The ghost of Prince William County

It’s all about race.

And age.

Religion? Uh, surely that’s not a factor worth exploring.

That’s my interpretation of a front-page New York Times story today that focuses on the changing demographics in Prince William County, Va., and their impact on Tuesday’s presidential election:

A couple of decades ago, Prince William County was one of the mostly white, somewhat rural, far-flung suburbs where Republican candidates went to accumulate the votes to win elections in Virginia.

Since then, Prince William has been transformed. Open tracts have given way to town houses and gated developments, as the county — about a half-hour south of Washington — has risen to have the seventh-highest household income in the country and has become the first county in Virginia where minorities make up more than half the population.

If Prince William looks like the future of the country, Democrats have so far developed a much more successful strategy of appealing to that future. On Tuesday, President Obama beat Mitt Romney by almost 15 percentage points in Prince William, nearly doubling George W. Bush’s margin over Al Gore in 2000, helping Mr. Obama to a surprisingly large victory in Virginia.

At GetReligion, our mantra is that “holy ghosts” all too often haunt mainstream news stories. We see these ghosts in stories where religion seems to be a major theme, yet somehow religion shows up nowhere in the text. Welcome to the ghost of Prince William County.

As Mollie wisely pointed out already today, reporters should proceed with caution when trying to make sense of the reasons people voted the way they did — and the religious motivations, if any, behind their choices. At the same time, it seems extremely strange for the Times to attempt to assess Prince William County’s voting patterns with no acknowledgment of the religion question.

For example, consider this paragraph:

The Republican Party “needs messages and policies that appeal to a broader audience,” said Mark McKinnon, a former strategist for George W. Bush. “This election proved that trying to expand a shrinking base ain’t going to cut it. It’s time to put some compassion back in conservatism. The party needs more tolerance, more diversity and a deeper appreciation for the concerns of the middle class.”

Who is that “shrinking base?” Would it include evangelicals for whom issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage are closely tied to their religious beliefs? Could the rise of the “nones” be a factor?

Regrettably, the Times doesn’t bother to address such questions.

Diversity image via Shutterstock

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).

Pod people: Digging for old news on ‘Nones’

Friends and neighbors, the whole media world continues to buzz with news (me too, of course) about the “Nones,” that growing coalition of religiously unaffiliated voters that showed up big time in that recent survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

This was an important survey, don’t get me wrong. It was also a survey that was packed with interesting angles — many of which get dissected in some depth in this week’s GetReligion podcast — so click here to go listen to that!

One one level, the whole Nones thing isn’t that big of a change in the landscape of American religious practice. The action, it seems, is taking place on the left-to-secular side of things. The bottom line: Lots of people who used to describe the state of their souls by saying things like, “I was raised Southern Baptist (Catholic, Mormon, Episcopal, United Methodist, etc.), but I don’t really go to church much, ’cause I really don’t belief most of that stuff anymore” are now being more honest and saying, “I have no religious affiliation at all” (or less wonky words to that effect).

Is this a new trend? Yes and no.

Four years ago, scholar John Green of the University of Akron, and the Pew Forum team, spoke to a Media Project seminar for journalists from around the world — focusing on religion in the 2008 election. He wrote all kinds of data on the board, but what it came down to was this. People who truly practice their faith make up about 20 percent of the population. People who are religiously unaffiliated (including the slowly rising camp of atheists/agnostics) have been around 10 percent of the population, but their ranks are rising toward 20 percent.

In the middle, the territory I have always called “Oprah America,” are lots of mushy believers who have little institutional commitment to practicing a specific faith. They come and go and their beliefs blow with the cultural winds. What’s the big news? That percentage is down from about 70 percent to 60 percent — because lots of “Nones” are hitting the exit doors.

That’s the news: There is a growing candor on the religious/secular left.

The other angle that fascinated me, since it’s election crunch time, is that this whole “Nones” coalition — secular, plus the spiritual-but-not-religious folks — has become the largest religion-related group in the modern Democratic Party, larger than African-American Protestants, liberal Catholics, liberal white Protestants, etc., etc. What unites this crowd? Well, to be blunt, what unites them is the Sexual Revolution and their opposition to cultural traditionalists.

The more I thought about that, the more I had a nagging sense of deja vu. Where had I heard this before?

Well, join me in this flashback to 2004, via one of my old Scripps Howard News Service columns. Here’s a major chunk of two of that:

Any Top 10 list of slogans for abortion-rights signs would include “Curb your dogma” and “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” … George W. Bush will receive few votes from these voters. They’re not fond of Pope John Paul II, Jerry Falwell and other conservative religious leaders, either.

Political scientists Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce call them “anti-fundamentalist voters” and their rise has been a crucial — yet untold — story in U.S. politics. Many are true secularists, such as atheists, agnostics and those who answer “none” when asked to pick a faith. Others think of themselves as progressive believers. The tie that binds is their disgust for Christian conservatives.

“This trend represents a big change, because 40 or 50 years ago all the divisive religious issues in American politics rotated around the Catholics. People argued about money for Catholic schools or whether the Vatican was trying to control American politics,” said Bolce, who, with De Maio, teaches at Baruch College in the City University of New York. “That remains a concern for some people. But today, they worry about all those fundamentalists and evangelicals. That’s where the real animus is.”

In fact, Bolce and De Maio argue that historians must dig back to the bitter pre-Great Depression battles rooted in ethnic and religious prejudices — battles about immigration, public education, prohibition and “blue laws” — to find a time when voting patterns were influenced to the same degree by antipathy toward a specific religious group.

Where was this data coming from?

Bolce, an Episcopalian, and De Maio, a Roman Catholic, have focused much of their work on the “thermometer scale” used in the 2000 American National Election Study and those that preceded it. Low temperatures indicate distrust or hatred while high numbers show trust and respect. Thus, “anti-fundamentalist voters” are those who gave fundamentalists a rating of 25 degrees or colder. By contrast, the rating “strong liberals” gave to “strong conservatives” was a moderate 47 degrees.

Yet 89 percent of white delegates to the 1992 Democratic National Convention qualified as “anti-fundamentalist voters,” along with 57 percent of Jewish voters, 51 percent of “moral liberals,” 48 percent of school-prayer opponents, 44 percent of secularists and 31 percent of “pro-choice” voters. In 1992, 53 percent of those white Democratic delegates gave Christian fundamentalists a thermometer rating of zero. …

What about the prejudices of the fundamentalists? Their average thermometer rating toward Catholics was a friendly 62 degrees, toward blacks 66 degrees and Jews 68 degrees.

How did the press handle this trend, back in 2000 or thereabouts?

Surprise! The elite, mainstream press ignored it. Between 1990 and 2000, Bolce and De Maio found that the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post published 929 stories about the political clout of conservative Christians and 59 about that of secularists and religious liberals. They checked the major television newscasts between 2000 and 2004 and found zero stories on the political rise of the, well, “Nones” and the religious left.

So are the “Nones” new? Not really.

So what now? Someone should interview pollsters in Democratic Party offices. That’s where reporters will find lots and lots of detailed info about this rising force in American politics.

Enjoy the podcast.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X