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Elusive Coalition: Racial and Ethnic Challenges for the Christian Right

Posted by Steve Turley ● Nov 8, 2015 6:29:31 PM

In a recent article for the Christian Post, “The Christian Right: A New Hope for the Republican Party,” Napp Nazworth argues that Christian political conservatism offers the best resource for expanding the party’s base among non-whites. Citing the demography deficit within the Republican Party, Nazworth argues “social conservatives are most attuned to the sympathies of non-white Americans.”

He cites a few examples. Black and white social conservatives led the movement to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina capitol. This year’s “March for Marriage” in Washington D.C. garnered a majority of non-white participants. A recent Pew Research Center study found conservative Evangelical denominations to be more racially diverse than their liberal mainline counterparts. And Latino leaders are increasingly concerned with the perceived anti-life platform of the Democratic Party.

Furthermore, a 2013 study by the Brookings Institution and Public Religion Research Institute found that economic conservatism is actually less popular than social conservatism. Nazworth concludes that social conservatism is thus well positioned to expand racially and ethnically the Republican Party base.

While I am certainly sympathetic with Nazworth’s concerns, he overlooks the challenge to such a demographic expansion posed by so-called “emancipatory politics,” which has successfully galvanized racial and ethnic minorities in the US over the last several decades. Emancipatory politics involves utilizing the power of the state to liberate people from traditional social structures and arrangements that are deemed “unjust.” Emancipatory politics have found a bedfellow in liberationist theologies. Particularly evident in Latin American and in so-called Black Theology, liberationists argue that the heart of Christianity involves God’s rescue from political and social injustice defined generally in socio-economic terms.

And so, what we see with the most recent presidential elections is that racial and ethnic minorities who are otherwise socially conservative seem to privatize that social conservatism, sequestering it from the political realm in favor of emancipatory or liberationist goals. For example, despite a clear prolife first term, George W. Bush’s Democratic challenger, John Kerry, garnered 88% of the black vote, 53% of Hispanics, and 56% of Asians. And despite his socially liberal commitments, Barak Obama not only received 95% (2008) and 93% (2012) of the black vote, but his support among Latinos and Asians actually increased, from 68% to 71% and 64% to 73% in the 2008 and 2012 elections.

All of this is to say that I think the picture is far more complex than Nazworth suggests, and the evidence he cites for the barrier-breaking significance of the Christian Right is frankly underwhelming in light of the national voting precedents indicative of minorities. In fact, I’m concerned that his examples attempt to posture Christian conservatives as more liberationist than secularists, which I see as self-defeating given the anti-traditionalist posture inherent in emancipatory politics. If significant inroads are going to be made with non-white constituencies, then the Christian Right will have to overcome the barriers posed by liberationist theologies and politics.

As I see it, there are two solutions to this hurdle, a short term local solution and a long term national solution.

The short term solution would involve promoting issues that are important to local communities. I have in mind here three issues: school choice, abortion, and economic development.

School choice. School choice is proving to be an issue capable of amassing a remarkably diverse constituency of supporters. Who would ever have imagined the Republican Senator and Presidential candidate Ted Cruz sharing the stage in solidarity with the ultra-liberal Democrat Representative Sheila Jackson Lee? But this is happening across the political spectrum with school choice. More and more black leaders are coming forward in support of this issue, and with Nevada’s recent enactment of universal school choice, it appears to be gaining momentum across the country.

Abortion. For the last several years, Gallup Polls have suggested that there is a rather pronounced trend towards the pro-life position nationally. Even the recent 2015 poll, which was the first in seven years favoring the pro-choice position, had 55% of the respondents wanting all or most abortions illegal. This is especially true of Latinos who, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey are on average more pro-life than whites. Indeed, evidence is mounting that the prolife message is in fact a major incentive moving women, Hispanics, and millennials into the Republican Party. At the local level, the Christian Right has been very effective in passing abortion restrictions. For example, targeted regulations of abortion providers, or TRAP laws, have more than doubled since 2000, such that today, there are six states and counting that are down to a single abortion clinic. With the recent revelations about Planned Parenthood’s ghoulish trafficking of dead babies’ body parts, abortion promises to continue to be an important issue for local activism and coalition building.

Economic development. Economists, anthropologists, and policy planners are becoming increasingly aware of the role religion plays at every level of economic development. A number of studies confirm that faith-based institutions are effective in revitalizing communities through sustainable economic development initiatives which can attract investments, build wealth, and encourage entrepreneurship. For example, in 1969, several churches in Goshen, Indiana came together in order to minister to the needs of Hispanic migrant workers in the Goshen area. For the past 35 years, La Casa of Goshen has provided affordable housing and services for disadvantaged Hispanic families. Amy Sherman’s study found that nearly 70 percent of Hispanic Protestant churches in the U.S. collaborate with other churches to organize community services such as housing programs, health care ministries, schools, and day care facilities. And by building up a community’s social infrastructure, churches contribute to increased property values which attract new residents and job-creating businesses.

As for the long term solution, we can expect to see the national political landscape change in accordance with two recent studies. The 1988 study by Robert Wuthnow entitled The Restructuring of American Religion, argues that since World War II, American religiosity has been going through a re-alignment. While denominational and doctrinal issues were key identifying markers prior to World War II, Americans have been increasingly defining themselves as conservatives or liberals. Thus, a conservative Episcopalian will find that he has more in common with a conservative Catholic or Mormon than he does with a fellow (progressive) Episcopalian.

And what we are finding is that this realignment yields discernible demographic trends. In a recent 2013 study, Eric Kaufmann identified a significant demographic discrepancy between Christian conservatives and secular liberals. In the U.S., while self-identified non-religionist women averaged only 1.5 children per couple in 2002, conservative evangelical women averaged 2.5 children, representing a 28 percent fertility edge. Kaufmann further found that the more conservative the Christian commitment, the greater the demographic disparity. For example, the fasting growing denomination in the U.S. are the Amish, who double in population every twenty years, and projections have the Amish numbering over a million in the U.S. and Canada in just a few decades. Kaufmann’s data projects that secularists, who consistently exemplify a low fertility rate of around 1.5 (significantly below the replacement level of 2.1), will begin a steady decline after 2030 to a mere 14 to 15 percent of the American population.

From this vantage point, Christian conservatives are not the future of merely the Republican Party, but the future of American demographics in general. If the Democratic Party continues to anchor its hopes with secular liberals, they may in a matter of decades be relegated to a mere 15% of the population.

The obituary for the Religious Right has been written and rewritten many times, but scholars are aware that it is a movement that is highly adaptable to changing social dynamics both domestically and abroad. It does appear that social conservatives have a number of opportunities to expand their network with one another across racial and ethnic divides at local levels. But nationally it will not be easy; decades of liberationist pulpits and emancipatory politicians stand in the way of a truly multiracial national network. It seems that such a national network must wait until demographic trends run their course.


This article originally appeared at The Imaginative Conservative.

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