In Key Battleground State, Religious Patterns Seem Stable

October 17, 2008

Author: Mary Warner

Source: Beliefnet/Religion News Service

A group of twentysomethings at the Evangelical Free Church of Hershey spoke admiringly about Barack Obama's eloquence, his impulse to heal divides and his historic campaign as a black man nominated for the presidency.

But only one of the four in this key battleground state was even leaning toward voting for the Democratic candidate.

John Green, who follows religious voting patterns on a much larger scale for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, put it this way:

"There's this capacity for change, but we haven't seen it yet."

In an election year when lurid fears for the economy have dimmed the culture wars and the Democratic candidate quotes Scripture, Green said he's been surprised to find religious voters lining up, so far, much as they did during the 2004 campaign.

Four years ago, evangelicals were solidly in the Republican camp -- and proved a major factor in President Bush's re-election.

This year, high-profile evangelicals describe a broader political agenda: not just abortion and gay marriage, but Darfur, torture, poverty and the environment. Democrats have made direct appeals to people of faith.

So far, though, polls pick up little change in the political allegiance of evangelicals -- or of other major religious groups, Green said. "Evangelical Protestants are still supporting the GOP, with a little less enthusiasm. Catholics are pretty divided, but they were pretty divided back in 2004."

Mainline Protestants are still divided, too, four years later. And Jews and African-American Protestants are still heavily Democratic -- Jews a little less so than in 2004 and African-Americans more so.

Still, religious voters have been waiting longer this election to make up their minds.

And the economy -- months ago, voters ranked it as a far bigger issue than in 2004 -- has taken a sudden and frightening turn at home and abroad, prompting fears of worldwide recession.

All that means that much could change by the time Green analyzes religious voting patterns in Election Day exit polls. "The real test of all this will be the votes in November," he said.