The minimization of the religious divide between the parties is also apparent when compared to the amount of press attention devoted to other "gaps" in the electorate. During this same time span, the Times and Post published 392 articles on the gender gap. In the 1992, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections, white women on average gave Democrats 9 percent more of their vote than did white men; the average gap separating secularists and religious traditionalists in these same elections was 42 percentage points.
That the Times and the Post paid relatively little attention to the increased religious polarization of the electorate does not mean that these newspapers wholly ignored the religious factor in political conflict. What they overlooked was the active role played by secularists. We compared the number of news stories appearing in the Times and the Post between 1990 and 2000 that identified evangelical or fundamentalist Christians as supporters of the Republican party with the number of stories that identified secularists as supporters of the Democratic party. We also compared the number of stories that identified fundamentalists and evangelicals as being pro-Republican and opposed to abortion with the number of stories that identified secularists as being prochoice and pro-Democrat.
The most striking finding to emerge from these comparisons is the paucity of news stories and commentaries that identify secularists or the secularist outlook with the Democratic party, particularly when contrasted to the large number of stories and editorials in both papers about the Republican party's relationship with evangelical and fundamentalist Christians (43 stories and 682 stories, respectively). During this period of increased party polarization along a secularist-traditionalist divide, readers were 16 times more likely to encounter a story about evangelical-fundamentalist clout in the GOP than to find one about secularist clout in the Democratic party. There were more stories published by the Times about the influence of evangelicals in the Republican party in 1992 alone (93 stories) than were published by both the Times and the Post throughout the entire decade about the importance of secularists to the Democratic party (43 stories).
We found a similar imbalance when we selected stories that associated a fundamentalist or secularist outlook with both a stance toward abortion and a party identification (283 stories versus 16 stories). The skewed coverage, most pronounced during election years, also extended to other issues and controversies - delegates at national party conventions, prayer at football games, partial-birth abortion, school vouchers, gay adoption, judicial or cabinet nominees, and special-purpose activist groups such as the Christian Coalition or People for the American Way. If a general worldview was mentioned in the story, the Post and the Times overwhelmingly emphasized Christian fundamentalism and missed the secularist side to the story. The impression conveyed by both newspapers is that traditional religious beliefs motivate people to oppose abortion, back conservative Republican candidates, support conservative social movements, and adopt intolerant attitudes, but that a modernist or secularist outlook apparently has little or no connection to the reasons why someone supports abortion rights, opposes vouchers, joins culturally progressivist organizations, expresses antipathy toward evangelical Christians, and votes for liberal Democratic candidates.
Broadcast news coverage during the 1990s was no better. According to our analysis of network news programs selected from abstracts from the Vanderbilt University Television News Archive, viewers were given a very lopsided picture of the increased religious polarization in the electorate. While someone who caught the TV news every night would have found out plenty about the political identities and policy preferences of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, that same viewer would have heard nothing about the increased importance of secularists in the Democratic party. We could not find a single story pointing to the tendency of secularists to vote for Democratic candidates or about their participation in culturally progressive activist groups and support for socially liberal policy positions. Most of the TV news stories about religion and partisan politics (with the exception of those about the black church) focused on the influence of evangelicals and the Religious Right in the Republican party, conflicts between fundamentalists and moderates inside the GOP, or the involvement of the Religious Right in policy disputes over abortion, gay rights, and education. Three-fifths of all television news stories mentioning evangelicals or Christian fundamentalists identified members of these religious groups as the Religious Right, half identified them as Republican, more than a third indicated their opposition to abortion, and over a quarter contained themes that implied that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians are intolerant.
Studies by public-opinion researchers have shown that the news media powerfully shapes the way the public views social groups. And thus it is not surprising that ANES survey results indicate that the more attention a person pays to the national political news media, and especially to television news, the more likely is that individual to believe that Christian fundamentalists are ideologically extreme and politically militant. Those who read and watch national news media are also more likely to conflate evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists with Religious Right organizations and to make voting decisions and judgments about public-policy issues based on the antipathy they feel toward both these groups. For many people today, how they view evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians depends, in large measure, on how they view Pat Robertson or the Christian Coalition. This despite the research by sociologists Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout showing that 86 percent of fundamentalists oppose various aspects of the Religious Right's political agenda.
Explaining media silence
The survey results reported in this essay show that the public has been politically divided over religion since the 1980s. Moreover, this new religious cleavage occurs more often between secularists and traditionalists than between denominations. But despite the reams of data documenting the alignment of secularists with the Democratic party and the countermovement of religious traditionalists into the Republican party, the media, particularly network news, has tended to emphasize only the latter phenomenon.
The imbalance in their coverage has been strikingly apparent on election nights, during the segments devoted to analyses of exit-poll results. Since the 1980 election, viewers have heard about the born-again Christian or Christian fundamentalist vote. Beginning in 1992, "Religious Right" became a category for election-night analysis, along with such staples as gender, income, race, region, and age. What viewers do not hear about is the secularist vote, which has gone two to one in the Democratic direction in the past three presidential elections. Why this silence about an identifiable segment of the public that has become key to Democratic electoral competitiveness?
One explanation involves the difficulties journalists might have in taking notice of an outlook that is so close to their own. Survey research indicates that professionals who work in news organizations, compared to the larger public, are more highly educated and cosmopolitan, much more likely to vote Democratic, appreciably more liberal ideologically and culturally, and less likely to be religious. In their study The Media Elite, Robert Lichter and his associates found that one of the most distinctive characteristics of the media elite "is its secular outlook." Half of the journalists they surveyed claimed no religion and more than eight of ten never or seldom attended religious services. Taking secularist views for granted, journalists may not see secularism as a distinct ideology or think secularists are definable as a political category.
Yet "soccer moms" is a rather loosely defined political or sociological construct - certainly more so than "secularist" - but this did not stop the Times and Post from publishing over 50 articles during the 2000 election season about the potential electoral impact of this group of voters. Anyway, as we have seen, survey results show that secularism does embody a distinct moral and sociological outlook and that it influences voting preferences. Moreover, just because an organized group does not publicly identify itself as "secularist" does not mean that it lacks a secularist worldview on contentious cultural issues. People for the American Way, for example, is most often characterized in press accounts as a civil-liberties and civil-rights group, rarely as a secularist organization. But a visit to the organization's website shows that its cultural agenda is the mirror opposite of the Christian Coalition's.
A second possibility has less to do with how journalists perceive secularists than with their view of traditionalists. According to the Williamsburg Charter poll of mass and elite opinion on church-state issues, a majority of television news directors and newspaper editors polled in the survey felt that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians had "too much power and influence" and a third thought both religious groups were a "threat to democracy." In contrast, not one of the media elites sampled in this survey perceived secularists as threats, and only 4 percent thought nonbelievers and secularists had too much influence over public life. From such a perspective, political activism by religious conservatives no doubt appears to endanger the wall of separation between church and state, and therefore warrants intense scrutiny.
The party of irreligion?
Over the past few decades, political conflict rooted in religious values has been framed as a clash between religious conservatives and the rest of America. This paradigm has fit comfortably with the secular outlook of journalists and with a strain in American culture that historically has viewed moralistic religious movements with suspicion. To portray secularists as ideologically distinct and as aggressive political actors would be to shift the landscape dramatically. It might serve to legitimize the political involvement of religious traditionalists, and it might also have negative consequences for journalists' favored groups and causes.
Specifically, a public conversation about the overarching ideologies of each party could lead to connotations harmful to the Democrats. Just as the Republican party has labored under the charge of being "hijacked" by fundamentalists, so too could the Democrats in equal fairness be tagged as the party sympathetic to irreligionists, a group that historically has been viewed more negatively than moralistic evangelicals. As Tocqueville observed more than a century and a half ago, an unbeliever in America, particularly one in public life, would be wise to keep his unbelief silent, lest "everyone shuns him and he remains alone." Tocqueville wrote these comments when America was less secularized and a generalized Protestantism pervaded the public culture. Yet his admonitions are no less pertinent in contemporary America. In a national poll conducted in March 2002 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, more than half of the respondents expressed unfavorable feelings toward "nonbelievers," almost twice the number that felt unfavorably toward the "Christian conservative movement."
As the manifold displays of public piety in the aftermath of September 11 demonstrate, there is a reservoir of support for shared affirmations in the public square of America's historic relationship with God. Media elites are no doubt aware of American religiosity and implicitly understand the political ramifications of characterizing the Democrats as the partisan home of secularism. Perhaps it is for this reason more than any other that we do not hear in election-night analyses and postmortems that Democratic candidates have shorn up their base among the unchurched, atheists, and agnostics, in addition to the ritualistic accounts and warnings about how well Republicans are doing with evangelicals or the Christian Right.
This article is adapted from a paper presented at the 2001 annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association in Atlanta, Georgia.
Louis Bolce is a professor of political science at Baruch College, City University of New York.
Gerald De Maio is an associate professor of political science at Baruch College, City University of New York.
the antipathy between 'cultural conservatives' and libertarians.
This is really the heart of it, and it's been emphasized in both the First Things and the Weekly Standard coverage. I wish the conservatives could use their newfound media strength (/sarcasm) to get this story out into the public. It might help the old ladies at my church who are lifelong die-hard Democrats to think again about what causes they're furthering with their votes.
Liberals are evil.
. . . Media elites are no doubt aware of American religiosity and implicitly understand the political ramifications of characterizing the Democrats as the partisan home of secularism. Perhaps it is for this reason more than any other that we do not hear in election-night analyses and postmortems that Democratic candidates have shorn up their base among the unchurched, atheists, and agnostics, in addition to the ritualistic accounts and warnings about how well Republicans are doing with evangelicals or the Christian Right.
Journalists know that Americans are among the most religious of peoples, far more so than Europe--or than journalists. Secularism is the air journalists breathe. The very term "gospel" means "good news," whereas journalism's business plan is to worry people so much that they can't help themselves but buy the newspaper.
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.