Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Opinion: Why White Protestants Won't Vote For Obama

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    President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally at George Mason University October 19, 2012, in Fairfax. Obama and his opponent, Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are battling for Virginia's 13 electoral votes, which Obama won in 2008. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

    George W. Bush and John McCain both won two-thirds of white Protestants. Mitt Romney looks as though he’ll win them by an even bigger margin. As a (practicing) white Presbyterian, I think I have insight into why Protestants are so Republican -- and why Romney’s huge lead among whites in general is as much cultural as racial.

    Protestantism is an individualistic creed. By establishing the priesthood of all believers -- removing the intermediaries between God and humanity -- Martin Luther “placed before every man the personal responsibility to work out his own salvation.” It’s a short step from this to the belief that every man is responsible for his fortunes here on Earth. Among Calvinists, wealth was seen as a sign that its earner was one of the Elect, destined for heaven. Money, as the product of hard work, equaled virtue. When Presbyterians say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that Protestantism resulted in the development of our modern industrial economy.

    This worldview is threatened by religions and cultures that put more emphasis on communal living and group solidarity: Catholics, Jews, Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans, Asians. When whites call Obama a “socialist,” they’re not just making an economic observation. They’re identifying him with the minority groups overwhelming traditional white, Protestant culture. He’s particularly threatening because this is the first election in which Protestants make up a minority of Americans (48 percent, according to a recent survey). Obama’s “socialism” is this century’s version of the alcohol that nativist Protestants associated with immigrant Germans, Italians and Irish a hundred years ago -- a symbol of a culture that threatens white, Protestant values. I don’t think most Romney voters are white supremacists, but neither do I think their disdain for Obama can be separated from race, because he represents cultural values they disdain.

    Protestants also dislike the Democrats’ emphasis on providing a social safety net. Protestantism isn’t so much evangelical as entrepreneurial. Unlike Judaism, which you’re born into, or Catholicism, where you’re expected to attend the local parish, Protestants have to build their congregations by attracting adherents. One way to do that is by providing services, such as tutoring, food pantries and clothing exchanges. Protestant congregations see government as a competitor. If the poor can get it from the government, they don’t have to go to church.

    The U.S. has more Protestants than any nation on Earth, and if you look at the map at this link, you’ll see their highest concentrations are in the most Republican states.

    The irony, of course, is that Protestants are making their stand behind the first non-Protestant ticket in American history: Mitt Romney is Mormon and Paul Ryan is Catholic. They’ve both adopted the political stances of conservative Protestants, though. For the modern Republican Party, nominating a Catholic and a Mormon counts as expanding the base.

     

    This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $9.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.