A Blue State Miracle?

“We worship an awesome God in the blue states.”

So said Barack Obama during his famous address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Obama’s speech marked an epiphanic moment for the political Left, one in which liberals began to realize that they could no longer cede the religious vote to the Republican Party. 

Four years on and the Left has yet to make significant inroads with religious voters.  In fact, according to a new survey, America’s bluest region, the Northeast, is its most secular, while the nation’s reddest region, the South, remains by far the most religious on the electoral map. 

This week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released its second report on the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.  The report details Americans’ religious beliefs and behaviors as well as their social and political attitudes.  With a robust sample of more than 36,000 Americans, the report is one of the most in-depth and broad surveys of religion and public life ever conducted.  And judging by the contents of the 294-page report, the red state-blue state divide that currently dominates politics may not be vanishing anytime soon. 

First and foremost, the Pew survey re-confirms that religion is indispensable to most Americans.  Among the findings:

 –Ninety-two percent of Americans believe in God or some sort of supreme being. 
 –Seven in 10 Americans say they are absolutely certain of God’s existence. 

 — Three-quarters of Americans pray at least weekly.

 –Seventy-four percent of Americans believe in life after death.

 –Nearly 7 in 10 Americans believe that angels and demons are active in the world.

  –Sixty percent of American parents send their kids to religious education programs.

America’s enduring religiosity may confound European elites, but it’s great news for the American people.  A growing body of research shows that on an entire range of outcomes — from domestic abuse, educational attainment and marital stability to substance abuse, violent crime and even immigrant assimilation — the practice of religion is a powerful predictor of personal wellbeing and societal stability.

The report found that Americans’ faith has become somewhat more, as a Politico headline put it, “flexible.” For example, 70 percent of Americans felt their faith is not the only way to salvation.  But the results belie the notion, put forward in a number of recent best-selling books, that America is experiencing an “atheist revival.” 

Allison Pond, Pew Research Associate, told this column in an interview after the survey’s release, that "some of those who self-identify as atheists will tell us later in the survey that they actually believe in God."  To wit, 21 percent of self-identified atheists said they believe in God or a universal spirit, with eight percent "absolutely certain" of it. 

Pew made another paradoxical discovery.  As Greg Smith, a Research Fellow at Pew, told the Washington Post in an online interview, "slightly less than two percent of the public describes themselves as atheists. But 5 percent say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit."

These data make clear the challenges of opinion polling, as well as the reality that, as Pond said, "Americans think about their faith in complex ways. It may be that not everybody knows what the word atheist actually means, but it may also be that some people who tell us they are atheists do so because they want to associate themselves with a secular viewpoint, even though they believe in God, or they may be telling us they dislike organized religion." 

What’s also clear from the survey is that “religion is highly relevant to understanding politics in the U.S.”  That religion shapes Americans’ political beliefs and voting habits is hardly news.  But it is interesting to note that despite the Left’s recent efforts to woo people of faith, twice as many religious Americans identify themselves as conservatives than as liberals.  And despite recent electoral set-backs, the GOP retains the loyalty of a larger share of weekly or more church-goers than does the Democratic Party.  It’s not difficult to understand why considering the Democratic Party standard bearer’s suggestion that some voters cling to religion out of bitterness. 

But Pew saw a deeper cause:

“The connection between religious engagement and political attitudes appears to be especially strong when it comes to hot button social issues such as abortion and homosexuality.  For instance, about six in ten Americans who attend religious services at least once a week say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, while only three in ten who attend less often share this view.”

These findings contradict the idea that candidates with liberal positions on issues like abortion may be able to generate significant support among regular churchgoers.  

The survey’s release is well-timed, coming the same week as a public war of words between Barack Obama and Focus on the Family Chairman James Dobson had each man contending that the other misinterprets the Bible to justify his own political beliefs.  But Obama misunderstands how most religious voters think about politics.  To most people of faith, abortion is an intrinsic moral evil and opposition to it is non-negotiable. 

And while Obama and other liberal politicians cite the Bible to justify their opposition to the Iraq war or support for government-mandated health care, these are issues upon which people of goodwill may disagree. 

In fact, as John C. Green, an author of the report and a senior fellow at Pew, told the New York Times, the survey “suggests that the efforts of Democrats to peel away Republican and conservative voters based on economic issues face a real limit because of the role these cultural issues play.”

I would go further.  The Pew survey shows that for all the Left’s “God talk,” it’s policy that matters most to faith-based voters. 

But the Left can take heart in at least one Pew finding:  Nearly 8 in ten Americans believe in miracles.  Which is exactly what the Left may need if it hopes to capture the support of significant numbers of religious Americans.