows believers – in the evangelical perspective – to follow one (Gospel) in their community and global activism precisely because it has not gotten gummed up by the corruptions of the other. The distinction between government and a transcendent ethics allows believers to hold to the “prophetic” role – speaking “truth to power” as the ancient Hebrew prophets did – when government is unjust.

This requires political independence, an idea with increasing emphasis since 2005, when Christianity Today lambasted the conflation of Biblical values and American or Republican ones.(14) In 2006, Frank Page, then president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, said, “I have cautioned our denomination to be very careful not to be seen as in lock step with any political party.”(15) The Evangelical Environmental Network, Evangelicals for Human Rights, Red Letter Christians and The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good have all had aims that conflict with Republican policies. In 2007, the National Association of Evangelicals, against the Bush administration, issued its “Evangelical Declaration against Torture.”(16) In 2010-2011, it repeatedly protested against Republican budget cuts for the needy.(17)

If this looks like a shift worth noting, it gets bigger when one looks at evangelical youth – the political future. The significance of the under-40 Democratic vote in 2008 grows when one considers that coming-of-age politics guides political preferences throughout life.(18) And as Jonathan Merritt, a young Southern Baptist pastor, said in 2008 of the Republican appeal to younger evangelicals, “The McCain campaign is really out to lunch.”(19)

Today, fully 65 percent of evangelicals ages 18-30 favor bigger government and more governmental social-service provision, such as Obama’s Affordable Care Act and government aid to the poor(20) – not exactly Republican positions. They are, as Associated Press religion writer Eric Gorski found, “even more anti-abortion than their elders” on ethical grounds, “but also keenly interested in the environment and poverty.”(21) Nor do they follow their elders on gays: by 2007, two-thirds did not consider homosexuality a major problem.(22) Christian gay student groups advocating for recognition on Christian campuses are on the rise. Belmont University amended its anti-discrimination policy in February 2011 to include homosexuals and recognized its first gay student organization. The same month, the student newspaper at Westmont College ran an open letter signed by 131 gay and gay-friendly alumni in support of gay students. Wheaton alumni have a Facebook page in support of gay students.”(23)

It would seem that if candidates continue to think of evangelicals as a monolithic bloc laminated together by one bright set of religious views, they stand to miss a good chunk of 75 million voters – and, given evangelical youth, more in the future.


1. See here.

2. See here.

3. See here and here.

4. See here.

5. See here, here and here.

6. See here.

7. Tennessee, Kansas, Colorado, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio.

8. See here.

9. See here.

10. See here.

11. See here.

12. See here.

13. Boyd, G. (2006). The myth of a Christian nation: How the quest for power is destroying the church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan publishing, p. 143.

14. See here.

15. Kirkpatrick, D. (2007, October 28). “The Evangelical Crackup,” The New York Times magazine.

16. See here.

17. See here, here and here.

18. See here.

19. See here.

20. See here.

21. See here.

22. Kinnaman, D., & Lyons, G. (2007). “Unchristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity and why it matters,” Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, p. 102.

23. See here.