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The winners of Tuesday's state and local elections have a variety of influences to thank for their victories, including campaign spending and press coverage, but the religious beliefs of voters also played an important role.
Exit polls released by Fox News showed that a majority of both Protestants and Catholics voted Republican in the congressional races in their districts (59 and 51 percent, respectively), and among white evangelical Protestants, the figure was 77 percent. Among those with no religion, on the other hand, 70 percent reported voting for the Democratic House candidate in their district.
Additionally, a majority (56 percent) of voters who reported attending religious services weekly also said they voted for the Republican congressional candidate, while the reverse was true among those who said they never attend religious services: 63 percent said they voted for the Democrat.
These results are consistent with recent trends. In January, The Washington Post reported that "a deepening divide over religion and moral values" has impacted American voting habits in recent decades. Increasingly, the Post noted, the Republican Party is associated with religiously observant white voters, while white Americans not associated with any faith community often vote for Democrats.
"By 2012, 69 percent of white voters who reported attending religious services at least once per week identified with the Republican Party compared with only 41 percent of white voters who reported rarely or never attending religious services — the largest divide ever recorded," the Post reported.
Among blacks and Hispanics, however, religious practice has the opposite effect, the Public Religion Research Institute reported in September. PRRI's 2014 American Values Survey showed that 88 percent of black Protestants and 65 percent of Hispanic Catholics support Democratic candidates.
Data on the relationship between denominational affiliation and voting records has long been used to predict the political preferences of religious Americans, as John C. Green, a professor of political science, noted in a 2009 article for First Things.
However, in recent years, religiosity, or how involved voters are in their faith community, has become a more effective measure of voter behavior. "The God Gap, where more and less frequent church attendance matches partisan voting, is a commonly cited version of this pattern," Green wrote.
Given the political polarization already reported along the lines of religious observance, it might be surprising that many Americans support increasing the role religion plays in politics.
In a September study on religion in public life, Pew Research Center reported, "The share of Americans who say churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political issues is up six points since the 2010 midterm elections (from 43 percent to 49 percent.)"
As Deseret News National previously reported, this expression can take a variety of forms, from participation in voter registration drives to hosting group discussions on the intersections between political issues and religion.
"Even though a church's mission is not to pursue a political agenda, pastors certainly have a responsibility to keep people educated on the issues and get people involved," Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler said.
The one line churches must not cross is that of endorsing particular candidates, a restriction put in place by the Internal Revenue Service. But, as Politico reported this week, many pastors are willing to go even that far to ensure that churchgoers are empowered to live out their faith at the polls.
More than 1,600 pastors preached about specific candidates from the pulpit this election season, compared to around 30 in 2008, the article noted, drawing on data kept by the Alliance Defending Freedom.
Politico reported that the IRS is unlikely to sanction the pastors or their houses of worship in coming weeks, even if punishment is exactly what the religious leaders seek. According to participants, the goal of the movement is "igniting a lawsuit with the IRS and taking the issue to the Supreme Court."