A Perspective from the Sociology of Religion

Chapter 1
A Perspective from the Sociology of Religion

Grace Davie

The first Conference of the International Consortium for Law and Religion Studies took place in Milan in January 2009. It coincided with the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. The coincidence was not planned, but nonetheless gave pause for thought – the more so given the historic nature of this particular event. This chapter takes the inauguration as its starting point, but uses this to ask deeper questions about the adequacy of social scientific analysis for the twenty-first century, interrogating in particular its capacities to deal with the increasing prominence of religion in the modern world order. In so doing it will provide a framework for the more focused chapters that follow, which deal specifically with the questions about law and religion that arise from this changing situation.

The chapter starts by asking to what extent religion played a part in the election of Barack Obama. The answer is interesting and reflects both the realities themselves and the capacities of European commentators to grasp what was happening. These issues, however, provoke a second set of questions which penetrate more deeply: they ask to what extent the tools of social science which have emerged from the European case (i.e., from the philosophical principles elaborated in the European Enlightenment) are appropriate if we are to understand fully the religious situation not only in the United States, but in the rest of the world.1

Did Religion Make a Difference in the 2008 Presidential Election?

At one level the answer to this question is straightforward: of course religion made a difference. It always has in a nation in which well over 90 per cent of the population declare themselves to be believers, and over 40 per cent report that they attended a place of worship in the previous week (a figure that rises to 60 per cent if the period in question is extended to one month).2 If a would-be president does not take these figures into account, he or she is unlikely to be elected – something that the Democrats learnt to their cost in both 2000 and 2004. At the same time, however, it is clear that the 2008 election was won, ultimately, on the capacity of the Democrat Barack Obama, rather than the Republican John McCain, to deal with the global economic crisis that became ever more dominant as the election approached. How then can we reconcile these points of view?

The answer lies in the detail rather than in general statements. The following paragraphs set out the bare bones of this analysis drawing on data taken from exit polls on 4 November 2008 and found on the website of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.3

The argument can be summarized as follows. It is broadly speaking the case that in the recent history of the United States, it is the Republican Party that has both attracted and represented the religious voter. That was certainly true in 2000 and 2004, and up to a point remained so in 2008 – but not entirely. The fact that sufficient numbers of religious individuals turned themselves into floating voters, notably in the swing states, is a key to the 2008 result. This was fully understood by Obama and his team, who worked hard to encourage this trend, but rather less so by most Europeans – a point taken up in the following section.

Taking the data first, there are two ways of looking at the figures. The first is to compare the success of the 2008 presidential candidates in attracting the religious vote. In this respect, John McCain is the clear winner – a fact that becomes increasingly striking when the frequency of churchgoing is taken into account. The second way of working is to look at the same constituency and compare this with the position of the respective Republican and Democrat candidates from the 2000 and 2004 elections. It is at this point that the relative success of Obama begins to become apparent. Both points are illustrated in Table 1.1 and Table 1.2. The Democratic gain amongst religious voters between 2004 and 2008 is not huge, but it is consistent and was sufficient to make a difference. Equally interesting, however, is the marked gain for the Democrats among the religiously non-affiliated – the picture should not be oversimplified.

Even more important is the fact that the position varies considerably between states. Here it is worth concentrating in particular on the evangelical vote – in itself a substantial section (circa one-quarter) of the electorate. Using the data from the Evangelical Electoral Map compiled by Christianity Today,4 it becomes abundantly clear that evangelicals behaved differently in the swing states of the Midwest compared with their coreligionists in the South. Specifically, in the Midwest, evangelicals tended to vote 3-1 for George Bush over John Kerry in 2004; in 2008, by contrast, they voted only 2-1 for John McCain over Barack Obama. Conversely, in the South, evangelicals voted 3-1 or better for Bush over Kerry in 2004, and – in many states – by an even greater margin for McCain over Obama in 2008.

Table 1.1 Presidential vote by religious affiliation and race


Table 1.2 Presidential vote by worship attendance


Particularly sharp is the contrast between Indiana and Oklahoma: in the former, for example, evangelicals favoured Bush by 77-22 in 2004 but McCain by only 66-41 in 2008; in the latter, they voted 77-23 for Bush and 77-22 for McCain. Indeed in Indiana, at least half of the 21-point shift to the Democrats came from the shifting position of evangelicals. More generally with regard to this constituency, compared to Kerry in 2004 Obama gained 11 points in Ohio, 13 in Michigan, 11 in Iowa, 11 in South Dakota and 19 in Nebraska, but lost one point in Alabama, five in Mississippi, three in Kentucky, five in Tennessee, eight in Louisiana and five in Arkansas. In other words the overall swing of evangelicals to Barack Obama should not be exaggerated. It was however a decisive factor in some places, notably the swing states.

American Catholics are equally interesting. They too moved towards the Democrats in 2008. Overall, Catholics supported Obama over McCain by a nine-point margin, reversing the position four years ago when Catholics favoured Bush over Kerry by five percentage points. It is important to note, however, that much of this shift can be accounted for by Latino rather than white Catholics. That said, appreciable numbers of all Catholics shifted their vote from 2004 – responding, perhaps, to the cultural Catholicism of vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden. In this sense Biden’s firsthand experience of the economic difficulties of the rust belt may have counted for more than the ‘values’ questions, which in recent years have drawn Catholics, like most evangelicals, towards the Republican Party. The overwhelming importance of economic issues at the time of the election is clearly a factor in this respect.

Steve Waldman5 asks how Obama achieved his goal of ‘closing the God gap’. His answer is two-fold. Firstly, Obama emphasized his personal faith (see below) and in so doing reclaimed the right to make connections between personal belief and public issues. Secondly he exploited the rise of what has been termed a ‘religious left’ – i.e., seriously religious individuals and groups who are looking for a space other than the Republican Party to express their political views. The two dimensions came together in June 2006 when Barack Obama spoke to Jim Wallis’s ‘Call to Renewal’ conference.6 He argued that Democrats should indeed support the separation of Church and State, but they should also be more welcoming both to individual believers and to those who affirm a proper role for faith in the public sphere. There is a critique here, not only of the Republican right, but of the secular left, who – it is clear – had alienated a significant body of voters. It was almost certainly this that cost the Democrats the 2000 and 2004 elections.

An interesting article in Prospect Magazine,7 published shortly before the election itself, notices these shifts and puts them into a broader context. It recognizes not only that the evangelical constituency in the United States is growing in importance, but that it is changing in nature. Younger, more progressive evangelicals are questioning some inherited assumptions, gaining confidence in the public sphere, and are ready to do business with a Democratic candidate who recognizes their needs.8 Rick Warren, author of the hugely successful The Purpose Driven Life9 and pastor of a mega-church (Saddleback) in Southern California exemplifies this trend perfectly. It was Warren moreover who staged the first public encounter between Barack Obama and John McCain – it took place at the Saddleback Civil Forum in August 2008.

To What Extent Did Europeans Grasp What Was Happening?

Prospect is published in London, but most Europeans began from a rather different position – they were concerned not so much with the detail as with the big picture. They noted that most religious voters supported McCain and drew the obvious conclusion – that ‘progressive’ Americans had other priorities. Europeans were also attracted by the more newsworthy aspects of the election. Regarding religion, there were several newsworthy issues: the notion that Barack Obama was a Muslim; the controversy engendered by the public statements of his former pastor in Chicago, Jeremiah Wright; and, most of all, the nomination of Sarah Palin as the running mate of John McCain.

The first of these was not taken seriously by the European press, except to note with incredulity that between 10 and 12 per cent of the American population remained convinced that the aspiring president was a Muslim, despite repeated statements to the contrary. The second – the strained and eventually severed relationship between Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright – was potentially more serious, but it rapidly became clear to the European commentators, as indeed to all supporters of Obama, that to pursue this issue to its logical conclusion was simply going to damage their preferred candidate at a time when the Democratic nomination was still uncertain. It was more important to affirm the politically astute way in which Obama extricated himself from a difficult situation, whilst at the same time recognizing the damage done by Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory sermons.

The third question, however, ran and ran, for entirely understandable reasons – here was a stick to beat not only Sarah Palin herself, but McCain as well, who was, it became increasingly clear, guilty of a bad error of judgement. In the short term, however, the nomination of Palin as McCain’s running mate did what it was supposed to do: it enthused the evangelical constituency who had not previously been enamoured of McCain as the Republican candidate. Following the declaration of her candidature, poll-ratings increased, fundraising improved and James Dobson, the influential head of ‘Focus on the Family’,10 declared his support for McCain – reversing an earlier decision. But in the long term, Palin became a liability – so much so that she was turned increasingly into a scapegoat, someone to blame for the failure.

In terms of democratic politics, a more general and to my mind very encouraging point is worth noting before going further. Palin’s nomination is in many ways symptomatic of one of the most interesting things about the 2008 election as a whole. At no stage in the entire process, from the selection of the candidates onwards, was it possible to predict the final outcome. Very few commentators, for example, would have put their money on Barack Obama as the Democratic candidate or John McCain as his Republican opponent. Equally unpredictable were the choices of running mates – the announcement of Sarah Palin’s nomination astonished the world. The ‘logic’ of Palin’s appointment in the summer of 2008, however, is clear enough: McCain’s intention was to reduce the gap between himself and the New Christian Right – a section of the electorate who were manifestly delighted at his choice.

Europeans, conversely, were appalled – as indeed were many Americans. Why was this so? Was it Palin’s all too evident lack of experience which revealed itself in not one, but several regrettable statements and a worrying lack of competence? Or was it her association with the New Christian Right, more specifically with a Pentecostal Church in Alaska? And were these factors ever considered separately? In many cases, it was simply assumed that anyone with religious affiliations of this nature was bound to be incompetent – he or she would, necessarily, be an unsuitable candidate for the vice-presidential role.

Two extended quotes from a well-informed, though controversial, European commentator,11 himself the author of a book on religion in the United States,12 capture this confusion perfectly. The opening paragraphs convey the distaste of most Europeans both for Sarah Palin herself and for the religious right; they also evoke the attitude of Palin’s supporters for their European detractors: