Religion has played a pivotal role in every election in this country since 1976. That remains true for our most recent presidential race as well. Even though the U.S. Constitution does not allow a religious test for public office, religious voters put the full force of their faith to work in deciding who would get their vote.
Significant among all religious voters over the past decades has been conservative Evangelicals. These believers, for the most part, believe the Bible is literally true, believe that faith in Jesus is the way to eternal life, and that a personal conversion experience is necessary for that relationship to begin. Estimates suggest that Evangelicals comprise nearly 30 percent of the American electorate.
So how did Evangelicals vote in the 2008 election? It turns out lots of people want to know the answer to that question.
Exit polling suggests that Obama and McCain split the Evangelical vote 55 to 43 percent, with the lion's share going to McCain. It should be noted, however, that President Bush gained 78 percent of the Evangelical vote in 2004. Part of McCain's slippage with these voters can be attributed to a certain disconnect between the Arizona senator and faith voters. But part of it also has to do with the fact that Obama was able to peel away a segment of the Evangelical vote by broadening the debate about what constitutes a faith issue.
Beliefnet conducted a user survey recently in an effort to further discern the characteristics of faith voters. With more than 4,000 respondents, Beliefnet has put together some interesting analysis into the way faith and politics interact.
For instance, among those who attend church weekly, 81 percent of those who voted for Obama say they pray every day. Of the same group, 93 percent of those who voted for McCain claim a daily prayer discipline. Additionally, among those who attend church weekly, only 17 percent of those who voted for Obama believe the Bible is the literal word of God. Compare this to the 58 percent of weekly worshipers who voted for McCain and believe the Bible is the literal word of God.
There were other interesting findings in the Beliefnet survey. Half of those who voted for McCain believe that Obama is or was a Muslim. Many Obama voters believe McCain ran an unchristian campaign. Among those who attend church every week, those who voted for Obama believe education is the best way to reduce abortion. McCain supporters from the same group favor legal restrictions to reduce abortions.
And in what is certainly no surprise—supporters of each candidate doubt the religious sincerity of the other candidate.
Even though the Beliefnet survey is not scientific, it nevertheless offers an interesting peek into the way faith and politics coalesce around each other. Voters seek candidates that reflect their own faith. And issues that motivate voters are often rooted and grounded in religious beliefs.
All of this is good and even healthy up to a point. Using faith to guide our decisions, political and otherwise, is fine. If we start thinking that the certainties we have about God can be transferred directly to an election, that's when we run off the road.
Politics is the art of the possible, which means there will inevitably be compromises. If, however, we make politics our faith, and vice versa, compromise becomes a four-letter word and the possible becomes nearly impossible to accomplish.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.