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How Democrats became secular and Republicans became religious. (It's not what you think.)

- September 4, 2015

Stacey Kirby, left, and Roger McGee, both of the First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Va., Worship Team, sing during the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting  June 10, 2014, in Baltimore. (Steve Ruark/AP)
Back in 2012, partisan battles over religion continued. The Republican Party platform accused the Democratic Party of waging a “war on religion.” News media paid attention to the absence of the word “God” from the initial 2012 Democratic Party platform.
How did we get here? Ryan Claassen is a political scientist at Kent State University and  the author of a provocative new book called “Godless Democrats and Pious Republicans?” that seeks to explain the “God Gap” between the parties. He answered a few questions by e-mail. Below is an edited transcript.
JS: The “God Gap” means that people who are more religious have become a larger part of the Republican Party base, and people who are less religious have become a larger part of the Democratic Party base. What’s the conventional explanation for this trend? 
RC: Conventional wisdom says that Christian Right organizations, such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, mobilized religious activists on behalf of the Republican Party.
In reaction to the rising influence of the Christian Right, the story goes, “seculars” – those who do not attend religious services or claim an association with an organized religion – moved to the Democratic Party.
In other words, cycles of religious and secular mobilization and counter-mobilization transformed each party’s activists.
JS: Your story is different, though. You say it’s not just about mobilization. There are actually other forces at work. 
RC: That’s right. I question the conventional wisdom. Take the rise of evangelical Republican activists. One reason why they’ve increased as a part of the Republican base is as simple as an increase in the number of evangelicals in society as a whole. This is because of their robust birthrates, the fact that the children of evangelicals tend to identify as evangelicals as adults, and the fact that some people have converted to an evangelical faith. This helps to create the appearance of mobilization, but it’s not necessarily mobilization.
Similarly, if more evangelicals are voting, and more evangelical voters are supporting the Republican Party, then it is possible that the rise of evangelicals among GOP activists has nothing to do with mobilizing evangelical campaign activists.
JS: You mentioned demographic changes driven by birthrates and other factors. What are the key demographic changes driving the God Gap?
RC: One key change is the decline in the number of mainline Protestants coupled with the rise in evangelicals and seculars. Changes in society as a whole are reflected in the two parties’ activist bases.
JS: But how about the idea that certain groups within the public — like Evangelicals — have just become more political?  There’s this idea that Evangelicals used to shun politics in the here-and-now because they were more focused on, well, the afterlife.  But not any more.  Has this affected the God Gap? 
RC: I know something about this topic. As a Mennonite I graduated from a college owned by the Mennonite Church, Goshen College in Indiana, and my adviser there was an outspoken advocate of avoiding politics for religious reasons. But I vote regularly and I do not appear to be unusual among evangelicals in that sense. Relatively high turnout rates among evangelicals dating back to the early 1960s suggest that non-participation for religious reasons is not a major part of the story.
To start with, changes in turnout rates among mainline Protestants, evangelicals, and seculars are just not as impressive as the basic social changes in the sizes of these groups.
Moreover, the modest increase in voter participation among evangelicals is arguably due to the fact that they’ve become better educated and wealthier over time, not necessarily to mobilization.
JS: If it’s less about turnout, what about the idea that partisan loyalties have simply changed? You get a “God Gap” among party activists simply because evangelicals are now more loyal to the Republican Party, period. And ditto seculars and the Democratic Party.
RC: I do find that changes in party loyalty matter a great deal, but don’t forget that loyalty changes, while more impressive than turnout changes, are mostly dwarfed by demographic changes. It is true that evangelicals have become more loyal to the GOP over time, and this helps explain why they’re a larger fraction of Republican activists, but loyalty is one of several factors and not the most important one.
Also the Republican Party has always been dominated by religious people. It used to be that these religious people were mostly mainline Protestants, and now they’re mostly evangelical Protestants. A democratic trend among mainline Protestants is an important part of this change — even though such a trend runs counter to God Gap punditry.
And the evangelical trend is a bit more complicated than a God Gap as well. The Republican trend is concentrated among evangelicals in the South. Outside the South, evangelicals have actually trended slightly toward the Democratic Party.
In fact, most religious people that are not evangelical Protestants are actually trending Democratic. In recent elections, there are Democratic trends in every major religious tradition except for Evangelical Protestants. This isn’t really acknowledged by the usual “God Gap” story.
JS: You’re downplaying the role of mobilization somewhat, but you argue it still matters. But it matters in a surprising way, I think. Talk about your findings for the “Christian Left.”
RC: I downplay mobilization as a factor in the rise of evangelical Republican activists. There, it’s more about demographic growth and changing voter loyalty.
The Christian Left is different. Among Democratic members of the major religious traditions, rates of activism have increased sharply — as they have among seculars.
JS: But the increasing activism of the Christian Left and seculars isn’t a response to the rise of the Christian Right?
RC: That’s right. There hasn’t been any negative trend in their views of the Christian Right, and these views haven’t become more predictive of campaign activism.
Again the conventional wisdom is off the mark. The massive mobilization of evangelical Republican activists appears to be exaggerated, and rumors of the death of a political movement on the Christian Left appear inaccurate as well.
JS: One common notion is that the two parties’ activist bases are weird and unrepresentative because they’ve been “captured” by groups like Evangelicals and Seculars. You disagree with that. Why?
RC: Of course it’s true that activists are different than “ordinary” voters in well-established ways, but I find that they are no more different now than they were in the 1960s. Each party’s activist base resembles its voting base about as much as in the 1960s.
In other words, the Christian Right hasn’t hijacked the Republican Party by mobilizing a new breed of campaign activists. Nor do I find evidence that a backlash among Seculars led to outsized influence in the Democratic Party.
Ultimately, the conventional wisdom – to say nothing of a lot of political rhetoric and commentary – makes it seem as though only one party represents people of faith.
This is oversimplified. Yes, seculars have always voted for Democrats at higher rates than for Republicans. But the percent of seculars voting for Democrats isn’t much different than in the early 1960s. And there are also more Secular Republicans now than in the 1960s.
Moreover, among the activist bases, the trends that do exist—such as the growth of evangelical activists in the Republican Party, or secular activists in the Democratic Party mostly reflects broader trends in American society.
The “God Gap” is just a very misleading phrase when it comes to understanding how the parties represent people of faith.