Why do white religious conservatives overwhelmingly vote for the Republican Party, but blacks with similar religious views identify with the Democratic Party?
The answer has to do with how different racial groups interpret the Bible, according to Eric McDaniel, Ph.D., an assistant professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholar in Health Policy Research.
White religious conservatives put a premium on Biblical imperatives on morality at the individual level, which has been translated into public policy positions in opposition to abortion and same sex marriage, argue McDaniel and his co-author Christopher Ellison, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. But blacks and, to a lesser extent, Latinos, practice in a religious culture that puts greater weight on Biblical teachings around social justice, and as a result tend to identify more with the Democratic Party’s stances on poverty, health care and education.
“Scholars and even journalists have treated religious conservatives as a monolithic group,” McDaniel said. “We found multiple interpretations of what it means.”
McDaniel and Ellison expand on these conclusions in an article that was published in the June 2008 edition of Political Research Quarterly. It won an honorable mention in the “Best Article” category in March 2009 from the Western Political Science Association and Political Research Quarterly.
The scholars’ conclusions have real-world implications for political candidates and strategists. Republicans seeking to appeal to minority voters—many of whom hold conservative religious views—need to tailor their messages around the Bible’s call to help the underprivileged, McDaniel said. Democrats, meanwhile, can make inroads with religious white voters by putting their social justice messages in a religious context.
President Obama, McDaniel said, offers an example of how Democrats can do that. Young white religious conservatives, he said, may not be flocking to his party, but they are more open to his message than they have been to those of his predecessors.
For his work as a Scholar in Health Policy Research, McDaniel is focusing on the role of religion in disseminating health information. He is conducting the project at the University of California at Berkeley and will complete it in 2010.
The Scholars in Health Policy Research Program is a national Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It supports work in economics, political science and sociology that may advance scholars’ contributions to health policy research.