The day after: The prophet John Green, revisited

It should be a quiet day on the religion-beat front, in the wake of yesterday’s nail-biters in the real world of politics. If the past repeats itself, as it often does, it will take a few days for the religion elements of the story to emerge, other than the usual “Obama won the Catholic vote (whatever that is)” headlines.

We do know several things for sure, on the day after. The ultimate ties that bind are race and religion, even when those two realities pull in different directions. The map also shows the degree to which many working-class voters in the urban Northeast and Midwest remain in deep, deep pain and many are convinced that the government is their ultimate, if not only, friend. GOP leaders seem to be deaf to their populist cries. (Then again, I am a registered Democrat who just bought a Chevy Cruze).

In its wrap-up analysis, USA Today went back to the map:

The changing U.S. electorate split in two Tuesday — not only along lines of political party and ideology but also by race and ethnicity, gender and marital status, region and religion, education and age. The divisions are even sharper than they were four years ago, when Obama attracted broader support, especially among whites.

But this time the contest was much closer in a country that is undergoing tectonic shifts in its demography. “We have never had a more polarized electorate,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres says.

If there was one thing that seemed to unite the nation, it was a sense that the stakes were high and the election mattered.

The nation froze in place in an amazing state of gridlock. Things pretty much remain the same on the nation’s hot-button moral, cultural and religious issues: The only vote that actually matters, at least for a few years, is that of Justice Anthony Kennedy. It’s his country, but he lets us live here. For church-state insiders, all eyes are on his editing pencil and numerous First Amendment cases (free speech, freedom of association and religious liberty) are headed his way.

As election night plodded on, I kept thinking about University of Akron scholar John Green and that recent Pew Forum “Nones” study and America’s growing coalition on the secular and religious left. To be specific, I flashed back to a Media Project seminar in the summer of 2009, when Green stood at a whiteboard and described the changes that he was seeing in the landscape of American religion. Everything he said on that day showed up years later, in the 2012 Pew Forum study of the religiously unaffiliated.

On the right side of the American religious marketplace, defined in terms of doctrine and practice, is a camp of roughly 20 percent (maybe less) of believers who are seriously trying to practice their chosen faith at the level of daily life, said Green. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a growing camp of people who are atheists, agnostics or vaguely spiritual believers who define their beliefs primarily in terms of the old doctrines that they no longer believe. This is especially true when it comes to issues of salvation and sex. As the old saying goes, on these issues these spiritual-but-not-religious believers reject all absolute truths except the statement that there are no absolute truths.

In recent national elections this growing camp of secularists and religiously unaffiliated people have formed a powerful coalition with Catholic liberals, liberal Jews and the declining numbers of people found in America’s liberal religious denominations (such as the “seven sisters” of oldline Protestantism). Add it all up, Green said in 2009, and you had a growing camp of roughly 20 percent or so on the cultural left.

The bottom line: This coalition was emerging as the dominant voice in the modern Democratic Party on matters of culture and religion. Just as Republicans have, in recent decades, had to wrestle with the reality — the pluses and the minuses — of the energy found on the Religious Right, leaders in the Democratic Party will now be faced with the delicate task of pleasing the Religious Left and its secular allies. This could, to say the least, shape the party’s relationships with the Catholic Church, Orthodox Jews, Muslims and other major religious bodies.

Here’s what Green had to say, a few weeks ago, after the press gathering announcing the “Nones” report. This is taken from a column I wrote for the Scripps Howard News Service.

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the “Nones” skew heavily Democratic as voters — with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

“It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. “If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties.”

Sound familiar?

So where does this go? Where will journalists be looking for the next wrinkle in this story?

The reality that trumps many of these religious divisions is, of course, race. At some point, cultural conservatives are going to have to find a way to separate married and religious African-Americans and Latinos from the single adults and secular people in those large ethnic groups. White voters divide alone lines of religious practice (the “pew gap”) and marital status, while black and Latino voters do not.

If cultural conservatives are not able to do this, then do the math.

Meanwhile, here comes the deeper information from the exit polls. If journalists continue to march in lockstep, we are only days away from reports about the growing division between young evangelicals and old evangelicals (whatever the word “evangelical” means).

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dave

    Terry:

    For analysis of this election, let me recommend the book “American Nations” by Colin Woodard. It lays things out nicely. In its terms, Obama won Yankeedom, New Netherlands, the Midlands and the Left Coast. Romney took the Deep South, Appalachia and New France. The Far West, the Tidelands and El Norte split.

    Yes, it sounds a lot like Joel Garreau’s “Nine Nations,” but that was a snapshot; Woodard is historical.

    Not a final answer to everything, but a distinct lens through which to view something like this electoin. Someone familiar with regional religious trends might cross-reference that with Woodard’s breakdown.

  • Pingback: Obama wins with the Catholic vote —UPDATED

  • Chris

    Has anyone explored the racial/political divide of American Christendom. Assuming the fervent black Christians don’t squeeze into a small 7% of all African-Americans, why do “values voters” separate so distinctly on racial/political lines. Likewise for faithful (Catholic and Evangelical) Hispanics.

    With such dramatically different voting patterns either practicing Christians:

    1) delude themselves in believing they bring their Christians values into the voting both. -OR-
    2) they see their political and church lives as completely separate.

  • Ted Seeber

    Not so much on religion. 98% of Catholic voters, voted for things the Magisterium defines as Intrinsic evils.

  • Jonathan

    “The only vote that actually matters, at least for a few years, is that of Justice Anthony Kennedy. It’s his country, but he lets us live here.”

    Tmatt, this may be the most keenly observant statement I have seen post-election so far. I wish that someone would put the post-election coverage in this context for all sorts of issues coming down the pike.


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