Christian exodus from GOP unlikely

Every election cycle brings with it early speculation about trend-busting developments. Turnout will supposedly be higher than ever. Important segments of the electorate are purported to be realigning their partisanship. Such speculation is always deduced from a tiny trace of hard polling data mixed with a heaping pile of qualitative insight gleaned from interesting anecdotes and casual observation, with perhaps a focus group or two.

More often than not, these early insights eventually prove to be false, but that doesn’t discourage the speculators. The point is not to be predictive, but to be provocative.

For a week or two, let’s put a few of the predicted developments of this cycle under the microscope.

Right now, many white evangelical Christians who have historically voted Republican are reportedly saying they’ll vote for Barack Obama and some congressional Democrats. This is particularly noteworthy among younger evangelicals who feel the GOP has not paid sufficient attention to environmental “creation care” nor shown sufficient compassion for the poor. Even conservative evangelical leaders like Joel Hunter are openly counseling flocks that it’s OK to vote for liberals and Democrats sometimes. So because Obama is a comfortable Christian brother, they are switching sides.

I have seen something like this before in the black electorate. As early as the mid-1980s, spring and summer polling would detect significant shares of younger middle-class and affluent African-Americans thinking of voting Republican. After all, the “moving-on-up” black bourgeoisie share many economic values with their white counterparts, who are reliable Republican voters. So why shouldn’t this happen? operatives reasoned.

But tracking polls and actual election results discovered that these aspiring black Republicans “went home” to the Democrats as Election Day approached. One popular interpretation of this change of heart, in fact, involved a genuine journey home. The envisioned scenario was that young and black Republican-to-be couples went to Grandma’s for Sunday dinner after church services. Over mashed potatoes and peas, the young generation shared with family elders the news that they might be voting Republican. Forthwith, Grandma fainted.

Once Grandpa resuscitated Grandma with smelling salts, they proceeded to recount to their wannabe-prodigal kids their own civil rights journeys, the scourge of prejudice they overcame, and so forth. Pretty soon, the young Turks felt like total heels for ever considering voting for a Republican.

Today’s suburban white evangelical Christians may not have as many genuine extended family dinners as do African-Americans, but many come “home” every Sunday to their church families. They talk about anything and everything before and after church. Many will go to lunch at restaurants with fellow Bible study group members after services. It’s a modern version of the old-fashioned Sunday family dinner.

By Election Day, some of these evangelicals will have a lot to talk about over lunch, especially after watching the Democratic convention to check out their new party choice. It won’t be all Brother Barack, all the time. No, Christians will probably glimpse Barney Frank Democrats showing considerable contempt for their “narrow-minded” and “parochial” values, particularly on gay issues.

Homosexual marriage-mania will jolt Christians, while adulation of such unions will be cross-cutting the Democrats’ environmental and poverty-relief appeals to evangelicals. Many pastors will be, at best, counseling evangelicals to consider skipping this election. Some may instruct their faithful to return home to the GOP after McCain and the Republicans give them some substantive reasons to about-face. Expect early predictions of a Christian exodus from Republican ranks to be proven wrong.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.