Our Sacred Politics

Religion and politics have hardened into intractable forms of identity

How did religious people vote in 2020?

We don’t really know the answer to that question yet. Most of the data, the polls floating around in social media, are pre-election surveys based on likely voters. There are some exit polls, but no one is entirely sure how to weight those given the massive mail-in and early vote this year. Put simply, we won’t know with certainty how people from various faith groups voted for another couple of months after reputable organizations follow up with voters and analyze the actual vote. 

What we do know so far, however, suggests a certain durability in religious-political identity in contemporary America. In short, the religious vote didn’t change very much from 2016 to 2020.

People watch Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden speak on a monitor outside Brown Chapel AME during a worship service in Selma, Alabama on March 1, 2020. (Photo by Joshua Lott / AFP) (Photo by JOSHUA LOTT/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - NOV 7, 2020: Trump supporter Elizabeth Lund holds her rosary and a religious photo while attending a Stop The Steal rally on the same day Biden was named President-elect. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)


The Evangelical Vote

It is currently unclear whether there was a small shift of white evangelicals away from Trump with “only” 76% voting for him or if it remained at the 81% of the 2016 election. If they did shift, however, it was offset by a small percentage of evangelicals of color who voted for Trump (primarily in Florida and Texas). It appears that the overall evangelical vote – white and non-white – stayed the same.  

The Mainline (Non-Evangelical) Protestant Vote

White mainline (non-evangelical) Protestants seemed to have shifted some four or five percentage points away from Trump; while non-white mainliners may have peeled a point off of their 2016 margin against Trump. Thus, the total mainline Protestant vote may have been about a five-point swing away from Trump (notably in the Upper Midwest and the Northeast). That leaves the mainline vote in pretty much the same place as it has been for several voting cycles – a near 50/50 divide with small percentage shifts one way or the other depending on particular candidates.

The Catholic Vote

White Catholics voted more strongly for Trump in 2020 than in 2016, and Hispanic Catholics mirrored the white Catholic vote showing strong support for Joe Biden, creating a near 50/50 split like that of mainline Protestants.

Jewish, Muslim, and Unaffiliated Vote

In non-Christian groups, Jews and Muslims continue to strongly support Democrats (about 7 in 10 voted for Biden in both groups). But the biggest shift came among America’s largest “religious” group – the unaffiliated – who awarded Biden a higher percentage of their votes than any other Democratic candidate since Bill (yes, Bill, not Hillary) Clinton. 

THAT’S A LOT OF NUMBERS — and a lot of “appears” and “maybes.” Although political geeks and campaign consultants care about micro-shifts and even small point percentage changes, the truth is that most of us do not.

But we do care about divided families, churches and congregations, neighborhoods and communities. I have to be honest here: I’m not optimistic about the way this is shaping up. Religion and politics have hardened into forms of identity that seem intractable at the moment. If you are a Republican, you are far more likely to be a white Christian (whether evangelical, mainline, or Catholic); if you are a Democrat, you are far more likely to be a black, brown, or Asian Christian, a Jew, Muslim, or Hindu, or an atheist, agnostic, or humanist. This has been the pattern for twenty to twenty-five years, and it isn’t changing. The stability suggests that we are well past trends and tendencies in voting. We’re far beyond flukes in voter choice. American politics has been transformed by patterns now established over a generation. And it is time to face the truth, including these two hard realities:

Political Identity is Sacralized

With these identities becoming less flexible, people equate political parties with theology. This is true for both insiders and outsiders. For example, millions of white evangelical Christians literally believe that if you vote for a Democrat, you will go to hell (I’m not kidding). You wonder why 80% of them vote for Republicans? Because their salvation is at stake. That’s a powerful voting incentive. And it isn’t easily changed by shaming them with Bible verses on social media or trying to convince them that Democrats have better policies. Nope. Being GOP means being a true Christian, and only true Christians are going to heaven. Political identity proves one is saved. Period. As non-white immigrants convert to evangelicalism, you can expect that more non-white evangelicals will become Republicans as they attend evangelical churches, schools, and seminaries where such things are taught.

The opposite happens for outsiders. In the counter-example, religious “nones” (who are mostly Democrats and liberals) look at evangelicals and see a political identity (Republican) and Christianity. Thus, the unaffiliated can’t imagine joining a church where most or all members would judge or condemn them for their political views (this, of course, hurts churches!). And the “nones” can’t imagine being Republicans because they don’t share the theological perspectives of others in the GOP (and this damages political parties). And so, the unaffiliated vote will grow more Democratic and more progressive.

The middling ground is also dangerous. In many mainline Protestant churches and Catholic parishes, pastors and church members alike live in fear of talking about politics or controversial issues, because they do not know if they will offend others in their congregations. Without the capacity to talk about or preach on hard issues, mainline and Catholic liberals often feel unsupported by their churches regarding issues of justice; while mainline and Catholic conservatives feel isolated or even belittled in their communities. In divided denominations and congregations people make assumptions about their fellow members without much real information or knowledge, and fearing they are either too liberal or too conservative for the group, they depend instead on outside and biased news sources to confirm their sense of identity rather than engaging their real neighbors.

In short, when political identity is akin to religious identity, politics is divinized and religion becomes partisan. And that’s hard whether one is part of a 75/25 community or a 50/50 one. It is also difficult on an individual basis — it is almost impossible for the media to understand how one can be a white person, a Christian, and a Democrat or why any Hispanic evangelical would vote Republican. Yet, for all the solidity of group identities, many people resist being part of the larger patterns. Exceptions apply, even if in smaller numbers.

Identities Mostly Change Through Conversion

If political-religious identity is how we understand ourselves, the question becomes how does one change? The choices we make, the candidates we pick, the issues we support emerge from who we believe ourselves to be, how we see ourselves in relation to others, how we want to be seen by those in our communities (and, perhaps, God). The reason so many people voted for Trump is because their identity was caught up in that vote; and the reason so many others groaned about voting for Biden (even though they did) is because it cut across their sense of identity (as an independent, a “real” progressive, or a democratic socialist). People aren’t voting about platforms or policies, they are voting to demonstrate their loyalty to their group, to belong. The only way votes change is if one’s sense of identity changes. And that’s a big ask.

When I was a student at an evangelical college in the 1970s, we were required to take a course on apologetics. The sole purpose of the class was to teach young Christians how to argue unbelievers into faith. We learned quite a bit about things like the cosmological and ontological arguments for God’s existence. But it was also pretty obvious that few people — C.S. Lewis excluded — have been logically convinced to embrace faith. Conversion doesn’t generally happen by rational argument.

Instead, conversion is most often a matter of community. Belonging is the first step toward selfhood, and there’s an entire field of psychology and philosophy dedicated to “relational selfhood” in contemporary culture. In the world today, we are often “recruited” into our identities through association with others, by those communities in which we find acceptance, love, and meaning. This happens when suburbanites church shop or when unhappy teens join white supremacist groups on the internet. A sense of belonging leads to shared group behaviors (whether in speech, ritual practices, or civic demonstrations like voting) and deepened beliefs about the truth of the group’s positions. Belonging, behaving, believing. That’s the stuff of both political and religious identity. And you can’t change it with a policy paper or a campaign commercial.

In order to change, people convert — they transfer their sense of belonging to a new group. Typically, an individual begins to feel disoriented, as if something is wrong, and wonders (to him- or herself) if they are really part of the original group. Questions arise. Doubts ensue. Many people can bury such feelings, but others are less successful and leave the host group. Sometimes leavers float without intentionally choosing a particular path, but others switch to a community that offers a new sense of belonging. Because belonging is so fundamental to identity, change is hard and often dramatic, involving rejection of the past, deconstructing beliefs, and being initiated into a new community.

This means identity is less malleable, more durable, and less susceptible to outside pressure than supposed. Change can only happen from within. Once the process begins, it can be personally painful and costly, often causing potential converts to rethink the new direction their identity might be taking. Ours is not an age of changing identity on a whim — instead, belonging is far more public and rigorous than is commonly recognized, making our ability to shift opinions, embrace complexity, navigate compromise, and change our votes surprisingly difficult. If you scan social media even casually, you’ll see a plethora of bios — tribal labels as it were — signaling both political and religious identity. We wear our belonging on our sleeves.

SOME ERAS LEND THEMSELVES to less rigid senses of identity, when cooperation is valued, tolerance praised, and ecumenical attitudes prized. When people move more easily over boundaries and between tribes. This is an odd time because history shows us that open senses of identity generally twin with crisis. People lower their boundaries when faced with war, disease, or social upheaval to work together and defeat potential disaster. But as the whole planet struggles with multiple crises, we find ourselves dividing, hiding in our silos, and embracing more exclusive forms of identity. For whatever reason, we didn’t draw the generosity card from the historical deck.

Yet, both our political and religious institutions were mostly formed in those less rigid times, making them uniquely unable to cope with this moment. What is derisively called the “establishment” still believes the old rules can work. But old-fashioned rules about civility and compromise don’t function for a generation of true believers, when personal identities are wrapped into larger-than-life charismatic leaders or world-changing utopian revolutions. Until the wheel of history turns again, we need to recognize the primacy and inflexibility of these political-religious identities — and work to change them and work with them on their own terms through conversion and formation of communities who welcome those seeking a different way.

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The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


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