Where Is the Christian Left?

Sen. Tim Kaine has made his Catholicism a central part of his identity on the campaign trail. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Sen. Tim Kaine has made his Catholicism a central part of his identity on the campaign trail. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Both Tim Kaine and Mike Pence brought their faith into Tuesday night’s debate, emphasizing their religious beliefs and even quoting the Bible. Kaine is a devout Catholic; Pence grew up Catholic but is now an evangelical Christian, and together they are proof that Christian faith can drive the beliefs of voters across the political spectrum. So one of our listeners asked recently why the Christians of one party get so much more attention than the others:

“I’m a white 33-year-old voter and I vote based, in large part, on my Christian faith, which is precisely why I am a Democrat and a big-time Hillary-supporter. Many of my former seminary classmates and other religious folks I know also vote based on their faith and are therefore Democrats. Are there any good numbers on the Christian left vote? We hear so much about the vote of the Christian right, but we rarely hear about the Christian left, with the exception of occasionally hearing about the religious dimensions of the black vote. How do religious voters of all traditions tend to factor on the left?” — Shea, from Virginia

Shea is right that the Christian right gets a lot of attention — though this year, it may not be attention that conservative Christians are excited about. Plenty of people are wondering about the future of the Christian right, given both the shrinking population of white Christians and a Republican candidate whose words, policies and life choices leave some Christians uneasy.

So where is the Christian left in this discussion?

The easiest question to answer here is Shea’s numbers question: “How do religious voters of all traditions tend to factor on the left?” The Pew Research Center has numbers on this — not exactly about left versus right, but about the religious affiliations of Democrats and Democratic leaners versus Republicans and Republican leaners.

On the right, white Christians dominate, with whites from “evangelical” denominations making up the plurality of Republicans and Republican leaners. (As for what exactly “evangelical” means, that’s another complicated question.) Though the numbers have shifted somewhat over the years, the Republican Party has remained dominated by white Christians for decades now.

Among Democrats and Democratic-leaners, religiously unaffiliated people (including atheists and agnostics, for example) make up the largest share, at nearly one-third of those people. That’s a profound shift from 20 years ago; those “religious nones” are the fastest-growing religious group in America, and they are concentrated far more among Democrats than Republicans.

Long story short: The right is very, very Christian, while the left is much less so. That Republican group is 83 percent Christian. For Democrats, it’s 59 percent.

So it makes sense that the Christian right is also better known than the Christian left. Fully 58 percent of people said they had heard “a lot” or “a little” about the Christian right, according to Pew, compared with 41 percent who said the same of the Christian left.

Furthermore, 4 percent of Americans say they agree with the Christian left, compared with 14 percent who say so of the Christian right.

To be clear, there are lots of devout Christians on the left, many of whom take their faith into account when casting their votes. But these data show that there’s a difference between having lots of people and being a cohesive political force.

“None of this is to suggest that there aren’t individual voters on the political left whose politics are motivated by their religious beliefs — there assuredly are,” said Greg Smith, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center. “But it’s tough to see much in these data to suggest that the religious left is gaining in size or power as a movement, at least among whites.”

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Danielle Kurtzleben

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