Evangelicals and Super Tuesday

Commentators have focused ad infinitum on the racial composition of the electorate in South Carolina last week. But as noted earlier, Obama trounced Clinton among church-goers by 58% to 27%, 3 points better than he did among all voters. Certainly there was a degree of overlap between church-goers and blacks in South Carolina. Still, the worldview of the church-goers may account for their affinity with Obama as well. Georgia and Alabama actually have more evangelical voters (38% and 46%) than South Carolina (36%) and roughly the same percentage of African-Americans. 47% of Tennessee voters are self-described evangelicals and 44% of the voters in Arkansas. In both states, blacks make up 16% of the population. Obama should do well in all these states although Hillary’s long ties to Arkansas should put that state in her column. For maps showing concentration of several evangelical religious populations see here, here and here. West Virginia, Kansas and Oklahoma also have large evangelical populations (44%, 34% and 46% respectively) although all three states have significantly smaller numbers of blacks, between 3% in West Virginia and 8% in Oklahoma. 11% of Missouri voters are black, but only 27% of that state’s voters self-identify as evangelical. Montana and Idaho both count more than a quarter of their electorate in the evangelical fold, and both have tiny minority populations. Seeing how these states vote will show whether Obama’s outreach to evangelical voters has paid off. What precisely is the affinity between Obama and evangelicals? Part of it may simply be his inspirational speaking style, the uplifting vision he presents of an America coming together, healing past divisions. Lucky for him that the mainline churches have also been reading Isaiah during Christmas and Advent, the most prophetic texts of Scripture. Warning: next week we start Lent and everything is wailing and gnashing of teeth! The connection is more than style points, I suspect. When Obama tells his rags-to-riches tale, he never invokes the image of the "self-made man." He adds no Promethean flourishes to his resume. Instead, he speaks with gratitude about those who made his path easier. He is at ease discussing the sense of mutual obligations that knit a society together, the central role of the family in his own life and the life of the culture. In an interview with Christianity Today (a leading evangelical journal where few Democrats think to make a visit), Obama said: "I didn’t ’fall out in church’ as they say, but there was a very strong awakening in me of the importance of these issues in my life. I didn’t want to walk alone on this journey." Politicians rarely use the passive voice. Indeed, they rarely should. But in describing the action of grace, it is appropriate and in Obama’s telling of his own spiritual tale, it is lyrical as well. Last February, right here in America, I wrote about Obama’s facility with the religious idiom and why it would matter. No one should doubt Hillary’s faith either – with the things she has had to endure, I suspect her faith is strong indeed. But she seems uncomfortable discussing that faith. On the rare occasions when she gets into a pulpit, as she did at Coretta Scott King’s funeral, her delivery can come across as wooden. And, in South Carolina, the only group that favored Hillary over Obama were those who said they "never" went to church. Many Tsunami Tuesday states include areas where religion is far from vibrant. The San Francisco Bay area has one of the lowest church attendance rates in the country. Oddly enough, there the affluent Silicon Valley crowd, with the uber-liberals of San Fran, and the large black populations in the East Bay, make that a strong area for Obama too. Still, with people distracted by the Super Bowl, the Clinton brand name may carry the day. If Obama pulls off an upset, it will largely come from Catholics and evangelicals. He has been more careful to court the latter, but he will need both groups to off-set Hillary’s built-in advantages in what amounts to a national primary. Michael Sean Winters

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