Religious Questions: How did the GOP get the God vote?

The late Rev. Jerry Falwell speaks at the SBC Pastors' Conference in Nashville on in a June 20, 2005. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is part of "Religion: Got questions?," a series answering your biggest religious questions. Each week, we will answer one submitted faith question. To send a submission visit here or email

Question: Can you address the perception that Republican presidents are elected by God, and Democratic presidents are not?

Political parties and various religious groups aligning is nothing new in the United States. However, the beginning of the connection between the Republican party and the conservative white religious voting bloc stretches back decades and through a dozen presidential administrations.

In the 19th and early parts of the 20th centuries, conservative white protestants in the South were often called "yellow dog Democrats," meaning they would vote for a yellow dog on the Democratic ticket before voting for a Republican, said Mark Silk, Trinity College professor and director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.

Those conservative white voters started shifting to being ardent Republican supporters after President Harry Truman integrated the country's armed forces in a 1948 executive order. The white evangelical support for Republican politics, and the shift away from supporting Democrats, has grown and solidified ever since, Silk said.

After the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, GOP strategists realized the party could not overtly lean into race to motivate voters, Silk said. Instead, strategists worked to align the GOP with the social issues of conservative white voters, Silk said.

"Political scientists in the '70s, if you asked them, 'Is religion going to play an important role in sort of defining the two-party system?' They would've said, 'Absolutely not,'" he said. "Then, all of a sudden, you got a national politics that has now become significantly inflected by religion."

Today, the majority of followers in the Evangelical Christian tradition and a few mainline denominations vote or lean Republican, according to the Pew Research Center. Those faith traditions or denominations include Mormonism, Church of the Nazarene, Southern Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Assemblies of God, Presbyterian Church in America, Church of God, Anglican Church, United Methodist Church and Churches of Christ.

Faith traditions or denominations in which the majority of followers vote or lean Democratic include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, National Baptist Convention, Unitarian Universalist, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism, among others.

In a separate survey, Pew found that 73 percent of Republican voters or people leaning Republican believe in God with absolute certainty, compared to 55 percent of people who are Democrats or lean Democratic.

Religious alignment with political parties is one factor driving polarization, said Geoff Layman, a University of Notre Dame political science professor who has studied how religious views drive polarization.

"The relationship between that and polarization goes both ways," Layman said. "On the one hand, the religious differences between the parties fuel some of the polarization. It has pushed the Republican party to be more conservative on some of the social, cultural issues And the Democrats to be more liberal."

The divide began in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the GOP aligned itself with religiously conservative views on social issues, Layman said. Starting with Truman's armed forces decision, and in the decades that followed, American society faced decisions on a number of social issues, from civil rights to feminism to prayer in schools to gay rights to abortion.

Neither political party had strong stances on these issues. Instead, the Democrats and Republicans were straddling the middle, Layman said. Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign in 1980 was a leader in creating conservative stances on cultural issues. At the same time, conservative Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell, a popular Southern Baptist pastor, stepped into political activism.

In 1976, Falwell organized the Moral Majority, which overrode the Baptist position of separating religion and politics to support politicians opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion and homosexuality, among other issues.

Republicans such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush could lean into these types of voters because the candidates knew the conservative culture, Layman said.

Evangelical Christians, particularly in the South, were pushed toward the GOP from multiple angles, said Jim Guth, Furman University professor of politics and international affairs.

"Not only were evangelical Christians getting cues from political leaders, but many of them were getting cues from their religious leaders as well," Guth said.

White Christian voters' support for the GOP was further cemented as the Democratic party took more liberal stances on social issues.

"Once you have the party dependent so much on a very, very large constituency like evangelicals you got to pay attention to them," Guth said. "That tends to keep the party attached to that particular group."

The Democratic party does have a counter to the religious support for the GOP, Silk said. While the Democrats may have a "God gap" problem in appealing to religious Americans, the Republican Party has a "God-less" problem in appealing to the growing number of Americans who do not identify with religion.

According to a 2018 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, more than 25 percent of Americans and 20 percent of people living in Tennessee do not affiliate with a religious tradition. In the state, that is a 5-percentage-point increase from a similar 2013 survey by the institute.

The non-religious voting block has increased in size and importance in elections during the last 20 years, Layman said. While not exclusively Democratic, the non-religious are increasingly voting blue in ways that offset the religious right's votes.

"Fifty, 60, 100 years ago, there wasn't that base of non-religious Americans," Layman said. "At least people, whether or not they went to church, they at least claimed a religious affiliation. They thought of themselves as something, whether it was Catholic, Jewish, Protestant or whatever."

Democratic candidates are not talking about faith as much as their GOP counterparts, which is driving the divide even more. Non-religious people feel alienated in conservative circles and vice versa, Layman said.

"There is not much evidence that we're moving away from a religious-secular divide in our party politics," he said. "As the country grows less religious, more and more Americans are calling themselves 'nones' when it comes to religion. It may be necessary for the Republican party to begin to expand beyond the traditionally religious base."

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Find him on Twitter at @News4Mass.