11.22.11 9:45 AM ET
Why Demographic Shifts on Religion and Marriage Could Doom the Democratic Party
If demography is destiny, the Democratic Party could be facing big trouble.
A growing contrast between the two major parties centers more and more on stark differences in marital status and religious involvement—distinctions that should give substantial advantages to Republicans and place Democrats increasingly outside the American mainstream.
New polling from the Gallup 0rganization includes striking details that ought to alarm the administration and its allies. For the first time, substantial majorities of those who describe themselves as Democrats in the age of Obama say they are unmarried and irreligious—in a nation that overwhelmingly values both marriage and religion.
Between June and August 2011, Gallup interviewed more than 78,000 adults, evenly divided between the two parties. Among Democrats, 52 percent say they “seldom” or “never” attend religious services; among Republicans, 61 percent go to church or synagogue once a month or more.
Even more surprisingly, 54 percent of Democrats say today they are single; up sharply from the 48 percent of the donkey party who counted as unmarried before Obama’s election. For the GOP, on the other hand, the great bulk of its support (62 percent) continues to come from married adults.
As a party overwhelmingly comprised of churchgoers and married people, the Republicans not only mirror the nation at large (where solid majorities are currently married and attend religious services at least monthly), but, more important, connect to nearly universal American aspirations.
The most recent figures from the Census Bureau show that in 2010 more than 83 percent had been married at least once by the age of 40, while surveys suggest that the biggest groups of single adults (the never-married below 25 and widows above 65) would personally prefer to be part of marital relationships. Few people who currently hold the status of husbands and wives nourish a burning desire to live as singles (if they did, they’d divorce), but huge proportions of those who remain unmarried wish they could marry (or, in some cases, marry again).
On a similar note, even those Americans who may attend church services less regularly than Republicans express strong positive feelings toward religion, while few among the great bulk of Americans who say that they pray regularly would endorse the attitudes of the irreligious majority in the Democratic Party. A typical recent poll (from CBS News in 2009) showed 59 percent of all respondents saying they “pray often” and an identical percentage agreeing that “religion is very important in their daily lives.”
Among the 40 percent in that survey who said that they go to services “nearly every week,” it’s safe to say that few believe they should worship less frequently, but among the 39 percent who admitted they attend “less often” many would no doubt acknowledge that they wished they could participate on a more regular basis. Only 20 percent flatly declared that they “never” go to services—the position that currently dominates the Democratic Party.
In other words, the United States not only remains a nation where the bulk of the populace attends religious services regularly and most adults go home each night to a husband or wife, but big majorities still believe that marriage and faith are positive influences in our national life. For all the misleading talk about the imminent collapse of marriage, the 2010 Census brought the surprising news that among all children under 18, nearly 70 percent live with both biological parents.
In this regard, the Democratic Party faces an obvious challenge with its majorities of the unmarried and the irreligious. The broader public (and even prominent Democratic leaders) express strong support for lasting marriage and dynamic faith communities as beneficial to the nation. President Obama has spoken frequently to encourage religiosity (giving some of his most eloquent addresses at various prayer breakfasts and church services) and passionately makes the case for responsible fatherhood and stable families.
By promoting such sentiments, don’t Democrats unwittingly acknowledge that they want more people to resemble Republicans and fewer Americans to be like them? Don’t they implicitly endorse GOP values over their own?
The reason that married, churchgoing people disproportionately develop Republican affiliation has less to do with conservative convictions on divisive social issues (like abortion, guns, or gay marriage) and more to do with distrust of big government and preferred reliance on intimate arrangements. The great conservative philosopher and parliamentarian Edmund Burke emphasized the importance of the “little platoons” of civil society—family, church, community, business—above centralized institutions of government. People who can count on religious involvement and family support networks to help with the basic needs of existence (from child care to elder care) will feel less desire for costly, intrusive, bureaucratic programs to satisfy daily demands. On the other hand, the unmarried and the un-churched count as far more likely to feel alone and unprotected, supporting expansive, activist government to address their urgent needs.
By most measures, Republicans exemplify values and behavior that most Americans want for themselves, since those affiliated with the GOP are more likely to be committed to long-term marriages, to be active in their churches and synagogues, and to achieve financial success (with 23 percent earning above $90,000, compared with 18 percent in the nation at large), and far less likely to experience (or support) reliance on government welfare programs.
The minority communities that today provide Democrats with their most unshakably reliable supporters (with 36 percent of Democrats identified as “nonwhite” compared with only 26 percent in the general public) most emphatically share the positive view of faith and family that’s so disproportionately displayed in the Republican Party. A fresh push among black and particularly Hispanic voters should portray the GOP as the natural home for those who want their kids to grow up to lasting marriages and lifelong religious commitments—chipping away at that near-monolithic minority support that sustains Obama’s increasingly forlorn hopes for reelection.
If those on the right can convince the public that the embrace of conservative ideas and candidates will reliably help more people live like Republicans, they could make significant progress toward that dream of a durable GOP majority that’s eluded them for more than 80 years.