June 9, 2019 📊 Can a "religious left" match the Christian Right?

Plus, the 2020 candidates: how low could they go? And which states could be harmed most by tariffs on Mexico.

Welcome! I’m G. Elliott Morris, data journalist for The Economist and blogger of polls, elections, and political science. Happy Sunday! Here’s my weekly email with links to what I’ve been reading and writing that puts the news in context with public opinion polls, political science, other data (some “big,” some small) and looks briefly at the week ahead. Feedback? Drop me a line or just respond to this email. 

Dear Reader,

I start today with a familiar refrain on how talk of a “religious left” masks the incredible influence of the Christian right in America. On three accounts, I do not see how such an upstart liberal group could compete: legal networks, moral authority for political action and downstream effects.

Plus, I’ve got some tasty links to good 2020 content from around the web, reviews for HBO’s “Chernobyl” and a sudden shift of the UK’s long-quiet political tectonic plates.

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This Week's Big Question

Can a "religious left" match the Christian Right?

Even if a large group of super-liberal Christians existed, it wouldn’t yield the power of conservative evangelicals.

Image: Slate.com; Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Gallup published an article last week that particularly irked me. Though my whining here may sound like a familiar refrain to some of y’all, I find this worth discussing in greater detail. In his piece titled “The Religious Left Has a Numbers Problem”, Frank Newport, Gallup’s senior survey scientist, wrote:

I estimate that about 20% of non-Hispanic white Americans are both conservative and highly religious (defined as those who attend religious services weekly or almost every week and for whom religion is important in their daily life) and thus are, broadly speaking, the "religious right." By contrast, only 4% of non-Hispanic white Americans are both liberal and highly religious, or the group that would constitute the "religious left." More broadly, 52% of white conservatives are highly religious, compared with only 16% of white liberals.

That is fair enough, but I’m objecting to the very idea of such a group existing. This is not Mr Newport’s folly alone; many people have been talking about such a coalition for a while now—including presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. Here are my key points: The Christian Right (a) has more political influence, (b) is more dedicated to its key issues and (c) wields more power over Americans’ everyday lives than a left-leaning religious group realistically could. I will lean heavily on an article I published earlier this year in briefly expanding upon these points below. Keep this graphic in mind:

The Christian Right yields unrivaled power in US politics

If that old saying about separation between church and still holds any water in America, it’s only in the strictly legal sense. Yes, the country doesn’t have an official national religion—and yes, there are few de jure reasons that a religious minority could make credible claims of discrimination. (That’s only a recent development, by the way.) But elsewhere at the state and federal level church and state are inextricably tied together—by the religious right.

Around the time that renowned (infamous?) conservative pastor Jerry Falwell rose to prominence in the late 20th century, the Southern Baptists were making very explicit arguments for why conservatives should (a) embrace rights-based arguments to spread evangelicalism and (b) use these rights-based arguments to align with a political coalition to correct the “marginalization” they felt at the hands of the state. I wrote a bit about this in my piece so I’ll just excerpt it:

Andrew Lewis, author of a book about this phenomenon called “The Rights Turn”, says that Republicans and conservative Christians now have a shared approach to the law. As examples, he points to the use of free-speech rights to defend anti-abortion legislation and to argue against regulating campaign finance. That fusion seemed complete in 2016, when 81% of white born-again Christians voted for Donald Trump, according to data from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group.

What happened between the 70s and now is an extraordinary marriage between legal networks and conservative Christians. Look no further than the Federalist Society for proof of this point. The politicization of (white) evangelical christianity is well-known.

It is unclear to me how a “religious left” would rival the influence of the network. There is no way in hell (pun intended) that they could quickly amass the stature in the federal and state judiciaries that the conservative right has. There’s simply too much to compete against. A “religious left” would also be out-ranked in media influence. What would a liberal Rush Limbaugh even look like? On the left, arguments don’t work the same, the audience doesn’t act the same, etc. etc. This brings me to my second point:

The Christian Right is uncompromisingly dedicated to a few key high-salience political issues, citing unrivaled moral objections

Let’s not beat around the bush; I’m talking about abortion here. No other issue matters as much to conservative Christians. Evangelicals are uncompromisingly dedicated to electing politicians who will further their agenda on abortion. Recall the statement that Alabama Governor Kay Ivey’s issued after she signed the state’s new ultra-restrictive abortion bill:

To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God. [….] No matter one’s personal view on abortion, we can all recognize that, at least for the short term, this bill may similarly be unenforceable. As citizens of this great country, we must always respect the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court even when we disagree with their decisions. Many Americans, myself included, disagreed when Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973. The sponsors of this bill believe that it is time, once again, for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit this important matter, and they believe this act may bring about the best opportunity for this to occur.

In other words, the bill was signed explicitly to bring a religiously-motivated challenge to Roe to the Supreme Court. That the state’s legislature and executive branch would give their approval to an admittedly unenforceable law with the express purpose of challenging court precedent displays their uncompromising attitude toward using the government to affect their religious goals.

Again, I speculate: would a “religious left” be able to mobilize a network of state legislatures to this extent? I think not. The normative arguments made by leaders of the Christian Right are unrivaled. Preaching about love and salvation rarely has the same effect as putting the fear of God into people. Deuteronomy and Leviticus are, frankly, rather frightening bits of sacred text. Even if wrong-headed, campaigns for the right to life are intrinsically more persuasive than the right to health care, whatever the consequences for the life of the mother (only her death is apparently more important, according to Gov. Ivey). The rationality employed by advocates for the latter position can scarcely convince those making an argument against abortion on religious/moral grounds. That’s one of the truest forms of power that the religious right has at its disposal, and assertions that a ‘religious left’ could be as persuasive on the issue seems foolhardy in comparison.

The Christian Right wields more power over Americans’ everyday lives than a left-leaning group realistically would

Here, I’ll draw upon my interview with ex-evangelical, Chris Stroop, who leads a group of so-called “Exvies” in mobilization against the church:

Mr Stroop was raised in a fundamentalist evangelical household, where he went to non-denominational Christian schools and was surrounded mostly by friends who shared his beliefs. In high-school, biology lessons about DNA would be interspersed with preaching from the teacher, and sometimes with documentaries on “flood geology” and the search for Noah’s ark. “There was strong pressure to be a young-Earth creationist,” Mr Stroop says. He also recalls a class field-trip during school hours to a prototype Tea Party convention. Mr Stroop says his education was “all about isolating children in the subculture so they’ll grow up to be the culture warriors the church wants them to be.”

I’ll skip the fluff. Is there a comparison “education” (indoctrination) system present to brainwash the members of the religious left? Again, I think not.

This goes beyond education, though. Through its legal agenda, the religious right has also restricted access to health care and contraception, prevented LGBT people from serving their country and provided sub-par social integration for millions of kids via homeschooling, among other examples. It demands an adherence to a strict doctrine of evangelicalism among its followers that (a) impacts tens of millions and (b) a comparable movement on the left likely could not and would not. For instance, when I went to a southern baptist church earlier this year, the pastor urged the members of the church to tune out the news because “the media is the only thing that can convince you that god does not exist”. The congregation lit up with cheers and exclamations of “Amen”. I can only assume they shun media sources such as CNN because of it. Of course, I did not mention to many around me why I was there.

The very discussion of a “religious left” implies that it could rival the influence of the '“religious right”. That seems patently false. And if we dive into the discussion of how the Christian Right has negatively impacted the lives of many already-marginalized groups in America, then we also run the risk of minimizing that damage by implying another group could do the same. They probably couldn’t. It’s better to just ignore the term altogether.

And now, the most notable stuff I read and wrote over the last week.

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Political Data

From me for The Economist: “Britain’s major parties are weaker than ever before”

The Labour and Conservative parties won a combined 52% of the vote in Peterborough, losing a total of 43 percentage points since the last general election in 2017. Across the country, the combined support for the Tories and Labour has dropped to about 40%—the lowest share since 1979—according to The Economist’s analysis of Westminster voting-intention polls.

The last time both parties’ support took a big simultaneous dip was in 2010, when the Liberal Democrats briefly polled in second place following an impressive televised debate by their leader, Nick Clegg. Even then, Labour and the Tories still had 65% of the vote in the election—25 percentage points higher than today’s share. The two big parties risk being overtaken by the upstart Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats, who enjoyed a revival in last month’s local and European elections.

Michael D. Shear, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Ana Swanson (New York Times): “Trump Says No Deal With Mexico Is Reached as Border Arrests Surge”

New figures released Wednesday showed that illegal border crossings have risen to a 13-year high, underscoring the roots of the president’s rage. But political resistance to Mr. Trump’s tariff threat has also intensified, with skeptical Republican senators asking to hear directly from the president before he takes an action that could shake the economies of both countries.

Karl Russell and Ana Swanson (New York Times): “Which States Will Be Hit Hardest by Trump’s Tariffs on Mexico”

As a share of its overall economy, Michigan is actually the state that is most dependent on imports from Mexico, largely because the automobile industry has set up complex North American supply chains that send components and finished products back and forth across the border.

Michigan imported $56 billion of products from Mexico last year, second only to Texas, which thrives on trade in energy, food and manufactured goods with Mexico. California and Illinois, with major population centers that depend on fresh produce and manufactured goods from Mexico, were also among the top importers.

Kriston Capps (CityLab): “Where a Census Undercount Will Hurt (or Help) Most"

Across the country, states with the highest risk of an undercount include California, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, Georgia, New York, and Florida, according to the new Urban Institute assessment. The report shows the ways in which demographic changes, new census-taking technology, and a citizenship question that has been calculated to inflict partisan damage—plus old-fashioned heel-dragging in red states—could favors whites and Republican-leaning districts nationwide.

Some states stand to gain disproportionately from the decennial count. In a low-risk scenario—a 2020 Census in which things go relatively smoothly—states with large shares of white residents will see their populations overcounted. Idaho, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Iowa, and West Virginia are among those that may get a disproportionate boost in congressional power and federal funds. White homeowners were overcounted in the last census: They are more likely to be counted at more than one address, for example, especially if they own more than one home.

Public Opinion Strategies: “What Republicans Need to Know as We Move Toward the 2020 Election”

Here’s one thing: Generation Z voters are much more liberal than some people thought they would be.

Nate Silver (FiveThirtyEight): “Bernie Sanders Has The Highest Floor — And it’s Pretty Damn Low”

A recent YouGov poll, which asked Democrats to list all the candidates they were considering rather than requiring them to pick just one, also seems to suggest that Sanders has a relatively high floor of support. Among Democrats who were considering only one candidate, 28 percent were considering only Sanders, and 27 percent were considering only Biden. Everyone else was in the single digits on this question.

Here’s the catch, though: Only 28 percent of Democrats fell into the category of considering only one candidate. (By comparison, 67 percent are still considering multiple candidates, and 5 percent aren’t considering any current candidates.) So Sanders isn’t getting 28 percent of 100 percent — he’s getting 28 percent of 28 percent. That means just 8 percent of the overall Democratic electorate truly falls into the “Bernie or bust” category.

Andrew Witherspoon (Axios): ”Trump’s Incredibly Empty Cabinet”

Other Data and Cool Work

From me for The Economist: ‘“Chernobyl” is the highest-rated TV series ever’

Reviewers have given the miniseries stellar ratings. A weighted average of all five episodes calculated by The Economist (according to how recently each episode ran and the number of reviews) accords it 9.7 points out of 10. By the same measure, other leading shows—including comparable historical drama series such as “The Crown” and “The People v. O. J. Simpson” (now called “American Crime Story”)—lag behind.

What is more, every episode of “Chernobyl” has been rated by IMDb users at 9.5 or higher, a unique streak. According to The Economist’s analysis of 518 episodes of popular television dramas, the likelihood that any show would produce even four consecutive episodes that each score a 9.5 or above is roughly 0.4%. Apart from “Chernobyl”, only the final four episodes of “Breaking Bad”—previously the highest-rated show—had accomplished this feat.

Christopher Ingraham (The Washington Post): “Why crowded meetings and conference rooms make you so, so tired”

Our story begins at 9:05 a.m. Tuesday, when astronomer Adam Ginsburg of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory took his seat for a session during the “Linking the Milky Way and Nearby Galaxies” conference in Helsinki. Ginsburg said in an email that he takes a portable carbon dioxide monitor “everywhere,” particularly, “crowded meeting rooms."

Ginsburg flipped the monitor on. Ambient indoor air tends to contain about 800 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. But carbon dioxide levels rise rapidly in poorly ventilated rooms, because exhaled air is about 4 percent carbon dioxide by volume. In the lecture hall in Helsinki, the monitor showed the concentration quickly reaching 1,000 ppm — the threshold at which a room starts feeling stuffy for most people, according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

As the talks went on, the carbon dioxide level continued to rise. At 1,500 ppm Ginsburg characterized the room as “noticeably stuffy.” By 10:20 a.m., the reading had spiked past 1,700 ppm.

Kevin Fagan (San Fransisco Chronicle): “SF homeless population swells by 17% in latest tally”

The number of people living in cars, RVs and other vehicles has risen by 45% since the last one-night count was taken two years ago. That much has been anecdotally evident for months, particularly in industrial Bayview neighborhoods, where vehicle colonies have sprouted in ever-increasing numbers over the past year.

Overall, the new count indicates at least 1,153 more homeless people are in the streets compared with two years ago, when the federal tally set the total number at 6,858.

The 2017 count total typically cited by the city has been 7,499 homeless people. That’s because the national guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development exclude several categories of people counted as homeless by San Francisco officials, including people in jail, hospitals and many health treatment centers.

A weather tweet: it’s very hot outside

Political Science, Survey Research, and Other Nerdy Things

Hans Noel in the Journal of Politics: “Ideology and Its Discombobulations”

An excellent review of some of the most important works on American political ideology of the last decade.

From Me for The Economist: “How America’s urban-rural divide shapes elections”

A review of Jonathan Rodden’s new book “Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide”.

What I'm Reading and Working On

I’ve a chart on the coming recession and two pieces on immigration and the increasing policy liberalism in America in the works. All should be on The Economist’s website by Thursday. I’m reading Jared Diamond’s new book Upheaval which I knew I wouldn’t like and don’t recommend you read. More on that in a special issue of my newsletter coming next (or next next) week—just for subscribers.


Thanks for reading. I’ll be back in your inbox next Sunday. In the meantime, follow me online or reach out via email. I’d love to hear from you!

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