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Religious Revolution at Top of the GOP
By Andy Taylor

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May. 29th, 2015

RALEIGH — There is an interesting and little-noticed revolution going on at the elite levels of the national Republican Party. Whereas the party was led at one time by WASPs — essentially white, Anglo-Saxon Episcopalians and Presbyterians with a few Anglicans, Methodists, and Lutherans thrown in — it is now dominated by Catholics and Protestants who belong to nonmainline denominations, particularly the Southern Baptist Convention or evangelical groups.

Ostensibly unrelated to the emergence of ideological changes in the GOP’s highest ranks, this religious transformation is nonetheless important.

The evidence is everywhere. Look at the principal contenders for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination. Of the serious candidates, only Presbyterian Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Anglican Ohio Gov. John Kasich attend the same kinds of churches Republican leaders did traditionally. The rest of the group is made up of Catholics (like Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida), Southern Baptists (Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee), and evangelicals (like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin).

The Republican ticket in 2012 was Mormon-Catholic. All five of the current Supreme Court justices nominated by Republican presidents are Catholic. The party’s congressional leaders are mainly Catholic or Southern Baptist.

Even Jews, who have historically supported Democrats in overwhelming numbers, have taken a seat at the party’s top table. Much of Republicans’ neoconservative foreign policy, for example, is attributable to them.

Members of the old Republican dynasties like the Tafts, Rockefellers, and Bushes were mainline Protestant. Ronald Reagan was Presbyterian. Even Sen. Barry Goldwater, the man who overthrew the party establishment in 1964 claiming “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” was Episcopalian.

In fact, if anything sums up the transformation best, it is Jeb Bush’s conversion to his wife’s Catholicism in 1995. Bush is surely the most patrician of the current crop of candidates.

Mainline Protestants have left an indelible mark on the party. In a country with separated church and government, they are unassociated with the state or centralized authority. The denominations traditionally have embraced others of the party’s — and American — core values like individualism and capitalism.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Protestantism stood for liberty against reactionary and Catholic regimes. The Protestants who went too far were evangelical. Oliver Cromwell, lord protectorate of the short-lived English Republic in the 1650s, was a Puritan whose austere religious beliefs helped ignite a restoration of the monarchy.

Our Founders took much of their inspiration from other figures of the English Civil War, like James Harrington, and protagonists of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, like John Locke.

The French philosophers who influenced our Founders had frequent run-ins with their nation’s established Catholic Church. Voltaire was openly antagonistic, and even the moderate Montesquieu believed mainstream Protestantism, not his country’s Catholicism, was best-suited to republics and commercial success. All practiced a form of civil religion: a fundamental belief in God that bound a nation’s citizens through habits and institutions.

Edmund Burke, the vocal opponent of the French Revolution and greatly admired in conservative circles today, viewed religion similarly. Like the Founders, he thought harmonious and productive societies were unified by pervasive religious beliefs and institutions, while they remained largely pluralistic and tolerant on ecclesiastical matters.

What caused this transformation? The dramatic development of the Republican Party in the South explains the prominence of Baptists in its current leadership and a more open and horizontal structure — a function of primaries and other democratizing reforms — has assisted Catholics in infiltrating its highest ranks.

What does this signify? The biggest religious cleavages in American politics are no longer denominational. Al Smith and John Kennedy made the Democrats the party of Catholics, but by 2004 John Kerry, a Catholic Democrat, lost that voting bloc to a Bush.

Instead Americans today derive their partisanship more from the extent to which they are religious. Although the Democrats consider themselves the diverse party, the array of religious beliefs represented at the top of the Republican Party demonstrates it has a “big tent” character as well.

The implications are not as easy to discern. It does seem as though Republican candidates will continue to take often-unyielding positions on cultural and social issues to complement their small-government and more libertarian economic views.

This might hurt them with younger and some more educated voters. The prominence of Catholics will help court Hispanics, a dramatically expanding demographic that soon will play a pivotal role in national elections.

The end of WASP domination may help shed the elitist image the GOP has in some quarters. Whether it proves to be a key to the White House is a proposition that is likely to be tested next year.

Andy Taylor is a professor of political science in the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.

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