An excerpt from

The Truth about Conservative Christians

What They Think and What They Believe

Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout

The Politics of Conservative Christianity
in Black and White


The basic theme of this book is that the correlations between religious conservatism and political and social attitudes are not necessarily overwhelming. Bible Christians are indeed more likely than other Protestants, for example, to oppose abortion under every circumstance, to believe that homosexuality is always wrong, and to advocate restrictions on pornography. They are also more likely to vote Republican. However, not all Conservative Christians are consistently pro-life; in fact, the majority of them are not. And, while the majority still believe that homosexuality is always wrong, the proportion with that conviction declined rapidly in the 1990s. Finally, the additional vote of Conservative Protestants for Republican candidates, over and above that of Mainline American Protestants, is meager—about seven percentage points. Despite the depiction of Conservative Protestants by the media, by frightened liberals, and by the conservative leadership as if they were a massive and disciplined religio-political voting block, they are not. Indeed, we have argued, this image is a stereotype based on overgeneralization and prejudice. It is also a dangerous image because it marginalizes a major segment of American society because of inadequate information, bad information, or often no information at all. There may be a link between Conservative Christian religious convictions and political behavior but it is modest, even by social science standards.

Any attempt to forge a link of logical or doctrinal consistency between conservative religious belief and conservative politics falters when one considers African American Conservative Christians. In general, as we have reported, the doctrinal and ethical perspectives of African Americans in Afro-American Protestant denominations are, if anything, more conservative than those of whites in other Conservative Protestant denominations. Yet religiously committed African Americans, especially those in the Afro-American Protestant denominations, are the most politically liberal of any major group in American society. Whatever their feelings about abortion or evolution or homosexuality, they still vote in overwhelming numbers for Democratic candidates. Thus, while 52 percent of lower-income, white, Conservative Protestants voted Democratic in the 199OS, 90 percent of lower-income Afro-American Protestants did. In the 2004 election those numbers were 22 percent and 96 percent, respectively. Race, therefore, interacts with and ultimately reshapes the link between Conservative Protestantism and conservative politics.

This fact is so patent in contemporary politics that partisans and commentators alike tend to dismiss it as beside the point. We bring it up because of the questions it raises about the confluence of race, religion, and politics in American society. One of us was on the cable newsshow Hardball with a prominent Southern Baptist leader. He said rather proudly, we thought, that the evangelical vote had turned heavily Republican in the 2000 presidential election. We replied with the quote from our New York Times article that the vote was only marginally higher than for Mainline Protestants. He said that was because we were counting African American voters. We had a chance to interject that his statement was inaccurate before the ineffable Chris Matthews steered us to other matters.

If there had been more time, we might have said that his statement wasn’t true and that even if it were, so what? Is not a black evangelical every bit as much an evangelical as a white evangelical? Are they not a quarter of all Conservative Protestants? How do American political commentators overlook the racial difference among Conservative Christians? Is it ignored because it is so obvious? Is it discounted because African Americans are at the center of it? Is our analysis complete if we do not to wonder how very similar strains of traditional Bible Christianity can produce such different outcomes? Does not the diversity of outcomes suggest an intellectual puzzle that must be solved? Do African Americans who are religiously conservative lean Democratic because they are black while white religious conservatives lean in the opposite direction because they are white? If race is what really matters, is the conventional wisdom about Conservative Christian politics confounded?

A lot of questions spring from one overlooked fact. A generation ago white Conservative Protestants were New Deal Democrats. Is there anything “natural” or logical about the apparent link—however weak it may be—between conservative religion and conservative politics? Or does it result from the strife introduced into American society by the civil rights movement, the resulting play of the race card by Richard Nixon, and subsequent attack on big government of the Reagan era and the ongoing struggle between religion and “secular humanism?” Did religious convictions become a surrogate for changing political attitudes?

To put the matter differently, did not Afro-American Protestants drift into the Democratic party after 1934 because that’s where their social class and racial position in American society indicated they belonged? Did white Conservative Protestants drift into the Republican Party after 1968 because their failing social and racial position indicated that they belonged there? Did both groups bring into their new political home many of the political styles they once had in common, especially in the South? Was (and is) the “big government” mantra a code word, not necessarily for racism, but for racial conflict—or perhaps more precisely for the wins and the losses both groups experienced in the later years of the twentieth century? Is the politically conservative propensity of white Conservative Protestants at least in part a protest against their perceived loss of political power, a protest only marginally linked to their religious convictions? Is it also a protest against what they perceive to be an attack on all religious faith by “modernists” or “secularists” who are allies of big government?

These questions are important and we must ask them, even if answers are not easy to find. History is a rough and somewhat contradictory guide. Religion inspired abolitionists, black and white. From the Emancipation to the igloos, African Americans supported the “party of Lincoln.” But Franklin D. Roosevelt sought black support, north and south. Truman integrated the armed forces, and the Kennedys aggressively went at segregation when the Supreme Court called for “all deliberate speed.” Does the hue and cry about “evangelicals” and “fundamentalists” in fact provide a religious cover for a more basic experience of gain and loss? Might both blacks and whites bring their religious stories along with them as they change political places so that the same stories will correlate with opposed political reactions? Operationally might belief in the word-for-word literal inerrancy of the Bible intensify white Conservative Protestants’ propensity to vote Republican and black Conservative Protestants’ propensity to vote Democratic? If this should be the case then “evangelical”—in the strictest sense of the word—means Republican in some circumstances and Democratic in other circumstances.


Literal interpretation of the Bible and frequent religious practice push African Americans toward the Democrats and whites toward the Republicans (see table 4.1). Literalism intensifies the diametrically opposed political orientations in the two groups; it pulls them further apart politically. Belief in the “fundamental” common doctrine that identifies each as “evangelical” in fact moves them in opposite political directions. To put the matter differently, the Gospel does correlate with political orientation; the direction of the correlation depends on believers’ social contexts, which in this case means their differing racial ancestries.

Table 4.1 Votes for Democrats in the 1992-2000 presidential elections by race and denomination

African American White
Afro-American Protestant
Other Religion
Conservative Protestant
Mainline Protestant
Bible is:    
Word of God 96 92 34 40
Inspired word 94 89 37 47
Book of Fables 86 -a 54 61
Attend services    
Weekly 95 91 28 40
2-3 times per month 95 90 43 43
Once a month 93 98 41 50
Less often 91 90 48 51
Never -a -a 48 57
Read the Bible in past year    
Daily 100 82 27 42
Weekly 95 -a 34 35
Less often 95 -a 52 53
Not at all -a -a 47 56
a Too few cases for reliable calculation
SOURCE: General Social Surveys, 1993-2004.

Religious practice also affects the direction of partisanship. African Americans who attend services and/or read scripture more often are more inclined to vote for Democrats; whites move in the Republican direction as they increase their attendance and scripture reading. The strongest Democrats in this tabulation are the African Americans in Afro-American denominations who read their Bible daily, followed closely by those who attend church weekly. The strongest Republicans are the whites in Conservative Protestant denominations who read their Bibles daily and attend services weekly.

We note also that the correlations represented in table 4.1 are very robust. They exist even when our statistical adjustments hold constant the possibly confounding effects of gender, region, marital status, education, income and liberal/conservative political orientation.

Table 4.1 reveals similar tendencies outside the Afro-American and Conservative Protestant denominations, especially among the white Mainline Protestants. But the effects of attendance and frequent Bible study turn out to be significantly weaker for Mainline than Conservative Protestants when tested in the multivariate context.

How can the same religious doctrine produce in people who are similar in all other matters such different political behavior? Conservative Christianity in both its American forms constitutes a single powerful religious story—God is on the side of His people as they struggle for freedom. In their own way the Conservative Protestants and the Afro-American Protestants identify with that story and bestow their allegiance of party loyalty to the party that best reflects that collective self-image. Is that dubious? Hardly. Religious stories are multilayered and polysemous. They are not completely malleable, not inkblots into which any meaning can be projected. But they do admit of different interpretations depending on the context in which they are being told. The Exodus story in which Moses led the chosen people out of Egypt can be applied by any group that feels that it is going forth on some sacred mission.

God communicates absolute religious truth to those on the mission and watches over them as they struggle for freedom, whether the exodus on which they are marching is liberation from racism or liberation from secular humanism. Since this story is there for Christians to make their own, it is adaptable to whatever struggle for freedom a given Christian people might experience. One might perhaps argue that biblical literalism provides rich resources for any populist Christian movement since it provides motivation and validation of one’s particular populist cause. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord... His truth is marching on.” One names the truth, and there is the Lord marching with “us” against “them.” Conservative Christianity, once mobilized, is likely to be militant politically for whatever godly cause—abolition, prohibition, civil rights, the right to life. The directionality of the militant march depends on whom the cause defines as the opponent. Race, as such, is not so much the issue in contemporary Christian militancy in the United States as it is occasion of the difference between the two Christian militant marches—one towards a time when we shall overcome and the other towards a restoration of God’s place in public life.


Liberals who decry the militant political stands of Conservative Protestants should beware of trying to have it both ways when they turn around to praise the militant political stands of Afro-American Protestants—and perhaps sing black freedom songs. Logically they should oppose the political effects of militant literalism wherever it appears—or accept it as an inevitable populist political story in this country. Republicans, it must be remembered, supported prohibition and Democrats (in the north) opposed it.

Therefore we suggest as the conclusion to this chapter that Conservative Christianity can promote a political agenda. American political history teaches us, though, that the direction it leads men and women cannot be determined in advance. Evangelical militancy is not new, and while it is distasteful when it marches in the opposite direction of our own cause, it can also be embraced (at risk of inconsistency) to support the “onward, Christian soldiers” march of one’s own cause.

While some disregard history to demonize Conservative Christianity’s involvement in politics that promote a conservative social agenda, we remind them that religious zeal in the pursuit of political objectives has not been the monopoly of one particular political camp. In the present era the same religious principles that lead whites to the right lead blacks to the left.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 69-75 of The Truth about Conservative Christians: What They Think and What They Believe by Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2006 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout
The Truth about Conservative Christians: What They Think and What They Believe
©2006, 216 pages, 23 line drawings, 27 tables
Cloth $22.50 ISBN: 0-226-30662-3

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