Religious liberals contended that a concerted effort by Democrats since 2004 to appeal to people of faith had worked minor wonders, if not electoral miracles, in races across the country.
Religious conservatives disagreed, arguing that the Republican Party lost religious voters rather than the Democrats winning them.
Either way, the national exit polls told a dramatic story of changing views in the pews: Democrats recaptured the Catholic vote they had lost two years ago. They sliced the GOP's advantage among weekly churchgoers to 12 percentage points, down from 18 points in 2004 congressional races and 22 points in the 2004 presidential contest. Democrats even siphoned off a portion of the Republican Party's most loyal base, white evangelical Protestants.
"The God gap definitely didn't disappear, but it did narrow. And it narrowed in part because evangelical voters had major questions about the direction of the country," argued Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
Shift in evangelical vote
Democratic activists joyfully compared the overall seven-point shift in the evangelical vote to the inroads that President Bush made in a core Democratic constituency -- African Americans -- in battleground states in 2004. "Boy, have we come a long way since 2004," said Mara Vanderslice, who was director of religious outreach for Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign.
"We still have a long way to go, but what this election showed is that Democrats can begin to compete for the evangelical vote. Moving seven points within a community that large can absolutely swing tight races," she said.
Evangelical leaders blamed corruption and big spending by Congress -- rather than the party's positions on social issues such as same-sex marriage -- for the GOP's defeat.
Evangelical Christians are "fed up with the Republican leadership, particularly in the House," said the Rev. Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. "They're disgusted that Republicans came to Washington and failed to behave any better than Democrats once they got their snouts in the trough."
Roberta Combs, chairman of the Christian Coalition, said responsibility for the GOP's loss of the House and Senate "goes right back to the leadership, the corruption among Republicans."
And James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, issued a statement saying that "many of the Values Voters of '04 simply stayed at home this year" because the Republican Party has "consistently ignored the constituency that put them in power."
In fact, white evangelical Protestants turned out this week as heavily as they did in 2004, making up roughly 24 percent of the electorate both times. "This is a solidly Republican voting bloc that there was reason to believe might stay home. Given the polling before the election, the amazing thing was that the Democratic swing wasn't bigger," said John C. Green, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Grave losses for conservative Christians
In addition, voters in South Dakota overturned the nation's tightest abortion ban. In Missouri, they passed a measure supporting stem cell research. In Kansas, they defeated Phill Kline, an attorney general who had aggressively investigated abortion clinics.
Seven states passed constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage, but by much tighter margins than in the 11 states that adopted similar measures two years ago. In Arizona this week, voters rejected a marriage amendment, the first time gay rights advocates have beaten such an initiative anywhere in the country.
In the view of religious liberals, the results showed that wedge issues have lost some power.
"People really care about right and wrong more than right and left, and their antennae were up about corruption and the war in Iraq and kitchen-table moral issues -- health care and poverty," said Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a group that set out this year to challenge the religious right's hold on moral issues.
Kelley noted that Democrats received the support of 55 percent of Catholic voters and Republicans got 44 percent, a sharp reversal from 2004, when the GOP won a narrow majority of the Catholic vote in congressional races.
In the states where Democrats fielded candidates who were able to speak credibly about their faith, they made larger gains, according to Vanderslice, who served as a consultant to half a dozen Democratic candidates. Among her clients was Ted Strickland, a minister who won 58 percent of the Catholic vote and 51 percent of the white evangelical vote in the Ohio governor's race against Ken Blackwell, a Republican who has championed conservative Christian causes.
GOP core mission in question
David Barton, head of WallBuilders, a Texas-based evangelical group, predicted that fiscal conservatives would cite California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a model.
"They will say, 'Schwarzenegger won and won big; the guys that lost are the social conservatives -- Hostettler, Ryun.' And so there's going to be a push within the Republican caucus to move further away from social conservatives," Barton said.
Even before the election, former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) called Dobson a "bully" who diverted the GOP from its core mission as the party of small government. On Wednesday, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said the GOP needs to become "a lot more progressive and a lot less ideological."
Despite the GOP's losses, conservative religious leaders gave no indication they plan to engage in the kind of introspection and repositioning that religious liberals did two years ago. And despite their anger at congressional Republicans, they did not suggest that they were about to abandon the GOP.
"Even though a lot of Democratic candidates talked about
faith, and even though a lot of them are devout people who hold
similar values, they are part of a party that is liberal,"
said Janice Shaw Crouse, director of Concerned Women for America's
Beverly LaHaye Institute, a conservative Christian think tank.
"So the only hope social conservatives really have is the
Republican Party." The Washington Post Company