As you would expect, the political experts at The New York Times have noticed that, once again, war has broken out between the populist and country-club wings of the Republican Party. Thus, they produced a very interesting piece that ran under the headline, "For Republicans, Mounting Fears of Lasting Split."
This story will be interesting, to GetReligion readers, just as much because of what the editors left out, as well as that they put in. They correctly stress that, this time around, the GOP leaders face fundamental differences on a host of crucial issues such as immigration, rising tides of refugees and how far to go in battles with radical forms of Islam.
It is also interesting that, over and over, the piece equates the candidacy of Sen. Ted Cruz with that of billionaire reality-TV star Donald Trump. The implication is that they are appealing to many of the same voters and that there isn't much difference between the two.
But what is missing? To be blunt: Religion.
So, do you remember the "pew gap"? Apparently, it is completely gone or is now irrelevant in GOP debates, as well as the nation has a whole. Is that really true in the GOP? It must be true, because the Times team -- in this crucial piece about the threat of a GOP split -- completely ignores religious and moral issues (even as the U.S. Supreme Court faces case after case linked to religious liberty issues).
So what is the "pew gap"? Many people used to incorrectly claim that religious people vote for Republicans and non-religious people vote for Democrats. While it is true that highly secular and religiously unaffiliated voters are crucial in the Democratic coalition, there are also religious believers active in doctrinally liberal flocks -- which makes them a perfect fit in the modern Democratic Party. However, a crucial "pew gap" fact is that liberal religious groups tend to be smaller in terms of numbers.
If you are looking for the roots of the "pew gap" -- the fact that people who frequent pews are more likely to vote Republican -- then it's hard to top the 2003 Atlantic Monthly essay called "Blue Movie," written by Thomas Byrne Edsall. This is a flashback, of course, to a campaign dominated by Bill Clinton, not Hillary Rodham Clinton. This opening bit is long, but essential:
Early in the 1996 election campaign Dick Morris and Mark Penn, two of Bill Clinton's advisers, discovered a polling technique that proved to be one of the best ways of determining whether a voter was more likely to choose Clinton or Bob Dole for President. Respondents were asked five questions, four of which tested attitudes toward sex: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? The fifth question was whether religion was very important in the voter's life.
Respondents who took the "liberal" stand on three of the five questions supported Clinton over Dole by a two-to-one ratio; those who took a liberal stand on four or five questions were, not surprisingly, even more likely to support Clinton. The same was true in reverse for those who took a "conservative" stand on three or more of the questions. (Someone taking the liberal position, as pollsters define it, dismisses the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, admits to looking at pornography, doesn't look down on a married person having an affair, regards sex before marriage as morally acceptable, and views religion as not a very important part of daily life.) According to Morris and Penn, these questions were better vote predictors -- and better indicators of partisan inclination -- than anything else except party affiliation or the race of the voter. ...
Now, clearly, American attitudes on a host of Sexual Revolution issues have changes quite a bit since the late 1990s. I know that. However, the question here -- in this Times piece -- is whether religious issues remain a key element of the populist vs. country-club divide in the GOP.
I would also note, again, that moral issues are crucial on the political left and play a major role in whether Americans -- especially the young -- frequent pews or not in the first place. As I wrote, concerning that Pew Forum survey that put the "nones" in the news, the "religiously unaffiliated":
... overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters -- with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.
But back to the GOP and the Times piece. Here is the overture:
The Republican Party is facing a historic split over its fundamental principles and identity, as its once powerful establishment grapples with an eruption of class tensions, ethnic resentments and mistrust among working-class conservatives who are demanding a presidential nominee who represents their interests.
At family dinners and New Year’s parties, in conference calls and at private lunches, longtime Republicans are expressing a growing fear that the coming election could be shattering for the party, or reshape it in ways that leave it unrecognizable.
While warring party factions usually reconcile after brutal nomination fights, this race feels different, according to interviews with more than 50 Republican leaders, activists, donors and voters, from both elite circles and the grass roots.
Never have so many voters been attracted to Republican candidates like Donald J. Trump and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who are challenging core party beliefs on the economy and national security and new goals like winning over Hispanics through immigration reform.
All true. But is that all that is going on? Isn't part of the split also rooted in the fact that key religious leaders -- especially evangelical Protestants (think Southern Baptists), Catholics and Mormons -- view Trump as a walking, talking moral disaster? Why? In part because they disagree with him on immigration, refugee policies and other emerging issues, but also because they did not trust him on religious and cultural issues.
So isn't the Times thesis a bit simplistic?
Rank-and-file conservatives, after decades of deferring to party elites, are trying to stage what is effectively a people’s coup by selecting a standard-bearer who is not the preferred candidate of wealthy donors and elected officials.
Once again, let me stress that I know that many new issues have emerged and that there have been changes in how Americans view moral and cultural issues. The issue is whether those changes have rendered moral and cultural issues irrelevant -- as the Times piece implies, through silence -- in places like Iowa, South Carolina, Texas and the Bible Belt as a whole.
The only mention of religion in this story is a reference to a Cruz rally at a Christian college in Iowa, which is not even named.
Also, in terms of politics, is it true that Cruz and Trump and appealing to basically the same pool of voters? Isn't a crucial element of the Cruz coalition found in pulpits and pews? Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio is also making strides forward (Pastor Rick Warren just joined his religious-freedom advisory board), when it comes to lining up "pew gap" voters and would certainly have more appeal to morally conservative Catholic voters. Trust me, there are many, many evangelicals and Catholic conservatives who care about Latino issues and votes.
So again: While the "pew gap" may have changed somewhat in the past decade or so, is it totally irrelevant in GOP primaries, as the Times piece implies? Why ignore the role of crucial issues linked to faith, morality and religious liberty in the GOP race?
UPDATED: Well, someone on the ground knows that the "pew gap" numbers matter in Iowa. This morning's Times includes a major story on Cruz consolidating his lead with grassroots evangelicals in Iowa, picking them up as Dr. Ben Carson fades. Like I said, you know that core pew people -- frequent churchgoers -- are crucial in other states as well, especially in the South. The folks who frequent the pews are not backing Trump.
Now, how do the issues that matter to them factor into the new and rising tensions in the GOP between populists (including large numbers of religious conservatives) and the more libertarian country-club elites? That's precisely the point I was making in this post. The leaders among the religious conservatives are crucial in the primaries, but irrelevant in the national debate on GOP identity? Strange.