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The God Gap Helps Explain a 'Seismic Shift' in American Politics
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The God Gap Helps Explain a ‘Seismic Shift’ in American Politics

The most important religious divide isn't between right and left, but between left and left

There’s talk of realignment in the air. If you think all the way back to 2012, you might remember a certain phrase—the coalition of the ascendant. This was the Obama coalition, the collection of all of America’s growing demographics, from nonwhite voters to single women. The Romney voters, by contrast, were fading. White, Christian, and married, they were the demographic losers in a population that was becoming both more diverse and more secular. Democratic dominance was inevitable.

That analysis should have caused us to feel a certain looming dread. Nations that use race or ethnicity as the organizing principle of politics are often quite unstable, and quite violent. This is true across the world, and it’s true in our own land. Systematic racial division and oppression fractured the country once. It’s foolish to think it couldn’t fracture again—especially when the political class intentionally mobilizes voters to vote as a racial bloc. 

Optimistic Democrats didn’t see Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 so much as a refutation of the coalition of the ascendant theory as a quirk of the electoral college and a reminder that Hillary Clinton wasn’t Barack Obama. The nation wasn’t quite majority-minority yet, and thus that the white majority could still win races when identity politics reign supreme. 

But 2020 told a different tale. The Democrats got whiter, the Republicans got more diverse, and now all the assumptions are scrambled. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by a far wider margin than he did in 2016, but he did materially better with Hispanic, Asian, and black voters. In fact, Trump did better than Romney with nonwhite voters in 2016 (an improvement then mainly attributed to Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses), and he improved on that showing in 2020. What was once seen as an aberration now looks like a trend.

The trend continues. Last week Axios’s Josh Kraushaar described an ongoing “seismic shift” in the two parties’ coalitions. As outlined in a New York Times/Siena College poll, “Democrats now have a bigger advantage with white college graduates than they do with nonwhite voters.” The Democratic Party’s losses with Hispanics are remarkable. Whereas Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, and Biden won 65 percent in 2020, now the Hispanic vote is “statistically tied.”

Moreover, there are good reasons to believe that Hispanic voters will continue to migrate to the GOP. As Ruy Teixeira described this week on his Substack, comprehensive issue polling from Echelon Insights demonstrates that strong progressives have substantially different political and cultural views from Hispanics.

Hispanic voters are far more likely to believe that America is “the greatest country in the world,” far less likely to support defunding the police, far less likely to believe “racism is built into our society,” and far less likely to believe that transgender athletes should play on sports teams that match their current gender identity. In most cases, the polling gap is just immense. 

What accounts for such monumental differences in beliefs in values? As my colleague Jonah Goldberg often (and rightly) says, we should reject monocausal explanations for complex social phenomena, but here’s a factor that simply isn’t discussed enough. The Democratic Party has a huge “God gap,” and that God gap is driving a wedge between its white and nonwhite voters. 

Let’s look at the data. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey on American religious beliefs provides us with a picture that’s worth a thousand words:

We would be foolish to believe that religious differences this immense would not eventually manifest themselves in different political values. Ever since I first set foot on Harvard Law Schools’ campus more than 30 years ago, I’ve seen with my own eyes how utterly scornful many powerful white progressives are towards traditional Christianity. 

Yet in scorning traditional or orthodox religious beliefs, secular progressives are often scorning indispensable members of their own coalition. Writing in response to flare-ups over Chick-fil-A, Yale law professor Stephen Carter sounded the alarm more than four years ago:

Overall, people of color are more likely than whites to be Christians — and pretty devout Christians at that. Some 83 percent of all black Americans are absolutely certain that God exists. No other group comes close to this figure. Black Christians are far more likely than white Christians (84 percent to 64 percent) to describe religion as very important in their lives. Of all ethnic groups, black Christians are the most likely to attend services, pray frequently and read the Bible regularly. They are also — here’s the kicker — most likely to believe that their faith is the place to look for answers to questions about right and wrong. And they are, by large margins, the most likely to believe that the Bible is the literally inerrant word of God. In short, if you find Christian traditionalism creepy, it’s black people you’re talking about. 

Hispanic Americans also tend to possess strong religious values. In October 2020 the New York Times’s Jennifer Medina published a prescient report highlighting Trump-supporting Hispanic Evangelicals. Called “Latino, Evangelical, and Politically Homeless,” it featured this insightful sentence: “Hispanic evangelicals identify as religious first and foremost.”

Yes. Absolutely. That’s exactly why a politics focused on mobilizing by race/ethnicity will not reach them, especially when identity politics is paired with hard-left cultural positions and hostility for traditional religion. Hispanic voters will find a religious connection with many, many white Republicans, and that religious connection can prove far more culturally and politically consequential than any effort to create a politics based on ethnic or racial identity. 

The disproportionate secularization of white Democrats represents a danger for the Democratic Party, for the country, and for American religion. The danger for the Democrats is clear. America may be more secular than it’s been in generations, but it is still a quite religious country. It’s far more religious than any European nation. It’s far more religious than Canada or the rest of the anglosphere nations. And it’s going to remain extraordinarily religious for the foreseeable future. 

A party that’s culturally disconnected from (or perhaps even scornful of) traditional religious faith is going to alienate itself from tens of millions of voters it could otherwise reach.

The danger to the nation is a version of the same danger represented by ethnic identity politics. If there’s one thing that can fracture a nation as thoroughly as ethnic division, it’s religious strife. The historical examples—from Catholic/Protestant to Hindu/Muslim to Sunni/Shiite—are too numerous to count. Indeed, we’re watching a great power war unfold in eastern Europe that’s motivated at least in part by profound religious animus. Our nation will be far, far healthier if we don’t divide on sharp religious lines. 

Religious conflict and political religious separation is also dangerous to religion itself. Turning one party into the “faith party” not only risks repeating many of the compromises of the Trump era (many Christians saw supporting the GOP as their only real choice), it also risks melding together faith and power and faith and ideology in deeply destructive ways. 

Countless political and cultural issues don’t have a clear “Christian” policy solution, yet when a party’s members perceive it to be the party of American Christianity, then the platform is wrongly infused with religious fervor, even on issues (like tax rates, gun policy, environmental policy, foreign policy, and countless others) where the correct religious answer is far from clear. 

Moreover, the tight union of Christian faith and political power has a terrible track record for the Christianity. Note, for example, that Christianity is withering away in Europe, the very continent that for centuries unified church and state to an extent never seen in the United States of America. When Christian power is seen as indispensable for the flourishing of the Christian faith, history demonstrates that power, not faith, will become the priority of a Christian people. 

The future is not yet written. Both parties are at a crossroads. There is time for secular progressives to understand that Christians (including especially the black church) are an indispensable element of the progressive coalition. At the very least secular Americans should demonstrate respect and real tolerance for traditional religious beliefs. 

Indeed, there is a long history of Christian leftist political engagement in the United States. America would be a less just place without their Christian witness, and many politically progressive Christians are traditional and orthodox, including on matters of sex and gender. Can they retain their political home? 

Conservative Evangelicals—who come disproportionately from the South—have a real opportunity to turn the page on generations of terrible sin. Why are black Christians still so politically separated from the white church? Because for centuries all too many white Christians viewed their black brothers and sisters less through the lens of a common faith and more through the bigoted lens of a different race. It was white identity politics that separated the church, and its lingering legacy is a roadblock to unity today.

While Hispanic Americans don’t share the same history as black Christians, the hateful and fearful language around immigration (including, for example, “replacement theory” discourse) causes too many Republican Christians to view Hispanic immigrants more as a political threat and less as brothers and sisters who likely share the same faith.

In December 2016, the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, famously told NPR’s Terry Gross, “We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives.” His comment rang true to me. During my time in deep blue America, it was plain to me that many of my secular friends were mystified by my faith, at least at first. 

But if we don’t “get religion” we won’t fully get the seismic shift in American politics. America is a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, and deeply religious republic. If one or both parties can embrace each element of that reality, then we have a chance to make sure that seismic shift moves our politics towards the respectful pluralism that America requires. 

One more thing …

In May I wrote at length about the police failures in Uvalde, Texas, and since then the story has gotten much worse. I don’t want to link to the newly-released video footage of police waiting in the hallway while gunshots rang out in a classroom a few feet away, but it’s exactly as bad as you can imagine. Instead, I want to link to something else, something much better.

There is still great courage in this country. Last week I ran across the story of Nick Bostic thanks to this tweet: 

This remarkably courageous man was driving past a burning building, stopped his car, and saved a family. WLFI News has the details, in Bostic’s own words: 

“I slammed on the brakes, I turned the steering wheel, I did a 180, I ran into the back of the house and I was yelling for anybody 4 faces, 3 or 4 faces came out the top.”

Four children accompanied by their 18-year-old sister were inside.

The eldest sister was able to get three of her siblings out but one was still missing, Nick Ran back in.

“I heard a faint whine, a faint crying noise and I went down there till I found that baby,” said Nick.

Due to smoke, Nick’s only option was to exit from upstairs.

“I remembered seeing a window in the first room I checked for the child and I knew that would be the side to go on, that would probably be my best bet.”

The child was safe but Nick suffered multiple severe injuries.

“It was all worth it. I kept reminding myself what a small sacrifice. This temporary pain, oh ya it’s so worth it.”

Hero.

And another thing …

My Good Faith podcast co-host Curtis Chang is on a “sabbatical” for most of this month (must be nice Curtis!) but that doesn’t stop me from podcasting. This week I hosted Scott Sauls, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville. We talked about his new book, Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen, whether winsomeness “works,” and about his prescient warnings about the culture wars. 

It was a great conversation. I hope you give it a try, even if my theological wingman has decided to take the month off.  

One last thing …

I know quite a few hillbillies. I know very few Thomists. And I know precisely zero Hillbilly Thomists. But lots of readers know and love these guys, and they keep sending me some truly delightful songs. They’ve released some new music, and it’s great. Enjoy:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.