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Religion Sets a Social Agenda

This article originally appeared on Room for Debate at


Much of the great propensity of Southern white working-class voters to align with conservative principles has to do with the distinct brand of conservatism in the South. It is far more rooted in social issues than in other parts of the country.

Whereas economic issues tend to move a share of working-class voters toward more progressive or populist positions, social issues (some candidates commonly use the shorthand “guns, gays and God”) have a tendency to crowd out other campaign issues in Southern elections. The trend is especially strong in the South, which has a much higher rate of church attendance1—especially among Protestant evangelicals—than anywhere else in the country. And this trend has held true for decades.

The marriage between social and economic conservatism dates to the late 1960s, when the Republican Party developed a critique of the Great Society (the zenith of government liberalism) that bridged concerns about social entitlement programs as well as hot-button social issues that include abortion, prayer in schools and gun control.

The most catalytic component of this conservative critique—and perhaps the element that made the marriage effective—was conservatism’s attack on federal policies, like school busing, designed to dismantle the vestiges of racial discrimination in education, voting and employment. These policies challenged long-standing social norms in the South.

Race has always figured into modern conservatism to some degree: recall, for example, Barry Goldwater’s filibuster of the Civil Rights Act; Ronald Reagan’s campaign event in Philadelphia, Miss.; and Jesse Helms’s infamous affirmative action ad known as “White Hands”—all aimed at white working-class voters. But the contemporary conservative critique similarly hinges on the general claim that established norms and social institutions are under sharp attack because of the alleged excesses of government action.


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