Political Animal


March 12, 2012 12:35 PM Conservative Evangelical “World View” In Sharp Relief

By Ed Kilgore

Lots of progressive bloggers are having lots of fun with some of the crosstabs from PPI’s latest poll of likely Republican primary voters in Alabama and Mississippi—particularly the numbers showing a powerful reluctance to accept that the president is a Christian, and an embarrassingly large minority still favoring miscegenation laws against interracial marriage.

But I’m interested in a deeper finding: the fairly large divisions between self-identified “evangelical Christians” and non-evangelicals on these questions. Evangelicals are so dominant in these two states that it’s easy to miss this: there are not, for example, especially large divisions in terms of candidate preferences (Romney is doing relatively well among evangelicals, which is why he is competitive in both states and might well win one or both).

But: asked about the president’s religion, only 9% of evangelicals in both states agree Obama is a Christian (as opposed to 26% of non-evangelicals in Alabama and 19% in Mississippi). An actual majority (50% in AL, 54% in MS) of evangelicals think Obama is a Muslim, and the rest say they don’t know. It’s worth noting that the “don’t knows” probably include quite a few people who don’t think Obama is a Muslim, but also, like Rick Santorum, don’t much believe mainline Protestants are actually Christians.

Interestingly enough, self-ID’d evangelicals in these two states are also much more likely than others to favor legal bans on interracial marriage: nearly one-fourth in Alabama, and one-third in Mississippi.

Political observers who don’t pay much attention to religion or who lump all believers together probably can’t quite comprehend the extent to which white conservative evangelicals in this country have come to conflate their faith with conservative cultural values, creating a highly self-conscious “world view” that leads them to identify the Word of God with the mores of the (relatively recent) past. I used to have some country relatives who refused to acknowledge daylight savings time (as I wish I could have yesterday morning!) on grounds that standard time was God’s time! This as much as simple racism may well explain why a lot of these folks think it was a mistake to repeal miscegenation laws and elect as president a black man with the foreign-sounding name.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • DAY on March 12, 2012 12:50 PM:

    Q: What is missing in the Deep South?
    A: Opposable thumbs.

  • docdave on March 12, 2012 1:00 PM:

    FWIW, many of those evangelicals may not believe that Santorum or Romney are really Christian, either, but have an easier time putting their doubts on the shelf when the "doubtees" are pale males who spout plausible-sounding rubbish. I ran into a brick wall whle teaching freshman history at an un-named southern state school some years back, after many of the local kids had figured out that I wasn't a member of one of the locally-dominant denominations (several flavors of Baptist, Assemblies of God, Cumberland Presbyterian, "Evangelical Big-Box" and Pentecostal). Turns out that they'd kind of fingered me as Catholic, therefore not really Christian, hence damned...and one doesn't have to pay attention to damned persons. Until just before mideterms, that is!

  • JM917 on March 12, 2012 1:11 PM:

    Ed, I think you are onto a good insight here: simple (-minded) evangelicals really do think that they are the only people on earth who can rightfully be considered "Christians." That excludes mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics (though the line may be blurring when it comes to ultra-conservative Catholic traditionalists like Santorum, Scalia, and the latest version of Newt), as well as Jews, atheists, "secularists," Muslims, and assorted other heathen. To be a "Christian" means to be born-again, "Bible-believing," and wholly literalist. Nothing else is right in God's eyes.

    So whether President Obama is a Muslim or a mainstream Protestant or "librul" or a Marxist or a Kenyan Mau-Mau anticolonialist really isn't all that important. He's an "Other," not a born-again literalist Christian who's "accepted Jesus as his savior" (as that spiritual decision is understood in Evangelical Land). And as an "Other," he's fair game for whatever pejorative label you want to stick on him. Muslim-Schmuslim--call him whatever you don't like, it's all the same Devil's Spawn.

    This is the basic division to which contemporary America has come. We'd all better get used to it.

  • Midland on March 12, 2012 1:13 PM:

    There were plenty of people like this in the United States before the age of big media and the Republican Southern Strategy, but their beliefs were considered lower class and they had little political influence. Reagan and Falwell gave them political organization, the corporate right propagandized them, and they are creating their own, closed information society.

    All of which parallels what happened in the South between 1820 and 1860. Let's hope we never have to find out what how violent this faction will be willing to get in support of the wealthy elites who want to defend their power and their property.

  • David on March 12, 2012 1:23 PM:

    My grandmother used to talk about "God's time" (as opposed to "fast time"). We lived in western New York, she wasn't an evangelical, and we always regarded it as one of her quirks (she used to also announce, "The days are getting shorter!" starting about the 4th of July). The phrase in itself doesn't mean much.

  • Matt on March 12, 2012 1:31 PM:

    I say this as a MS resident, but it's true no matter where you are.

    Certain questions cannot be polled anymore, because respondents are far too well aware of what a poll is and how it's used. They cannot help but answer strategically, which is another way of saying they lie. "Is Obama a Christian" and "Do you believe in evolution" are perfect examples of questions where the expected value of responding "NO" is greater for social conservatives than an honest answer of "YES."

    Come at it from the opposite direction. Remember all those Bush-cocaine rumors? I never personally came across anything that convinced me it must have happened, so I never concluded that Dubya had snorted cocaine. If a friend had asked me, I'd have said so. But if USA Today asked me, as part of a poll with bar graphs that would be splashed in primary colors on their front page, well, I'd have been sorely tempted to say yes, because I'd believe that it'd weaken Bush politically.

    Some conservatives tell pollsters they don't believe in evolution precisely because they know it'll send the NYT crowd into a tizzy. I can promise you that a MS voter getting asked about his views on miscegenation laws, of all things, is going to be deeply suspicious about who wants to know and why, and polls about them are going to contain a lot of answers generated by a malicious desire to fuck with the pollster. ("Absolutely I think race-mixing is a sin. After all, I'm just an ignorant Rebel redneck, right? Do you have a question about cross-burning? I burn mine every night and twice on Sundays.")

    Besides which, "Is X a Christian" is more or less unpollable anyway. It's too open to interpretation. Which of the following does it mean:

    * Do you think X believes he's a Christian?
    * Do you think X says he's a Christian?
    * Do you think X's professed faith counts as Christianity?
    * Do you think X behaves in a fashion consistent with what you would expect of a Christian?

    Any reasonable person might take it any of those ways, and the pollster won't clarify which one is the "right" question. For myself, I'd be strongly tempted to answer "I don't know," even though I believe everything Obama has said about his Christianity, because in my mind only he can truly know whether he's a Christian. Except I'd never actually tell a pollster that, because that would be the strategically wrong choice--headlines reading "X% of Americans say they don't know if Obama is really a Christian" are negative things, and I'm an Obama supporter. So instead of giving the true answer as I understand it, I'd lie and say yes for strategic purposes.

    Polls are pretty good at predicting how people will vote. Anymore, they're pretty bad at all the rest.

  • Hedda Peraz on March 12, 2012 1:57 PM:

    Since God is not only All Powerful, but Loving, why does he treat Southern Evangelicals so poorly?

  • Tonio on March 14, 2012 6:57 AM:

    The problem is not just that these voters "conflate their faith with conservative cultural values." It's tempting to say that they're too ignorant to grasp the difference between religious affiliation and ethnicity. But they're really using a tribalist definition of religion itself. For them, the fishes on their cars are battle flags.