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Why white evangelicals rule the midterms

File: Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. speaks at the 2014 Values Voter Summit in Washington, Friday, Sept. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

One of the reasons that Republicans won the midterm elections is because white evangelicals turned out, while Democratic-leaning groups stayed home. For good and for ill, white evangelicals are one of the most effectively organized groups in American politics, and they reliably vote Republican. We should all be asking what we can learn from conservative evangelicals about how to energize voters in midterms.

Back in October, pollster Robert Jones argued that white evangelicals were declining as a percentage of the population, even in the South. This could have been bad news for Republicans, who counted on loyal support from white evangelicals. Jones predicted that by November 2014, evangelical decline would start tipping close races to Democrats in Bible Belt states like Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

But on Nov.r 4 of 2014, white evangelicals handed Republicans a decisive victory in Senate races across the country. White evangelicals may be declining as a percentage of the population.  But as Sarah Posner reported in Religion Dispatches, they still rule the midterms because they turn out to vote in such high numbers for Republicans.

In my new book, “The Politics of Evangelical Identity,” I explain how white evangelicals became so closely tied to conservative politics in the United States, but not Canada. What can we all learn from the midterm enthusiasm of white evangelicals? In my fieldwork in evangelical churches, I discovered that their turnout power is built between elections, long before the campaign season starts.

Many outsiders assume that evangelical mobilization is a rather top-down affair: pastors and national elites tell evangelicals to get out and vote for conservatives. But I discovered that a much broader set of volunteer or “lay” religious leaders play a key role in weaving politics into local religious life. The Sunday School teacher who makes off-handed derogatory remarks about “liberals.” The small group host with the portrait of George W. Bush on her fridge. The pro-life friend at church who reminds you to get out and vote this November—and to remember that the Democrats are for abortion, Republicans are for life.

These local opinion leaders translate national conservative messages into the everyday social worlds of evangelical churches. I call them “captains” in the Culture War, because they are embedded in the everyday lives of their followers. By contrast, James Dobson, Glenn Beck, or Mike Huckabee are “generals” in the Culture War over issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Culture War captains are the people in your life who model what it means to be a good Christian, who help you map your political identity against out-groups like “liberals,” “feminists,” and “gay rights activists.”

When election season rolls around, evangelicals are already primed with a shared narrative about American national identity, which blames the country’s moral decline on activist “liberals” trying to limit the religious freedom of Christians. This narrative is promoted by Christian Right interest groups, but it is also promoted by media sources and organizations that are not perceived as “political” by rank-and-file evangelicals.  For example, most evangelicals in my study saw Focus on the Family as a resource for parenting and personal devotion, not as a partisan operation. Likewise, pro-life activists whom I interviewed did not see themselves as “political” leaders. For them, the pro-life movement was a thoroughly religious movement; indeed, most of their activities with pro-life groups involved prayer and Bible study, not protest and advocacy.

So when Republican candidates invoke Culture War narrative in campaigns, their claims resonate with language that is continuously reinforced by ostensibly non-political, spiritual practices. Conservative frames resonate with evangelicals in election years, because they are reinforced in their everyday religious lives by local leaders who model a conservative political identity.

So what does this mean for movements who want to mobilize very different populations? From observing evangelicals, I learned that GOTV (getting out the vote) should be just the tip of the iceberg of a much longer-term process of base-building. GOTV is most powerful when it builds onto a solid set of relationships and identity-work that have been put into place long before campaign season.  Knocking on doors and making phone calls is just the last step.

Campaigns only remind evangelicals what they have already learned from their religious community: that voting Republican is a natural extension of what it means to be a good Christian. This message is not just reinforced from the top-down during campaign season, by Christian Right interest groups and campaign ads. It is also reinforced from the bottom-up by trusted local leaders who are part of people’s everyday lives.

If we want to increase midterm voting among groups who stayed home, we need to ask who the local opinion leaders might be to reach low-propensity voters. What local settings could play the role of an evangelical small group or Bible study?  Where do people learn that voting is expected of them, to be a good member of their network, in a context of personal accountability? And what is the organizational vehicle that will identify and develop these local leaders, who will engage a much larger set of low-propensity voters in year-round base-building? You’ve got to hand it to conservative evangelicals: they really have all of this down.

Dr. Lydia Bean is Senior Consultant to the PICO National Network, now building a new faith-rooted organizing effort in Texas. Her first book, The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Congregations and Partisan Divides in the United States in Canada was published in 2014 by Princeton University Press. 

This post is part of the Scholars Strategy Network series on civic engagement between elections.

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