Religion & American politics:

Talking right, stumbling left

posted by W. Bradford Wilcox

In less than a month, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has emerged as a political phenomenon capable, miracle of miracles, of grabbing almost as much public attention as Senator Barack Obama. Revered in some quarters and reviled in others, the Republican nominee for vice president appears in particular to have a gift for attracting the allegiance of white working-class voters and religious conservatives in Red America, and for garnering the condescension if not downright scorn of well-educated professionals hailing from Blue America.

Palin’s popularity and notoriety has many sources, but one source of her Red America popularity has not been sufficiently well understood in the last three weeks: Her pro-family ideals and the more complicated realities of her family life make it easy for many working-class whites—especially evangelical Protestants—to identify with her. As a mayor and governor, Palin has established her socially conservative credentials by supporting a range of public policies—from abstinence education to legal limits on abortion—that underline her religiously-informed, pro-family ideals.

But the reality of Palin’s family life is a lot more complex than her socially conservative perspective might lead one to expect. On the one hand, consistent with the social views advanced by religiously conservative groups like Focus on the Family, this evangelical Protestant has been married to her husband, Todd, for twenty years, has five children, and carried her son, Trig, to term even after discovering that he had Down syndrome. On the other hand, Palin and her family are clearly products of the gender and family revolutions of the last half-century: she is a working mother, her teenage daughter, Bristol, is pregnant outside of marriage, and—judging by “Troopergate”—her extended family has felt the fallout of divorce.

Some journalists—from Ruth Marcus at the Washington Post to Ellen Goodman at the Boston Globe—have made much of the tensions between the realities of her family life and her socially conservative policy agenda and worldview. Ironically, and probably much to the surprise of progressive journalists like Marcus and Goodman, Palin only stands to benefit—politically at least—from the complex ways in which her socially conservative beliefs and personal biography do and do not mesh.

Why is this? Well, in many respects, the uneasy fit between ideals and realities embodied in Sarah Palin’s life mirrors the experience of many white evangelical Protestants, especially working-class white evangelicals in Red America. In a paper I wrote recently for the Russell Sage Foundation, I found that evangelical Protestants—who make up about one-quarter of the U.S. population—are markedly more likely than other Americans to embrace traditional views of family life; at the same time, they are also more likely than other Americans to have difficulty living up to those ideals—especially when it comes to teenage sex, working mothers, and divorce. In a word, evangelical Protestants typically talk right and, often unwittingly, stumble left.

Take their views toward divorce and premarital sex. In 2002, 70 percent of evangelical Protestants indicated that they thought divorce should be “more difficult to obtain,” compared to 41 percent of other Americans. Likewise, also in 2002, 57 percent of evangelical Protestants affirmed the view that premarital sex is “always wrong,” compared to 28 percent of other Americans. My book, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (Chicago, 2004), reports a similar divide when it comes to gender attitudes, with evangelical Protestants reporting significantly higher levels of support for traditional gender roles than the rest of the American population.

But when it comes to putting these views into practice, the picture grows more complex. My research shows that evangelical Protestants are more likely to be married and to have larger families than other Americans, as one might expect. But on other fronts, American evangelicals have clearly been affected by the tidal wave of change associated with the family and gender revolutions of the last half century. On average, evangelical Protestant teens have sex at slightly earlier ages than their non-evangelical peers (respectively, 16.38 years-old versus 16.52 years-olds). Evangelical Protestant couples are also slightly more likely to divorce than non-evangelical couples. And, I have also found that evangelical mothers are actually more likely to work full-time outside of the home than their non-evangelical peers.

Class and culture both play a role in accounting for the gap between evangelical family ideals and evangelical family realities. Compared to the population at large, evangelicals are more likely to hail from working-class communities in the South. Because they have less education and income, on average, than the population at large, these evangelicals are more vulnerable to divorce and more likely to rely on a mother’s paycheck to make ends meet. Furthermore, many evangelicals are influenced by a “redneck” Scotch-Irish cultural inheritance that makes them more likely to engage in risky or violent behavior, which also helps to account for their distinctive patterns when it comes to teen sex and divorce.

Paradoxically, the disjunctions between evangelical ideals and practices only seem to make them more committed to their traditional vision of family life. Whether they have experienced a “fall from grace” in their own family life, or seen a friend or family member experience such a fall, many evangelicals view these family experiences as an occasion to redouble their support for religious and policy measures to strengthen the family. In their view, the best response to their own family failings or the family failings of their neighbor is heightened vigilance against what they see as the poisonous cultural fruits of late modernity. As Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Seminary, wrote in a New York Times guest editorial in 2000:

Southern Baptists experience family trouble like everyone else, but at least they know how God intended to order the family. In essence, Southern Baptists are engaged in a battle against modernity, earnestly contending for the truth and authority of an ancient faith.

This, then, is why so many white evangelicals can identify not only with Sarah Palin’s personal family life but also with her conservative views on social issues.

This is also partly why a charismatic and gifted Democratic politician like Barack Obama is having difficulty making inroads among white working-class Americans in Red America—particularly evangelical Protestants. Even though many of them are deeply dissatisfied with President George W. Bush’s leadership, and are losing ground in today’s information economy, many white working-class Americans in Red America are suspicious of a party that has generally dismissed their concerns about the drift of the culture, and of a political leader who speaks condescendingly of their “bitter” obsession with guns and God. (This is despite the fact that Obama—like much of Blue America—personally walks a conservative walk as a member of a prosperous, intact, married family.)

Moreover, much to the chagrin of the Obama campaign and their well-educated supporters in Blue America, Governor Sarah Palin has been remarkably successful in fueling the flames of suspicion about Obama in Red America with her discussion of candidates who “talk to us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.” In the near future, this suspicion is unlikely to be allayed until and unless the Democratic Party finds a candidate who is as gifted talking about working-class families’ cultural concerns as their economic concerns. Of course, given the predilection of most Democratic elites to talk left in public even as they walk right in private, it may be a while before the next William Jefferson Clinton emerges onto the Democratic stage.

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6 Responses to “Talking right, stumbling left”

  1. avatar Ryan Cragun says:

    Could the evangelical support for Palin not also have to do with outright prejudice? As Bruce Hunsberger has so often found, religious fundamentalism is closely tied to right-wing authoritarianism, which is also correlated with prejudice. Maybe the general dislike of Obama among Evangelical Christians is simply prejudice toward people in their out-group, including blacks? And maybe the general favoritism toward Palin is basic social psychological in-group favoritism, not the fact that she is pro-family?

  2. Evangelical support for Palin is not rooted in racism. Christian Smith at Notre Dame has found that evangelicals are no more likely to be prejudiced than are other Americans. Furthermore, John Green at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has found that white evangelical support now parallels support for Bush in 2004 when Bush was running against a white candidate.

    So I think it’s time to retire the canard about contemporary evangelical racism. This is not to say evangelicals aren’t prejudiced. As Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia has argued, evangelicals do have prejudices against secular liberals. But, as he also argues, secular liberals more than return the favor.

  3. avatar Ryan Cragun says:

    Certainly secular liberals are not fans of religious fundamentalists (e.g., Bolce, L., and G. De Maio. 1999. “Religious Outlook, Culture War Politics, and Antipathy Toward Christian Fundamentalists.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 63:29-61.). But you can’t say it is without good reason: According to Michelle Goldberg (journalist, not sociologist), fundamentalists would outlaw secularism if they ever gained power, which wouldn’t go over so well for secular liberals (Goldberg, Michelle. 2007. Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. W. W. Norton.).

    But I am surprised that you sound so confident in your assertion that prejudice has nothing to do with evangelical support for Palin. The news media is full of dissections of the race issue right now, finding that it is certainly playing a role in the election ( Basic in-group/out-group favoritism has to be a factor in this election (see Altemeyer’s article below).

    Claiming contemporary evangelicals are more prejudiced than non-evangelicals is definitely not a canard. Bob Altemeyer’s 2003 paper found that religious fundamentalists tend to be prejudiced: they hold very negative views of homosexuals, racial and ethnic minorities, and people in other religious groups (just ask Mitt Romney; Altemeyer, Bob. 2003. “Why Do Religious Fundamentalists Tend to be Prejudiced?.” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 13:17-28.) While evangelicals are not universally fundamentalist in orientation, they are more likely to be so. Ergo, this is no canard.

    I think you need to provide additional evidence to support your argument that prejudice has nothing to do with evangelicals’ support of Palin.

  4. Dr. Wilcox – thanks for this provocative article. I have three questions for you.

    1.) Is this a gloss on saying Evangelicals are happy with hypocrisy as long as so-called “pro-family” lines are mouthed? (Pro-Family, here, refers to supporting a particular, historically contingent, ideologically rooted vision of the family as a political heuristic, not a practiced reality.) If it is not that, how does it differ?

    2.) I am a big fan of (my former colleague) Chris Smith’s work too, but it’s a stretch to argue that he’s found there to be no link between attitudes hostile to African Americans as a group and evangelicalism. It’s just that the link is mediated by the more general link between white conservatives and racism—which, in turn, links to the underlying story you’ve told us about white conservatives and the Sarah Palin effect.

    3.) Can you provide some (links to) data about Palin’s popularity among the white working class? As is often the case, I suspect this effect is overblown and that voting choices remain pretty economic as Bartels and Gelman have been demonstrating.


  5. Dr. Perrin:

    Good questions/points. Let me answer them in turn.

    1) My point is basically two-fold. On the one hand, yes, evangelicals are happy to live with a measure of hypocrisy on family matters because their traditional family ideals are a key part of their religious identity; so, they hold on to those ideals even when they do not always live up to those ideals because they are at the core of their religious identity (in much the same way that progressives often hold onto, say, pro-environmental ideals even though they take international flights that have a negative impact on the environment.) On the other hand, I also want to suggest that fragility of family life in many evangelical homes and in many communities where evangelicals make their home (esp working-class communities in Red America) makes it understable that they would promote family-oriented ideals that might strengthen family life both for their own families and the communities where they live.

    2) I will just make the point that Chris Smith finds in his work that an evangelical Protestant religious identity is NOT linked to racial prejudice, net of controls for factors like region and class. Of course, this means that white evangelicals may be more racially prejudiced than well-educated secularists BUT their religion is not the issue; rather, their region or class would be the issue.

    3) I don’t have data on class per se. But John Green at the Pew Forum has found that John McCain’s support among evangelicals is now as high as George Bush’s was in 2004. He attributes this in part to Sarah Palin’s placement on the ticket. Many of these evangelicals are working-class whites who are putting their “values” ahead of their “class interest” in much the same way that, say, many wealthy New Yorkers are putting their “values” ahead of their “class interest” in siding with Obama.

    Hope that helps.

  6. Thank you, these are helpful explanations. Re: point 3, though — support among evangelicals is quite different, conceptually, from support among working-class whites, which is the question I was asking.

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