'Traditional Family Values' Motivate Religious Voters More Than Religious Tenets

Oct 16, 2020

Religion has been top of mind for many politicos, as the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett have just ended. Judge Barrett is a religious conservative who identifies as Catholic, and she is part of the People of Praise community which emphasizes so-called traditional “values,” and “gender roles.”

"Freedom From Want," by Norman Rockwell, was created as part of his "Four Freedoms" series that depicted scenes of idealized American life, inspired by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's speech in which he described these four freedoms.
Credit U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia

This idea of returning to traditional values is at the heart of the modern conservative movement, according to Tim O’Brien. He’s an associate professor of sociology at UW-Milwaukee, and he says that these associations with family values are a big part of what motivates many Christian conservatives to vote for Republicans, even when Republican policies make this lifestyle more unachievable for most Americans. 

"They seem to be willing to look past the fact that those neoliberal economic policies are devastating to small towns and to rural America, and instead vote for candidates who promise to restore this mythical, Norman Rockwell way of life," says O'Brien. 

When considering the religious vote, the biggest and most influential groups are Protestant Christians, Catholics, and so-called "nones" — voters who do not associate themselves with any religion. But when unpacking the most important issues to these voters, O'Brien says it's important to remember the impact of race and gender.

"Religion is, of course, an important factor in understanding how people vote and why they vote for who they vote for. But race is absolutely critical, and it's really impossible to disentangle the effects of race and religion in this sense."

Although Protestant Christians as a whole vote for Republicans, Black Protestants overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates. This also holds true of Catholic voters, where many white Catholics support Republican candidates and Hispanic Catholics support Democrats. 

"Religion is, of course, an important factor in understanding how people vote and why they vote for who they vote for. But race is absolutely critical, and it’s really impossible to disentangle the effects of race and religion in this sense," O'Brien explains.

He says this suggests that these voting patterns have less to do with the tenets of Christianity and more to do with socioeconomic factors and messaging from political campaigns that target these voting blocks.

"Religion has come to stand in as a proxy for a broader, cultural conflict. And that's ultimately what this division between white, conservative Protestants and white, mainline Protestants reflects," says O'Brien.