Skip to comments.Our Secularist Democratic Party (Long, Important Analysis)
Posted on 01/09/2003 11:26:12 AM PST by CatoRenasci
Our Secularist Democratic Party
By Louis Bolce & Gerald De Maio
Anyone who has followed American politics over the past decade cannot help but feel some concern about the supposed fundamentalist Christian threat to democratic civility, pluralism, and tolerance. At the very least, the attentive citizen would find it hard not to regard the cultural and political positions of fundamentalists as outside the mainstream, given the volume of media stories that have conveyed this point. At the same time, the media's obsession with politicized fundamentalism distracts public attention from the changing role of religion in political life today. In particular, the media overlooks the remarkable erosion of denominational boundaries that until a quarter century ago defined the religious dimension of partisan conflict, with Catholics, Jews, and southern evangelicals aligned with the Democratic party and nonsouthern white, mostly mainline Protestants forming the religious base of the Republicans. Also, the media mistakenly frames cultural conflict since the 1970s as entirely the result of fundamentalist revanchism. In so doing, the media ignores the growing influence of secularists in the Democratic party and obfuscates how their worldview is just as powerful a determinant of social attitudes and voting behavior as is a religiously traditionalist outlook.
Overlooking the big story
Consider, for example, the New York Times's coverage of two high profile "religious issues" during the 2000 presidential campaign: the Bob Jones University controversy and the historic nomination of Joe Lieberman for the vice presidency. Between the South Carolina primary in February 2000 and the beginning of the Republican convention on July 31, the Times published over 125 articles, editorials, and op-eds discussing the Bob Jones scandal, which arose when candidate George W. Bush spoke at a fundamentalist college whose founder had expressed a strong antipathy to Catholics. The college had taught that Catholicism was a "cult" and, until shortly before, had prohibited interracial dating. In its coverage, the New York Times emphasized fundamentalist anti-Catholicism (and anti-Semitism), Religious Right intolerance, and efforts by Bush's opponents to alert Catholic voters about the Texas governor's cozy relationship with Christian fundamentalists. The clear implication of the Times's coverage was that Christian fundamentalists, particularly white southern fundamentalists, felt animus toward Catholics, and that the association of fundamentalists with the Bush campaign would set back recent Republican gains among white Catholic voters. The trouble with this narrative, which recalls pre-Kennedy-era denominational antagonisms, is that it is incorrect.
Survey data from the 2000 American National Election Study (ANES), carried out by the Center for Political Studies (CPS) at the University of Michigan, reveal that the stereotype of Christian fundamentalist antagonism toward Catholics is nothing more than a specter from the past. The ANES survey results also indicate that white Catholic voters continued their shift toward the GOP, despite the sort of associations conjured up by the Bob Jones stories. Included in the ANES questionnaire are "feeling thermometers," a standard quantitative measure used by social scientists to assess intergroup enmity and amity. Feeling thermometers ask respondents to rate social groups and political leaders on a scale ranging from 0 degrees (extremely cold) to 100 degrees (extremely warm). A thermometer rating below 35 degrees (the average score that whites express toward illegal aliens) is commonly considered to reflect antipathy; scores above 50 degrees indicate varying degrees of warmth. The thermometer results show that white fundamentalists have positive feelings toward Catholics. Their score of 62 degrees was identical to the average score that Jews gave to Catholics and significantly warmer than the mean rating given to Catholics by the religiously nonaffiliated or by secularists.
Answers to the voting questions included in the same ANES study point to another fact about Catholics and fundamentalists that was wholly at odds with the tenor of the Bob Jones news stories. In the South, whites from both religious groups favored Bush over Gore with more than three-quarters of their ballots, and both were significantly more supportive of the Republican ticket than were mainline Protestants from the region. Though, nationwide, Catholics were not as supportive of Bush as were Christian fundamentalists, the 2000 election was the first time ever that white Catholics, still regarded by some election analysts as a mainstay of the Democratic party, gave a larger share of their votes to a Republican party presidential candidate than did white mainline Protestants, the traditional denominational pillar of the GOP. (The religiously liberal Episcopalians backed Gore with two-thirds of their votes in the 2000 election and have voted against every Republican presidential ticket since 1992.) During the 2000 election cycle, the Times provided its readers with plenty of tidbits about Bob Jones III's father's archaic view of the Vatican (as well as the changing status of interracial dating on the Bob Jones campus), but offered not a scrap of information about this historically significant inversion of the denominational base of the two major parties.
In early August 2000, when Al Gore selected Joe Lieberman as his running mate, the Times and other major newspapers and magazines published a flurry of stories about fears expressed by Democrats (typified by then Democratic National Chairman Ed Rendell) that the Lieberman nomination might stir up latent anti-Semitism and lead to negative voting against the party's presidential candidate by retrograde southern evangelicals. As it turned out, these apprehensions were unwarranted. Lieberman's Jewish identity was a nonissue. ANES thermometer data offer strong empirical evidence about why Lieberman's religious affiliation didn't hurt Gore in the election, particularly among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. The average rating white Christian fundamentalists gave to Jews was a warm 66 degrees, a finding consistent with ANES surveys reaching back over a decade. It was no different from the mean ratings that Catholics and mainline Protestants gave to Jews. Among respondents who could correctly identify both Lieberman's and Gore's religious affiliation, Christian fundamentalists felt significantly warmer toward Lieberman (56 degrees) than toward Gore, a Southern Baptist (42 degrees). Disapproval of Lieberman came not from Christian fundamentalists but from secularists, who complained that his public professions of faith and piety blurred the line between religion and politics, and from cultural conservatives who suspected that Lieberman's post-convention stances on issues like partial-birth abortion and school vouchers were more in tune with the secularist tilt of the Democratic party than with his pre-convention positions, thought to be anchored in his religious orthodoxy.
By focusing on supposed denominational conflicts that had in fact diminished, the Times's coverage of the 2000 election overlooked the more significant religious divide in the electorate - that between the religious and nonbelievers. And by concentrating on the threat of politicized evangelicism, the Times ignored secularists' increased importance to the Democratic coalition and agenda since the 1970s, and their pivotal role in fomenting the culture wars and spurring the religious realignment of the electorate.
The origins of the culture wars
The "culture wars" is the controversial metaphor used to describe the restructuring of religious and cultural conflict in the United States since the 1960s. The thesis is most closely associated with sociologist James Davison Hunter, whose 1991 book The Culture Wars posited that "the dominant impulse at the present time is toward the polarization of a religiously informed public culture into distinct moral and religious camps." Hunter called these camps "orthodox" and "progressivist." On the orthodox side are persons who locate moral authority in a transcendent source, such as God or the Bible. Orthodox morality, according to Hunter, adheres to an absolute standard of right and wrong and is based on universalistic principles. Progressivists, in contrast, embrace a humanistic ethic drawn from reason, science, and personal experience. Progressivist moral rules are "loose-bounded," pluralistic, and relative to circumstance. This new cleavage cuts across the major American faith traditions and most denominations.
The two groups in the front lines of the culture wars are evangelical Christians, including fundamentalists, characterized by their high levels of religiosity and conservative attitudes on cultural issues, and secularists, who reject traditional religious values and tend to espouse liberal views on cultural and church-state issues. Much has been written in the popular media about the traditionalist side and its alignment with the Republican party since the 1980s. Although considerable attention has been devoted to religious and cultural conflict in American political life, few in the mainstream media have acknowledged the true origins of this conflict - namely, the increased prominence of secularists within the Democratic party, and the party's resulting antagonism toward traditional values.
Secularists first appeared as a political force within a major party at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. Prior to then, neither party contained many secularists nor showed many signs of moral or cultural progressivism. Moreover, prior to the late 1960s, there was something of a tacit commitment among elites in both parties to the traditional Judeo-Christian teachings regarding authority, sexual mores, and the family. This consensus was shattered in 1972 when the Democratic party was captured by a faction whose cultural reform agenda was perceived by many (both inside and outside the convention) as antagonistic to traditional religious values. The political scientist Geoffrey Layman has defined this block, the largest in the party, as "secularists," - that is, self-identified agnostics, atheists, and persons who never or seldom attend religious services. Over a third of white delegates fit this description, a remarkable figure considering that, according to James Davison Hunter, only about 5 percent of the population in 1972 could be described as secularists.
Layman's research was based on the 1972-92 Convention Delegate Survey (CDS), the most comprehensive study to date of the political attitudes and religious orientations of national party convention delegates. Analyses of the 1972 CDS dataset by Jeane Kirkpatrick, and more recently by Layman, show that degree of religious commitment was among the most important characteristics distinguishing supporters from opponents of the progressivist planks in the platform relating to women's rights, abortion, alternative life styles, and the traditional family. Secularists strongly favored the progressivist positions; religiously traditional Democratic delegates opposed them. The differences over policies and candidates between traditionalist and secularist Democrats had less to do with disagreement over the future course of New Deal liberalism than with the divergent moral outlooks animating their competing worldviews.
The religious and cultural cleavages that roiled the Democrats in 1972 were nonexistent at the Republican convention, where mainline Protestants still dominated. The GOP platform that year merely reiterated cultural positions the party had endorsed in past platforms, for example, support for school prayer and the Equal Rights Amendment. The Republicans, by default more than by overt action, became the traditionalist party. "The partisan differences that emerged in 1972," writes Layman in his book The Great Divide, "were not caused by any sudden increase in the religious and cultural traditionalism of the Republican activists but instead by the pervasive secularism and cultural liberalism of the Democratic supporters of George McGovern."
Secularists vs. the faithful
The 1972 Democratic convention set in motion a political dynamic that continues to the present. The ascendancy of secularists in the Democratic party had long-term consequences for the relative attractiveness of each party for members of different religious groups. The Democratic party became more appealing to secularists and religious modernists and less attractive to traditionalists. The secularist putsch in the Democratic party had the opposite effect on its rival, which over time came to be seen as more hospitable to religious traditionalists and less appealing to more secular Republicans. What was at first an intraparty culture war among Democratic elites became by the 1980s an interparty culture war.
Interparty religious polarization was very apparent in the composition and attitudes of the delegates attending the 1992 Democratic and Republican conventions, events that launched what is now recognized as the first electoral culture war. According to CDS, 60 percent of first-time white delegates at the Democratic convention in New York City either claimed no attachment to religion or displayed the minimal attachment by attending worship services "a few times a year" or less. About 5 percent of first-time delegates at the Republican convention in Houston identified themselves as secularists, a figure that had not budged for 20 years. Between 1972 and 1992, the percentage of nominal mainline Protestants among first-time Republican delegates declined from over one-third to one-fifth, while the proportion of religiously committed evangelical and fundamentalist delegates in this group tripled to 18 percent. Two-thirds of white Republican delegates attended religious services at least once a month, while only two of five white Democratic delegates demonstrated that level of commitment to their faiths.
Increased religious polarization can also be seen in the way Democratic and Republican delegates view various core constituent groups of the opposing party. Democratic and Republican activists in the CDS surveys were significantly more negative toward groups associated with the newer religious and cultural divisions in the electorate than toward groups associated with older political cleavages based on class, race, ethnicity, party, or ideology. In 1992, the average thermometer score of Republican delegates toward union leaders, liberals, blacks, Hispanics, and Democrats, for example, was 17 degrees warmer than their mean score toward feminists, environmentalists, and prochoice groups (44 degrees versus 27 degrees, respectively). Similarly, the mean thermometer score of Democratic delegates that year was 21 degrees warmer toward conservatives, the rich, big business, and Republicans than their average score toward prolife groups and Christian fundamentalists (34 degrees versus 13 degrees, respectively). Of the 18 groups tested by CDS, the most negatively rated group was Christian fundamentalists. Over half of Democratic delegates gave Christian fundamentalists the absolute minimum score they could, 0 degrees, and the average Democratic thermometer score toward this religious group was a very cold 11 degrees.
A house divided
To discover the extent to which the new religious cleavage has expanded beyond party activists into the electorate, we classified ANES respondents according to their attitudes toward scriptural authority and their levels of religiosity. Persons who did not exhibit the minimum of religiosity (i.e., those who rejected scriptural authority, had no religious affiliation, never attended religious services or prayed, and indicated that religion provided no guidance in their day-to-day lives) were coded as secularists. Respondents who exhibited the highest levels of faith and commitment (i.e., those who prayed and attended religious services regularly, accepted the Bible as divinely inspired, and said that religion was important to their daily lives) were coded as traditionalists. Persons who fell between these poles were classified as religious moderates. In 2000, about two-thirds of respondents fell into this last category, with the remaining respondents divided about evenly between secularists and traditionalists. (Since the culture wars are largely a clash in values among whites, we confined our analysis to white respondents in the ANES surveys.)
Answers to ANES surveys covering the past three presidential elections highlight two important aspects about the secularist worldview. First, it is associated with a relativistic outlook. Two-thirds of secularists in each of the surveys agreed with the statement that "we should adjust our views of right and wrong to changing moral standards," a perspective on morality with which traditionalists overwhelmingly disagreed. And second, secularism is no less powerful a determinant of attitudes on the contentious cultural issues than is religious traditionalism. In most instances, secularists consistently and lopsidedly embraced culturally progressivist positions. Traditionalists generally lined up on the opposite side, and religious moderates fell in between. Secularists were most distinct with respect to the coolness they displayed toward the traditional two-parent family, their greater tolerance of marital infidelity, and their intense support for the prochoice position on abortion. Seven of ten secularists opposed any law restricting a woman's right to abortion, while majorities of moderates and traditionalists favored some restrictions on abortion. For example, over three-quarters of moderates and traditionalists approved of parental-consent laws and the banning of partial-birth abortion.
Secularists also distinguished themselves from moderates and traditionalists by the antipathy they expressed toward Christian fundamentalists (38 degrees on the thermometer scale) and their belief that the involvement of religious groups in politics is divisive and harmful for society. Traditionalists, on the other hand, were out of sync with the rest of the public with regard to their restrictive attitudes toward legalized abortion - most either wanted to ban the procedure altogether or favored limiting it to narrow circumstances such as rape, incest, or when the woman's life is in danger. Moreover, while most traditionalists favored allowing gays to serve in the military, they were distinct from the rest in their strong opposition to gay adoption.
Studies based on ANES survey data also show that the cultural attitudes of the electorate have become more polarized since the 1980s. But contrary to conventional wisdom, this increased cleavage had less to do with traditionalists becoming more conservative than with secularists (and to a lesser extent, religious moderates) embracing the progressivist positions held by liberal elites.
These sharp differences in moral and religious perspectives help to explain why religiously polarized party evaluations and voting behavior shot up during this period. In its election surveys, ANES includes an open-ended question: "Is there anything in particular that you like or (dislike) about the Republican or Democratic party?" Answers to these questions, which permit respondents to volunteer their own reasons for making judgments about a political party and its presidential candidates, show that cultural and religion-based evaluations have increased since the first Clinton election. Moreover, during this time span secularists and traditionalists have voiced mirror-opposite "likes" and "dislikes" about the parties' stances toward "religious people," the "Christian Right," "abortion," "gay rights," "school prayer," and other cultural concerns. In the 2000 ANES survey, for example, secularists were nearly four times more likely to volunteer religion-based dislikes about groups and positions associated with the Republican party than were traditionalists, who in turn were four times more likely to voice cultural or religious reasons for disliking the Democratic party.
Secularists and traditionalists not only view the parties differently, but have increasingly become important voting blocs in the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. One team of political scientists characterized the 1992 election alternatively as "the Year of the Evangelical" and the "Year of the Secular." The vote distribution of ANES respondents who indicated that they backed a major-party presidential candidate in the 1992 election supports this assertion. Secularists gave Clinton over three-quarters of their vote, while traditionalists favored President Bush over Clinton by a margin of two to one. This polarized voting pattern continued through the 2000 presidential election.
In terms of their size and party loyalty, secularists today are as important to the Democratic party as another key Democratic constituency, organized labor. In the 2000 election, for example, both secularists and union members comprised about 16 percent of the white electorate, and both backed Gore with two-thirds of their votes. The religious gap among white voters in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections was more important than other demographic and social cleavages in the electorate; it was much larger than the gender gap and more significant than any combination of differences in education, income, occupation, age, marital status, and regional groupings. The importance of evangelicals to the ascendancy of the Republican party since the 1980s has been pointed out ad nauseam by media elites. But if the GOP can be labeled the party of religious conservatives, the Democrats, with equal validity, can be called the secularist party.
The anti-fundamentalist voter
The increased religious polarization of the electorate has given rise to a new type of voter: the anti-fundamentalist. We discovered this when we examined one group of ANES respondents: those who rated Christian fundamentalists 35 degrees or below on ANES's scale. We wanted to find out whether elite hostility to Christian fundamentalists, clearly apparent in the convention delegate surveys, had filtered into broader segments of the public. In ANES's 2000 survey, about a quarter of white respondents met the anti-fundamentalist criterion, rating fundamentalists 35 degrees or below. For comparison purposes, only 1 percent felt this antagonistic toward Jews and about 2.5 percent expressed this degree of hostility toward blacks and Catholics. ANES results indicate that anti-fundamentalism appears disproportionately among secularists, the highly educated, particularly those living in big cities, and persons who strongly favor legalized abortion and gay rights, oppose prayer in schools, and who, ironically, "strongly agree" that one should be tolerant of persons whose moral standards are different from one's own.
The results indicate that over the past decade persons who intensely dislike fundamentalist Christians have found a partisan home in the Democratic party. Clinton captured 80 percent of these voters in his victories over President Bush in 1992 and over Senator Robert Dole four years later; Gore picked up 70 percent of the anti-fundamentalist vote in the 2000 election. One has to reach back to pre-New Deal America, when political divisions between Catholics and Protestants encapsulated local ethno-cultural cleavages over prohibition, immigration, public education, and blue laws, to find a period when voting behavior was influenced by this degree of antipathy toward a religious group.
Yet it is not just their loyalty that makes anti-fundamentalists important to the Democratic coalition, but also the contribution they make to the total Democratic vote. According to ANES survey results, over a quarter of Clinton's white supporters in 1992 said that they intensely disliked Christian fundamentalists; in both 1996 and 2000, about a third of the total white Democratic presidential vote came from persons with these sentiments. During this era of religious polarization, Democratic presidential candidates have never captured a majority of the three-quarters of the white electorate who do not feel antipathy toward Christian fundamentalists. As a result, gaining solid support from anti-fundamentalist voters has become crucial to achieving victories at the national level. The upshot of these voting trends is that the Democrats today face electoral liabilities analogous but opposite to those of the Republicans. Just as Republicans need to win the evangelical-fundamentalist vote without scaring off religious moderates, so too must Democrats mobilize secularists and anti-fundamentalists without becoming too identified in public discourse as the party hostile to religion. Whether, and to what extent, people become aware of the increased influence of secularists in the Democratic party (or the importance of religious traditionalists to the GOP) depends, of course, on how the mainstream media chooses to present the new religious divide in the electorate to the public.
What would Americans have learned about the new religious divide, arguably the most important development in the American party system over the two past decades, had they gotten their information exclusively from two prominent newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post? What would readers have discovered, for example, about the importance of secularists to the Democratic party, or the bearing of religiosity on abortion attitudes?
To find out, we identified (using the Lexis-Nexis database) every domestic political news story, editorial, and op-ed piece published by these newspapers between 1990 and 2000 in which the keywords "secular," "unchurched," "nonreligious," or "nonbeliever" (henceforth referred to as secularists), and "Democrat" appeared. We also read every political news item in which the keywords "evangelical" or "fundamentalist Christian" and "Republican" turned up in the Lexis-Nexis database for the Times and the Post. These 11 years mark the height of the culture wars, from the controversial 1992 Republican National Convention through the religiously polarized elections of the Clinton era and Bush vs. Gore.
Most Americans do not get their political information directly from either the Post or the Times; rather, they get it from television. But many media analysts, among them Michael Kelly and Edward Jay Epstein, have written about the influence of the Times and the Post in shaping the perspectives of other media. The importance of these two newspapers is aptly summarized by former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg: "Many TV journalists simply don't know what to think about certain issues until the New York Times and Washington Post tell them what to think. Those big, important newspapers set the agenda that network news people follow." At the very least, these papers' coverage of religion in politics can be considered bell-weathers of elite understandings of the religious divide in the electorate.
If the amount of coverage devoted to a topic can be viewed as a rough barometer of how a newspaper views its importance, then it appears that the importance of the religion gap paled when compared to other cultural or demographic cleavages in the electorate. Between 1990 and 2000, the Times and the Post published a total of 14 stories that pointed out that the Republican and Democratic parties were split along a traditionalist-secularist divide. Readers of the Times and Post were more than twice as likely to find news accounts about clashes between religious traditionalists and moderates within the Republican party than stories about religious divisions between Republicans and Democrats.
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I agree! The secular movement in our changing society needs to be identified and its influence assessed. The Democratic party has provided a haven for the secular members of our society and represented their PC belief systems well. The Democratic "PC" leadership results in a forced relativism that seeks to Rule all other belief systems. It is very secular in its essence.
Thanks for calling out this scholarly article!
A think tank has ordered the world's societies on two axes: 1) secular-rationalist values vs. religious-traditional values and 2) survival values vs. self-expression values. It has a fascinating graphic showing the think tank's estimates. Contrast of US (traditional + self-expression), Western Europe (secular + self-expression), Russia and China (secular + survival), Near East and Third World (survival + traditional). Strange how they position very different societies -- like Poland and India, Northern Ireland and Mexico -- at about the same coordinates. Not so relevant to your topic, but I found it fascinating and think others would, too.