The Twelve Tribes of American Politics

The religious groups that comprise the American Electorate

By John Green & Stephen Waldman

 Judging from the amount of press coverage they get, you'd think the only religious groups in American politics were the religious right - and everyone else. In fact, a shrewd candidate needs to understand the idiosyncrasies and hot buttons of all Twelve Tribes of American Politics.

Unlike the more famous Twelve Tribes of Israel, these groups can all be located. Using data from the Pew Religion Forum and the Ray K Bliss Institute at University of Akron, Beliefnet has defined the religious groupings that make up our political landscape. The surveys were conducted in May 2004 and so show longterm trends rather than present day horse race preferences.

 The biggest finding: The Religious Right and the Religious Left are almost exactly the same size. The former has had a much greater impact for the past 25 years largely because of superior organization and drive.

And now....the Twelve Tribes of American Politics:


The Religious Right

 Percent of the electorate: 12.6%

Who are they: Highly orthodox white evangelical Protestants: 88% believe the Bible is literally true; 87% report attending worship once a week or more. 44% live in the South.


  Jerry Falwell

  James Dobson

  Tom Delay


Ideology: Conservative: 66%, Moderate: 25%, Liberal: 9%

Party: Republican: 70%, Independent: 10%, Democratic: 20%

Political trend: Strongly Republican and getting more so each year.

What they care about: Compared to other groups, more likely to care about cultural issues (40% compared to 20% nationally); 84% are pro-life and 89% oppose marriage or civil unions for gays; very strong supporters of Israel (64% say the U.S. should back Israel over the Palestinians). Four-fifth claims that religion is important to their political thinking. This group strongly supports the political involvement of religious organizations.

What they might like about Bush: His personal faith, backing for "traditional morality," and tough foreign policy.

What they might like about Kerry: Not much.

Political significance: This group is a key part of Bush's base. Concentrated in the South, they help secure a big chunk of the Electoral College for Bush. But they are also found in swing states, such as Florida, West Virginia, Ohio, and Missouri. The big question is: how many will vote in November? Bush needs higher turnout than in 2000 in the swing states.


Percent of the electorate: 11.4%

Who are they: Conservative Catholics and conservative mainline Protestants, Latter-day Saints, and other smaller groups. Slightly less orthodox than the Religious Right (54% of the Protestants are biblical literalists; 60% of the Catholics agree with papal infallibility) and more theologically diverse. But they are regular churchgoers (three-quarters report attending worship service weekly or more often.)

Heartland Cultural Warriors





  George W. Bush

  William Bennett

  Mitt Romney



Ideology: Conservative: 50%, Moderate: 41%, Liberal: 10%

Party: Republican: 54%, Independent: 17%, Democratic: 29%

Political trend: Stable in size, this group is becoming more Republican.

What they care about: Like the religious right, conservative on social issues--73% support traditional marriage and half say their faith is important to their political thinking. They support churches being active in politics. But they give greater attention to economic and foreign policy issues.

What they might like about Bush: His tax cuts, views on marriage, the faith-based initiative, and the war on terrorism.

What they might like about Kerry: A more cooperative foreign policy. Conservative mainline Protestants support stem cell research, but conservative Catholics have problems with Kerry's liberal approach to the faith.

Political significance: Bush needs strong turnout from this group, but must also do some persuading. This group is key in the rural and suburban Midwest.


Moderate Evangelicals


Percent of the electorate: 10.8%

Who are they: No, it's not an oxymoron: these white evangelical Protestants hold less orthodox religious beliefs (54% are biblical literalists) and donít show up in church quite as often as the "religious right" (35% go weekly or more often), but they belong to evangelical churches and regard themselves as born-again Christians.


  Max Lucado

  Jimmy Carter

  Bill Frist


Ideology: Conservative: 48%, Moderate: 26%, Liberal: 16%

Party: Republican: 47%, Independent: 22%, Democratic: 31%

Political Trend: Clinton did well with this group in the 1990s, but Bush bested Gore in 2000.

What they care about: Not as concerned about cultural rot as their conservative brethren. They're still pro-life, pro-war and anti-gay-rights, but place a greater emphasis on economic issues, where they tend to be moderate: 61% would fund more anti-poverty programs by taxing the rich. Only 40% said their faith was important to their political thinking, but they nonetheless support the political involvement of religious organizations.

What they might like about Bush: His personal faith: 83% of this group thinks itís important for the President to have strong religious beliefs. Also, they are sympathetic to the president's social and foreign policy positions.

What they might like about Kerry: His views on the poor and the middle-class "squeeze."

Political significance: Likely to go for Bush with whom they share a strong faith bond. But if Kerry connects on economics, it will help him in crucial Midwestern swing states, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, where moderate evangelicals are common.


White Bread Protestants


Percent of the electorate: 7.0%

Who are they: The core members of the Protestant "mainline" churches-- United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church in the USA, American Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, and so forth--that once dominated the American religious landscape. About one-quarter report regular church attendance and just 19% are biblical literalists; 47% agree that "all the world's great religious are equally true and good."

Ideology: Conservative: 37%, Moderate: 43%, Liberal: 20%

Party: Republican: 46%, Independent: 21%, Democratic: 33%

Political trend: This group is shrinking in size and becoming more politically moderate and less Republican, though Bush still won them in 2000.


  George H.W. Bush

  Dick Cheney

  John Edwards


What they care about: They don't much like the Republican Party's emphasis on conservative social issues: they're pro-choice and favor civil unions or same-sex marriage. But what they care most about is economics--half give priority to economic matters - and there they tend to be more conservative.

What they might like about Bush: Tax cuts and national security.

What they might like about Kerry: Bringing down the deficits and defending a woman's right to choose.

Political significance: Bush has an advantage, but a lot of work to do.

The big question: Will disappointment with Bush over the deficit and his close alliance with the "religious right" produce tepid turnout and defections to Kerry? If so, Kerry will have a leg up in the swing states.


 Convertible Catholics

 Percent of the electorate: 8.1%

Theology: The core of the white Catholic community, they outnumber conservative Catholics by nearly two to one. Moderate in practice (42% claim to attend worship weekly) and belief (less than one-half agree with papal infallibility). 52% agree that "all the world's great religions are equally true and good."


   Maria Shriver

  Arnold Schwartzenegger

  John Kerry

  Cardinal Roger Mahony


Ideology: Conservative: 29%, Moderate: 49%, Liberal: 22%

Party: Republican: 34%, Independent 19%, Democrat: 47%

Political Trend: The quintessential swing vote. Clinton edged out Bush senior, Bush junior edged out Gore in 2000. Up for grabs.

What they care about: Half gave priority to economic issues, with a special emphasis on liberal social welfare policy. To the dismay of the Catholic Church, small majorities are pro-choice and supportive of stem cell research. They are moderate on foreign policy. Only about one-fifth report that their faith is important to their political thinking.

What they might like about Bush: War on terror, compassionate conservatism.

What they might like about Kerry: Restoring American influence abroad via a more cooperative foreign policy; aid to the disadvantaged. As a pro-choice Catholic, he's one of them.

Political significance: Abundant in most of the swing states, this group could decide the election. So far no sign of tribal loyalty for their co-religionist Kerry. They dislike Bush's bias toward the rich but so far think he's the better man to lead the war on terror. Ripe for Kerry if he can make the case on Iraq


The Religious Left

 Percent of the electorate: 12.6%

Theology: Theologically liberal Catholics, mainline and evangelical Protestants. Less church-bound (less than one-quarter report weekly worship attendance) and pluralistic in their beliefs (two-thirds agree that "all the world's great religious are equally true and good.")


   Rev. Jim Wallis

  William Sloane Coffin

  Rev. Bob Edgar

  Mario Cuomo


Ideology: Conservative: 20%, Moderate: 50%, Liberal: 30%

Party: Republican: 31%; Independent: 18%; Democratic: 51%

Political trend: Probably growing in size and moving in a Democratic direction.

What they care about: Liberal on most everything. On marriage, 42% favor same-sex unions and 29% civil unions; 77% are pro-choice on abortion. A majority opposes the war in Iraq. But only a few report that their faith is important to their political thinking, and overall, they oppose the political involvement of religious organizations.

What they might like about Bush: Hardly anything...

What they might like about Kerry: His economic, social, and foreign policies

Political significance: Clearly Kerry voters. But--and it's a huge but-- unlike their conservative counterparts, they tend not to vote on religious grounds or in especially large numbers. Key question: can they match the "religious right" turnout in the swing states?


Spiritual But Not Religious


Percent of the electorate: 5.3%

Who they are: Most report spiritual beliefs--85% believe in God and more than half are sure there is some kind of life after death--but they don't much like Houses of Worship or organized religion. They report no formal religious affiliation and a majority report seldom or never attending worship services. 47% are under age 35.


  Marianne Williamson

  Tony Robbins

  Deepak Chopra

  Dennis Kucinich


Ideology: Conservative: 26%, Moderate: 49%, Liberal: 25%

Party: Republican: 28%, Independent: 37%, Democratic: 35%

Political Trend: Growing in numbers but politically divided.

What they care about: An eclectic mix. They're liberal on economics, abortion, and foreign policy - more than half believe the United States has no special role to play in international affairs -- but 58% favor traditional marriage. Only about one-fifth report that their faith is important to their political thinking.

What they might like about Bush: Fending off gay marriage.

What they might like about Kerry: Foreign policy and economic liberalism

Political significance: Mysterious. Logical Kerry voters, but spiritual people without a church affiliation tend to vote less.



 Percent of the electorate: 10.7%

Who they are: Non-religious, atheists, and agnostics.


  Bill Maher

  Ron Reagan, Jr.

  Howard Dean


Ideology: Conservative: 17%, Moderate: 48%, Liberal: 35%

Party: Republican: 26%, Independent 27%, Democratic: 47%

Political trend: A Democratic bloc that has been steadily growing in size.

What they care about: The group that is most uncomfortable when candidates talk about their personal faith (54%). Very liberal on social issues: 83% are pro-choice and 59% favor same-sex marriage. Liberal on foreign policy, moderate on economics, and quite young (47% under age 35).

What they might like about Bush: The free-market part of the Bush agenda, and some sympathy for the war on terror.

What they might like about Kerry: He's not affiliated with the "religious right." They're socially liberal and amenable to Kerry's "don't go it alone" approach to foreign policy.

Political significance: Important Kerry voting bloc that helps give him a lock on the electoral votes of the mega-states of California, New York, and Illinois. The secular could make the difference in Oregon and Washington as well as New Hampshire and Nevada.



 Percent of the electorate: 7.3%

Who they are: Majority Catholic, but with a large Protestant minority. Fairly orthodox in practice (53% report attending worship once a week or more) and belief (60% of the Catholics agreed with papal infallibility; 58% of the Protestants are biblical literalists).


  Bill Richardson

  Luis Palau

  Mel Martinez


Ideology: Conservative: 28%, Moderate: 45%, Liberal: 27%

Party: Republican: 24%, Independent: 22%, Democratic: 54%

Political trend: Rapidly growing; Republicans have made some gains among Latino Protestants, but not yet among the Catholics.

What they care about: Though identified as ripe for Republican wooing because of their more conservative cultural views (59% oppose abortion or gay marriage), they care twice as much about economics as social issues. More than two-fifths want government spending increased. But a majority says their faith is very important to their political thinking and they strongly support the political involvement of religious organizations.

What they might like about Bush: Strong foreign policy and support for traditional marriage.

What they might like about Kerry: Expanded social welfare programs and economic policies.

Political significance: A key voting bloc in Florida, Colorado and the rest of the Southwest. Important for Kerry, so Bush will try to make some inroads.



 Percent of the electorate: 1.9%

Who they are: Common cultural identity mixed with diverse religious beliefs.


  Al Franken

  Allan Dershowitz

  Barbra Streisand

  Paul Wolfowitz


Ideology: Conservative: 19%, Moderate: 36%, Liberal: 46%

Party: Republicans: 21%, Independents: 11%, Democrats: 68%

Political Trend: A strong Democratic group, Jews may well have become more so since 2000.

What they care about: The only group that puts foreign policy first. 75% of Jews say the U.S. should support Israel over the Palestinians-a figure comparable to the religious right-and also have moderate to conservative positions on other foreign policy matters. Liberal on economics and especially social issues. Jews are especially troubled by the political involvement of religious organizations and are uncomfortable with politicians discussing their faith in public.

What they might like about Bush: Support of Israel and the war on terrorism.

What they might like about Kerry: Liberal domestic policy on a range of economic and social matters.

Political significance: Jews are a small group concentrated in some key states, such as Florida. Bush has tried to break the Democratic lock on Jewish voters, but does not appear to be succeeding. These are Kerry voters.


Muslim & Other Faiths

Percent of the electorate: 2.7%

Who they are: Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, and other smaller groups.


  Muhammad Ali

  Richard Gere



Ideology: Conservative: 10%, Moderate: 46%, Liberal: 44%

Party: Republicans: 12%, Independents 33%, Democrats: 55%

Political Trend: In 2000, Muslims backed Bush, but the other groups went for Gore.

What they care about: They care more about economics (and are liberal on it) but some (Muslims especially) are conservative on social issues like gay marriage. They oppose the political involvement of religious organizations.

What they might like about Bush: For Muslims, his consistent effort to convey respect for Islam and his fight to bring democracy to the Islamic world.

What they might like about Kerry: Liberal domestic policies and new directions in foreign policy. And for Muslims, the fact that he didn't launch the Patriot Act.

Political significance: Muslims are less than 1% of the electorate but are concentrated in two battleground states: Michigan and Ohio. Other groups are found largely in safe Democratic areas and therefore are less important politically this year. (Apologies to California Buddhists and New York Wiccans).


 Black Protestants


  Al Sharpton

  Rev. Jesse Jackson

  Tavis Smiley

  T.D. Jakes

  Coretta Scott King



 Ideology: Conservative: 27%, Moderate: 48%, Liberal: 25%

Party: Republicans: 11%, Independents 18%, Democrats: 71%

Political trendline: Strong Democrats and especially so in 2000.

What they care about: The economy, stupid. Two-thirds put pocketbook and social welfare issues first. But this group is quite conservative on social issues: 72% support traditional marriage and 54% are pro-life on abortion. They also support Bush's faith-base initiative. Highly politicized, they are quite comfortable with the political involvement of religious organizations.

What they might like about Bush: Faith-based initiative and support for traditional marriage.

What they might like about Kerry: He's a liberal Democrat. Period.

Political significance: As with the "religious right" for Republicans, the key question is not who they'll vote for but turnout. Kerry desperately needs them to vote in record numbers.



Originally published here at BeliefNet. Prof. John Green is director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute at University of Akron and a Beliefnet Contributing Editor. Steven Waldman is editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.



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