Politics in the Pews
Researchers explore the role of religion in mobilizing African American and Latino voters
May 5, 2008
The Sunday morning worship at Red Memorial* progresses like many services in African-American churches. Parishioners sing classic hymns, clapping and swaying along to the music. The pastor, the Rev. Red, greets the congregation the same way she does each week.
However, there’s something different about the service, explains Dr. Eric McDaniel, assistant professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin who studies the politics of faith and race.
Along with a spiritually uplifting sermon, the Rev. Red delivers a less-than-otherworldly message to the congregation. Tuesday is Election Day and she emphasizes the importance of voting with an African-American church ritual, the call-and-response, to mobilize the congregation for democratic participation:
The Rev. Red: “Everybody…”
The Rev. Red: “And vote right.”
Congregation: “Vote right!”
At the end of the service, members pick up the church’s Sunday bulletin in which one page contains a single word: “VOTE!”
The scene at Red Memorial is one example of the discussions about the upcoming presidential election happening in African-American churches throughout the United States, McDaniel says. He researched churches in Detroit and Austin, Texas for his forthcoming book, “Politics in the Pews: The Political Transformation of Religious Institutions.”
Historians, sociologists and political scientists have documented and examined the impact of church-based political activism for years, but McDaniel says they’ve neglected to examine why churches become politically active in the first place.
That’s the question he poses in “Politics in the Pews,” which explores how and why Black religious institutions answer the call of politics.
“The Black church has a historical legacy of political activity, especially during high points of racial conflict in the United States,” McDaniel says. “During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. was famous for his ability to eloquently communicate Blacks’ religious duty to vote. There was a sense of your duty as a Christian to vote and to protect the interests of other African Americans.
“However, not all churches, including Black churches, are politically active,” McDaniel says. “I’ve found that Black churches’ political activism can be best be described as a process, rather than a condition. It is mitigated by both the congregation’s preferences and the level of activism of the church leadership.”
McDaniel argues a church will become politically active when four conditions are met:
- The pastor is interested in involving a church in politics.
- Members of the congregation are receptive to the idea of having a politically active church.
- The church is not restricted from having a presence in political matters.
- And the political climate necessitates and allows political action.
“Because none of these factors remains stable over time, the level of political activism of churches remains in flux,” McDaniel explains. “Ultimately, the level of political activity undertaken by a church is a function of its pastor, members, organization and environment.”
McDaniel also is interested in how external mobilization efforts affect Black church activism. As he observed the rise of the “religious right” in the 1990s, he wondered where the Black church fit in the equation.
“Recent scholarship has focused on the movement of white evangelicals into the Republican Party during the 1980s. But why hasn’t the GOP been successful in recruiting Black evangelicals?” McDaniel asks.
McDaniel and Dr. Christopher Ellison, the Elsie and Stanley Adams Centennial Professor of Sociology, tackled this question in their forthcoming study, “God’s Party? Race, Religion, and Partisanship Over Time.”
Ellison is a leading researcher on the role of religious institutions among minority populations and how religious affiliation affects public policy preferences. Thomas Scientific/ISI recently named him in the top 250 highly cited researchers in the nation for the social sciences category.
Ellison and McDaniel drew upon data from the Houston Area Survey (HAS), a phone survey conducted by Rice University in Harris County, Texas, from 1983 to 2003. The HAS offers a unique dataset due to its examination of Anglos, Blacks, Latinos and partisanship over a significant period of time, Ellison explains.
“The Republican Party has aggressively attempted to recruit Black and Latino evangelicals, but they’ve had limited success,” Ellison says. “We wanted to examine this phenomenon and how religious conservatism has shaped Anglo, Latino and Black partisanship during the past two decades.
“We found religious affiliation is a much more important predictor of voting patterns than economic status. However it is not more important than race. Race is the big moderating factor in terms of how an individual’s faith affects his or her voting patterns and party identification.”
McDaniel further explains how this finding plays out in the African-American community.
“For African Americans, race has a much stronger influence on political attitudes than religious beliefs,” McDaniel says. “In other words, African Americans were born Black before they were born-again.”
However, the moderating role of race does not perform similarly in the Latino community, due to its growing size and diversity, Ellison and McDaniel found.
“Latinos are a much less cohesive community than African Americans, since they originate from many different parts of Latin America,” Ellison says. “Many are native-born, while others are recent immigrants. This difference in national origins results in divergent experiences in the United States, and ultimately impacts their political preferences.”
In the book “A Matter of Faith: Religion in the 2004 Presidential Election,” Dr. David Leal, associate professor of government and affiliate of the Center for Mexican American Studies, argues the Republican Party has made headway in gaining support from Latinos by employing Spanish-language advertisements and emphasizing family values. However, the effectiveness of these morality-based appeals is uncertain, Leal says.
“The jury is still out on Latinos. Republicans haven’t closed the deal on attracting movement from Hispanics into the party, likely because the immigration issue remains so divisive,” Ellison says. “The faith and values issues emphasized by the Republican Party do have appeal for Catholic Hispanics. However, Democrats have done a better job at appealing to Latinos on economic issues.”
As the economy struggles, both Ellison and McDaniel suggest that a hierarchy of needs and priorities may put faith and moral values lower on the agenda for the 2008 presidential election.
“President Bush skillfully and successfully cultivated conservative Christians in the 2000 election, but that was during good economic times, which is when voters have the luxury of allowing values issues take precedence over economic and national security issues,” Ellison says. “But, many values voters now live in areas of the country that have seen double-digit job loss numbers. That could affect how they vote in 2008.”
During the past two presidential elections, religious affiliation seemed to trump other social and economic issues in terms of predicting voting preferences, Ellison says. However, it remains to be seen whether this holds true in 2008.
*The names have been changed to protect the identities of the church and its members.