The invaluable Amy Sullivan has a piece in the current issue of the almost equally invaluable Washington Monthly about “the advance guard of evangelicals leaving the GOP.” It focuses on the battle over an elective course in Bible studies in Alabama’s public high schools. The twist is that the bill was sponsored by Democrats and opposed by Republicans.
The holy skirmish down in Alabama, with its “GOP blocks votes on Bible class bill” headlines, may seem like just a one-time, up-is-down, oddity. But it’s really the frontline of a larger war to keep Democrats from appealing to more moderate evangelical voters. American politics is so closely divided that if a political party peels off a few percentage points of a single big constituency, it can change the entire electoral map. ….
Democrats could … poach a decisive percentage of the GOP’s evangelical base. In the last election, evangelicals made up 26 percent of the electorate, and 78 percent of them voted for Bush. That sounds like a fairly inviolate bloc. And, indeed, the conservative evangelicals for whom abortion and gay marriage are the deciding issues are unlikely to ever leave the Republican Party. But a substantial minority of evangelical voters—41 percent, according to a 2004 survey by political scientist John Green at the University of Akron—are more moderate on a host of issues ranging from the environment to public education to support for government spending on anti-poverty programs. Broadly speaking, these are the suburban, two-working-parents, kids-in-public-school, recycle-the-newspapers evangelicals. They may be pro-life, but it’s in a Catholic, “seamless garment of life” kind of way. These moderates have largely remained in the Republican coalition because of its faith-friendly image. A targeted effort by the Democratic Party to appeal to them could produce victories in the short term: To win the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry needed just 59,300 additional votes in Ohio—that’s four percent of the total evangelical vote in the state, or approximately 10 percent of Ohio’s moderate evangelical voters. And if the Democratic Party changed its reputation on religion, the result could alter the electoral map in a more significant and permanent way.