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Much post-midterm election analysis focused on the role education and place of residence played in the outcome. It’s true that educated suburbanites moved toward the Democrats and less-educated whites in rural areas or small towns stuck with the Republicans. But another, less-recognized shift took place among America’s less-observant but religious voters, and it could have important implications for the two parties’ political prospects.
Our ongoing culture wars have long meant that religious extremes are sharply aligned by political party. White evangelical Protestants have been the Republican Party’s mainstay for nearly 15 years, voting for the GOP by a 50- to 70-point margin. Those without religious affiliation have long been the Democratic Party’s bastion, regularly giving it 40- to 50-point margins. These patterns did not change much in the midterms.
Opposite poles regarding religious observance also have long shaped our politics, and those patterns also remained largely unchanged in 2018. The one-third of Americans who attend services at least weekly offered Republican House candidates a 20-percentage-point advantage in 2016 and an 18-point advantage in 2018. The share of those who never attend religious services rose from 22 percent of the electorate in 2016 to 27 percent in 2018, but the Democratic advantage among this group rose only slightly, from 35 points to 38 points.
Had the rest of the electorate behaved like the poles in each measure of religious belief and practice, Republicans would not have lost 40 seats in the House. Their large losses were mainly due to much larger shifts among America’s mushy religious middle.
Catholics, non-Protestant Christians, and religious non-Christians all shifted away from Republicans by significant margins in 2018. Catholics increased their share of the electorate to 26 percent (up from 23 percent) and went from a 7-point Republican advantage in 2016 to a 1-point Democratic lead in 2018. Adherents of non-Christian faiths, about 10 percent of the electorate, moved even more decisively in favor of Democrats, increasing Democratic leads among them by 15 percentage points. “Other Christians”—a group that includes Mormons, Orthodox, and Christians who do not call themselves Protestant or Catholic—moved 9 points in the Democrats’ favor.
Together these groups constituted 60 percent of the total electorate in 2018. That means most of the shift to the Democrats occurred in these less-studied groups.
The shift to the Democrats is even more pronounced when one examines frequency of worship. Voters who attend religious services a few times a month moved from a 9-point Republican advantage to a 6-point Democratic lead. And those who attend only a few times a year—perhaps for Easter and Christmas—moved leftward even more dramatically. In 2016 they voted Republican by a 4-point margin. In 2018, they voted Democratic by a whopping 24-point margin.
This statistic helps us make sense of another finding, the drop in Republican support among white evangelicals. While this is still a strongly Republican group, the GOP’s lead here dropped from 69 percent in 2016 to 53 percent in 2018. Since we know that the Republican lead among regular churchgoers barely budged, the logical conclusion is that Republicans lost a lot of ground among evangelicals who rarely practice their faith.
The conclusion for 2020 is clear. If Trump and Republicans want to win the election, they must improve their level of support among the weakly churched segments of America. How they can do so is less clear, but the president and his party ignore these findings at their peril.
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Dairy quotas and steel tariffs do not bring to mind progressive sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) policies. But that’s exactly what negotiators slipped into the new United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA) that leaders of all three countries signed in late November.
Buried in Chapter 23, Articles 9 and 12(5)(I)(i) establish SOGI as protected classes. In the first provision, all three countries pledge to implement “policies that protect workers against employment discrimination on the basis of sex, including with regards to ... sexual orientation, gender identity.”
Such language is unprecedented in U.S.-negotiated trade agreements—so it came as a shock to conservatives, who only noticed it after the text became public on Sept. 30. Forty-six House Republicans penned a letter asking the Trump administration to remove the language, which critics call a backdoor attempt to export Canada’s liberal social policies into the United States.
Congress has so far refused to widen the umbrella definition of sex-based discrimination to include SOGI terms, despite yearly attempts in the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act or its more recent—and sweeping—iteration, the Equality Act. Conservatives have fought against such expansion, arguing that expansion would allow activists to legally attack those who hold to a biological definition of sex.
In the 21 states that have passed SOGI nondiscrimination carve-outs, activists have sued wedding service providers, teachers, county clerks, and adoption and foster care workers whose consciences have run afoul of these provisions.
The Supreme Court has not decisively settled the issue, handing down so narrow a ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission that cake baker Jack Phillips now faces another lawsuit.
Joseph Grabowski with the National Organization for Marriage said because the United States is still debating the issue in current court cases and in the public square, “this is trying to slip in ideology from the back door. … I think if you talked to the average American, they would be surprised to find out that this kind of discussion is part of the trade deal.”
Including the language also opens the door to negotiating contentious social issues in other international agreements, said Doreen Denny with Concerned Women for America.
Canada initially wanted an entire chapter devoted to advancing progressive gender policies. But even the curtailed provisions were enough for one Canadian official to tell Politico that “getting gender discrimination, more broadly, included in the deal ... it’s a win for us.”
Gwendolyn Landolt with REAL Women of Canada believes the move was purely ideological: “[Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau wants to establish himself as a world leader on progressive legislation.”
The move may tether the current administration to the Obama administration’s SOGI policies, according to Jenna Ellis with the James Dobson Family Institute. Two 2014 executive orders expanded the definition of sex-based discrimination to include SOGI, placing the federal government on the side of transgender plaintiffs in legal battles over workplace discrimination and access to restrooms and locker rooms.
President Donald Trump has not rescinded those executive orders, though his administration has taken steps to roll back some guidance: In an October 2017 memo the Department of Justice clarified that sex discrimination should be interpreted on a biological basis. The Trump administration is considering making a similar change at the Department of Health and Human Services, according to a memo leaked to The New York Times.
The lawmakers’ letter argues the SOGI inclusion could also set a dangerous precedent: Judges could cite the trade agreement as persuasive in future cases, and lawmakers could use it to justify their push for federal SOGI laws. “One wonders at the contradictory policy coming through USTR [U.S. Trade Representative] when other Departments under your Administration are working to come into alignment on SOGI policy,” it noted.
The USTR, likely spurred by the conservative backlash, made some last-minute tweaks to the agreement. In the first SOGI provision, the agreement adds that countries only agree to implement policies “that it considers appropriate.” A new footnote 13 clarifies that the clauses require no additions to U.S. law and that “existing federal agency policies regarding the hiring of federal workers are sufficient to fulfill the obligations set forth in this Article.”
The footnote limits the scope of the provisions to apply only to federal hiring practices. But the fact that the SOGI language remains at all leaves primary concerns unchanged. “A future Supreme Court and a future Congress can say, 'The 116th Congress already voted yes on an agreement that contained this definition,’” Ellis said.
The USTR’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Trump made replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) a central campaign pledge. Under the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) allowing him to broker the deal, he needs only a majority of each chamber of Congress for it to pass. Under fast track rules, lawmakers can only give the agreement an up-or-down vote, with no option to amend the implementing language.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said Congress won’t likely have time to deal with the agreement until next session. But a Democratic House majority next session means Trump can’t afford to lose any GOP support. (Many Democrats oppose USMCA over environmental and enforcement concerns.)
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., who spearheaded the letter effort, said he is disappointed that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer “bowed to Canada’s wishes” and left the SOGI language in place.
In a statement to WORLD, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said the footnote renders the SOGI language “appropriately toothless,” but it would still be difficult for him to support the deal.
To crank up the heat on Congress to ratify his signature agreement, Trump told reporters the day after signing USMCA that he intends to withdraw the U.S. from its predecessor, NAFTA. That agreement allows any parties to withdraw six months after informing the other countries.
If enacted, the new trade agreement is valid for 16 years and is subject to a review every six years. It’s unclear whether the courts, lawmakers, or activists will wield an enacted USMCA to expand SOGI policies. In such cases, Christians may find themselves relying on the dubious protection of a footnote.
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When Yazidi advocate Pari Ibrahim goes back to the Yazidi refugee camps in the Kurdistan region in Iraq, the people always ask, “What did the U.S. say? What will happen now?” Four years ago ISIS radicals began a genocidal campaign against the Yazidis, killing or kidnapping almost 10,000 people; now survivors languish in refugee camps on Kurdistan’s Mount Sinjar and in Syria and Turkey.
At a Nov. 9 event in Washington hosted by the Religious Freedom Institute and Baylor University, Ibrahim said her people desperately look to the American government for help: “If the U.S. says something, then the whole world will listen.”
On the 20th anniversary of the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, advocates say the IRF Act offers persecuted religious groups their best chance for relief, even as conditions continue to worsen around the world. By some estimates, more than 80 percent of the world lives in a religiously restrictive environment.
“When you look at countries from which some of our gravest threats, terrorism, instability, violence emerge ... these are overwhelmingly countries where religious freedom is badly abused and oppressed,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
The offices the IRF Act created, including USCIRF and the ambassador-at-large position, monitor religious freedom conditions, release an annual report, and make recommendations for the United States to sanction offending countries.
Knox Thames, special adviser for religious minorities at the State Department, said an often overlooked aspect of the State Department’s annual IRF report is that it trained a generation of foreign service officers in religious issues. “There, we are ahead of the curve from just about every other country,” Thames said.
In countering new and old challenges, a growing number of religious freedom advocates argue that neglecting religious freedom in the interest of national security actually harms both in the long run. Since 2004, the United States has given Saudi Arabia a waiver on USCIRF-recommended sanctions, citing national security. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia continues to earn its status on USCIRF’s annual report as a “country of particular concern,” most recently by the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Trump administration took a different tack with Turkey, squeezing its economy to secure the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, WORLD’s Daniel of the Year.
At the 20th anniversary event, Ambassador-at-Large Sam Brownback at one point asked how many knew someone who was in jail because of their faith. Hands shot up around the room—the majority of them concentrated in just a couple of rows.
When they later opened a mic for questions, one man, a Uighur Muslim named Ferkat Jawdat, said he came with a group of Uigher Muslims. All had family members in re-education camps. China has detained over 1 million Uighur Muslims in camps for what officials call counterterrorism measures.
After the event, Jawdat showed me a picture of his mother, whom officials detained in February. He has not spoken with her since. Jawdat said he has been seeking help from State Department officials, lawmakers, and anyone else who will listen.
He believes other countries are hesitant to act, intimidated by China’s economic power.
“The U.S. has the same gun in their hands—economic power,” he said. “They are just softly speaking to the Chinese government officials. They should directly use it for human rights violations. They should have used it a while ago.”
In describing the Yazidi genocide, panelist Ibrahim said, “This will happen again tomorrow if the root causes are not tackled.”
Jawdat and his aunt, who held a yellow plastic binder filled with pictures of their missing family members, have only too much reason to fear it is happening again today.