Watching the Oregon returns on CNN last Tuesday night, I was intrigued by an odd statistic: among those who described themselves as professing “no religion,” 61% cast their ballot for Senator Obama.
My curiosity piqued, I proceeded to scour Democratic exit polls to see if this was some sort of fluke. It was no fluke: of the 30 states where I could find comparable data, Obama won the “no religion” crowd an astonishing 26 times!
This pattern held in the early races where three or more candidates were on the slate. And it held in the later, head-to-head contests against Senator Clinton (though she carried them in Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, and West Virginia).
Let’s step back for a moment. We know Obama does well among young voters. We know he does well among men. We know that affluent, well-educated whites just can’t get enough of him. My modest contribution to the Sum Total of Punditry Knowledge consists of adding that “no religion” people love the guy as well.
But who, pray tell, are the “no religion” people? This category is not exceedingly precise. After all, godless persons and deists might both be labeled as such. In fact, as I noted in my present book many pollsters fail to distinguish between atheists and agnostics (i.e., nonbelievers) on the one side, and believers who shun organized religion on the other.
In any case, Obama’s popularity among this cohort is at once baffling and understandable. It is understandable because its members tend to be younger, better educated, predominantly male, gainfully employed and overwhelmingly white.* In other words, his “no religion” supporters are an electoral Frankenstein, a conglomeration of component parts that have made up his surprising coalition.
But now we come to the baffling part. Next to Mike Huckabee, Obama has had the honor of being The Candidate Most Likely to Go Christ-y On the 2008 Electorate.
His rhetoric abounds in scriptural allusions. The cadences of the African-American Church are deliberately intoned in much of his oratory. He has publicly stated that he would like to rethink his Party’s traditional aversion to permitting religion in the public square. In short, for secularists of all stripes, Obama should trigger fight or flight responses.
But this has rarely come to pass. The secularists I speak with usually mention three arguments for ignoring his faith-based exuberance. The first–and most dubious–is that Obama is just pandering to crucial voting blocks and will regain his senses upon moving into the White House.
More plausibly, others suggest that his background as a student and scholar of constitutional law insures that he will never violate the sanctity of The Wall. Last, it is often remarked that Obama is a true liberal. Secularists, so I have been told, have little to fear from a true liberal.
Yet let us not forget that Obama is a very special type of true liberal—one that appeals to deeply religious people. Consider that in another exit poll category, “Vote by Church Attendance,” Obama has also had good state-by-state success. Those who visit their houses of worship “weekly” and “occasionally” have repeatedly given him steady support (In Oregon, for example, he scored 57% and 58% respectively with these groups).
As he tries to make inroads among White Evangelicals in the coming months it is this type of church-going voter that he must win over en masse. Of course, down at the Family Worship Center the three-headed “no religion” constituency is often seen as an elitist Frankenstein of sorts. Obama’s challenge lies in integrating both groups into his November coalition.
*For a good discussion of some of these characteristics see Ariela Keysar, “Who are America’s Atheists and Agnostics?” in Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, Eds. B. Kosmin and A Keysar (Hartford, CT.: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, 2007) pp. 33-39. Keysar bases her discussion on the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey which did draw the proper distinctions between atheists, agnostics, and those with no religion.
(For more information about religion and the candidates check out Faith 2008 by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.)
By Jacques Berlinerblau |
May 22, 2008; 2:59 AM ET
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