The non-Christian left: overlooked voter bloc The religious right outnumbers the non-Christian left only in the South.

November 12, 1998|By Jim Castelli

IN THE aftermath of this year's elections, the pundits have spent a great deal of time discussing the impact of the black vote and of the religious right vote.

But they have ignored the impact of an equally important group that provided more votes for Democrats than the religious right did for Republicans.

This group could be called the non-Christian left -- Jews (3 percent of voters), other non-Christians (7 percent) and those with no religious preference (9 percent).

According to the exit poll conducted by Voter News Service, the non-Christian left comprised 19 percent of voters. In contrast, whites who identify themselves with the religious right made up 13 percent of all voters. (White religious right voters may belong to any Christian group).

White religious right voters were 3-to-1 Republican, while non-Christian left voters were 2-to-1 Democratic.

Seventy-three percent of white religious right voters went Republican and 24 percent voted Democratic. Looked at from a different angle, white religious right Republican voters made up about 9.5 percent of all voters.

The Jewish vote

Jews voted Democratic by 78 to 21 percent, other non-Christians by 58 to 33 percent, and those with no religious preference by 65 to 32 percent. This means that non-Christian left Democratic voters accounted for a little more than 12 percent of all voters.

The religious right outnumbers the non-Christian left only in the South (19 percent to 15 percent). The two groups are about equal in the Midwest, where the religious right accounts for 13 percent of voters and the non-Christian left accounts for 14 percent.

But the non-Christian left is much larger than the religious right in the East and West. In the East, the non-Christian left accounts for 19 percent of voters while the religious right accounts for 9 percent.

In the West, the non-Christian left accounts for 25 percent of voters while the religious right accounts for 12 percent.

Most observers view blacks -- one of the most religious groups in America -- as the Democrats' answer to the religious right, and there's no question that high black turnout was a key to many Democratic victories this year.

But elections are won by coalitions, and the non-Christian left is a key part of the Democratic coalition, along with blacks, a majority of Catholics and a decent-sized minority of mainline white Protestants.

There are several major reasons why the non-Christian left votes heavily Democratic. First, non-Christians are a minority in the United States and therefore highly sensitive to the rhetoric of the religious right, which often seems to imply that only Christians can be good Americans.

Second, the non-Christian left is generally liberal on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, which it often sees as linked to minority rights.

Finally, those who make up the non-Christian left are far more likely than the religious right to see a positive role for government in meeting social needs. They don't necessarily think that a government program is always the best solution, but they are puzzled by a mind-set that celebrates a victory in defeating federal funds to modernize and build school buildings.

Public relations missing

But while the non-Christian left is a major political force, it lacks the cohesion -- not to mention the public relations -- of the religious right.

American Jews have long been a potent political force. But no other non-Christian religion has become highly influential as such, and no groups are representing people with no religious affiliation.

At the same time, no umbrella group is attempting to bring non-Christians together as a unified political force. That may be just as well; the non-Christian left is probably not the most potent organizing label ever devised.

But when you see the umpteenth story about the ups and downs of the religious right, it's a good idea to remember that that's not the whole story.

Jim Castelli is the author of "A Plea for Common Sense: Resolving the Clash Between Religion and Politics" (Harper & Row).

Pub Date: 11/12/98

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