WPost team looks at politics in 2014, sees zero folks in pews

It’s time to set the wayback (actually, it’s WABAC) machine for the year 2003, when editors of The Atlantic Monthly published one of the most famous anecdotal ledes in the recent history of American politics.

The article was called “Blue Movie: The “morality gap” is becoming the key variable in American politics” and the essay opened like this:

Early in the 1996 election campaign Dick Morris and Mark Penn, two of Bill Clinton’s advisers, discovered a polling technique that proved to be one of the best ways of determining whether a voter was more likely to choose Clinton or Bob Dole for President. Respondents were asked five questions, four of which tested attitudes toward sex: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? The fifth question was whether religion was very important in the voter’s life.

Respondents who took the “liberal” stand on three of the five questions supported Clinton over Dole by a two-to-one ratio; those who took a liberal stand on four or five questions were, not surprisingly, even more likely to support Clinton. The same was true in reverse for those who took a “conservative” stand on three or more of the questions. (Someone taking the liberal position, as pollsters define it, dismisses the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, admits to looking at pornography, doesn’t look down on a married person having an affair, regards sex before marriage as morally acceptable, and views religion as not a very important part of daily life.) According to Morris and Penn, these questions were better vote predictors — and better indicators of partisan inclination — than anything else except party affiliation or the race of the voter. …

Later on, of course, as the red zip code vs. blue zip code warfare became more refined, pollsters began to focus on a more refined research angle — which became known as “The Pew Gap.” The basic truth: The best way to predict the behavior of white voters — irregardless of their religious traditions — was to find out how often they attended worship services. The more often they were in a religious sanctuary, the more likely they were to vote for culturally conservative candidates (usually Republicans, in recent decades).

In other words, a person’s religious beliefs and practice matter, when it comes time to predict her or his actions in a voting booth.

This brings me to a recent story in The Washington Post, which ran under this headline: “Democrats seek to reshape midterm electorate along lines of a presidential year.” The lede is perfectly obvious, to anyone who lives here in Beltway-land or reads news produced by the scribes who gather here:

Democrats have a problem and everyone knows it. President Obama calls it a “congenital disease.” If they can’t control it, Obama could spend the final years of his presidency battling not only a Republican House but also a Republican Senate.

Democrats don’t vote in midterm elections. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the core of the Democratic coalition is made up of many people who turn out to vote only in presidential elections. The Republican coalition — older and whiter — suffers less from midterm falloff.

So what is wrong with this story? What is the crucial element that the Post team totally ignored?

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Concerning all those angry white married men in pews

It’s mid-term election time, which means that it’s time, once again, for the mainstream press to try to figure out what is wrong with all of those angry white men.

You remember the angry white men, right? Remember the folks who keep insisting on clinging to their — what was that phrase again — guns, religion and antipathy to people who are not like them?

GetReligion readers can probably predict which one of those factors was ignored in the recent New York Times piece that ran under the headline, “Democrats Try Wooing Ones Who Got Away: White Men.” The key voice up top — in the thesis paragraphs — is that of Frank Houston, a man with working-class roots who is leads the Democratic Party in Oakland County, Michigan.

Mr. Houston grew up in the 1980s liking Ronald Reagan but idolizing Alex P. Keaton, the fictional Republican teenage son of former hippies who, played by Michael J. Fox on the television series “Family Ties,” comically captured the nation’s conservative shift. But over time, Mr. Houston left the Republican Party because “I started to realize that the party doesn’t represent the people I grew up with.” …

Mr. Houston is part of an internal debate at all levels of his party over how hard it should work to win over white men, especially working-class men without college degrees, at a time when Democrats are gaining support from growing numbers of female and minority voters.

It is a challenge that runs throughout the nation’s industrial heartland, in farm states and across the South, after a half-century of economic, demographic and cultural shifts that have reshaped the electorate. Even in places like Michigan, where it has been decades since union membership lists readily predicted Democratic votes, many in the party pay so little attention to white working-class men that it suggests they have effectively given up on converting them.

There are several religious and cultural ghosts in this story, but the Times team never really names them.

Instead, the story does a great job — over and over — of telling readers what kind of voters are very loyal to the Democratic Party these days. Readers then have to do the math and try to spot the obvious patterns. Take this quote for example:

No Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white men since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all prevailed with support of the so-called rising electorate of women, especially single women, and minorities. But fewer of those voters typically participate in midterm elections, making the votes of white men more potent and the struggle of Democrats for 2014 clear.

Carter, of course, did much better in the South and in the Midwest in his first campaign. And what was different that time around? I mean, other than having to run against Reagan?

Also, note another theme in the story: Democrats do much, much better with single adults, as opposed to married adults. In stories that dare to probe this, what usually shows up in that familiar “pew gap” indicating that people who attend worship more tend to vote for culturally conservative candidates. Married people also tend to more religious than single people.

But this is not a story that has the time to look into things like that.

Let’s see. So what else does this story tell us?

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Asking the nasty, logical question about that Utah judge

It’s often like the force of gravity in American politics and it has been gaining power for about a quarter of a century.

We’re talking about the “pew gap,” that mysterious X-factor that keeps showing up in surveys about the most controversial political and social issues in this land of ours. Simply stated, the more often a person sits in a pew inside a religious sanctuary, the more likely they are to vote for morally conservative candidates (in either party, but these days this tends to show up as a GOP bias).

So does his mean (a) that all moral conservatives are Republicans? The answer, of course, is “no,” especially when you start hanging out with Latinos, African-Americans and people in blue-collar jobs and/or labor unions.

Does this mean that (b) all Republicans are moral conservatives? The answer, of course, is “no,” especially when you are dealing with country-club members and people far outside the Bible Belt.

Does this mean that (c) cultural liberals are godless heathens who never go to church? Of course not, but they are a minority of those found in pews and they tend to be active in smaller, doctrinally progressive flocks of all religious brands.

So this brings us to that New York Times story about that judge in Utah — all together now, UTAH! — who has become an instant hero among supporters of gay-rights and same-sex unions.

This story provides lots of relevant information, all focusing on how his decision has shocked Republicans. Let’s look at a slice or two of the text:

DENVER – For a judge who would go on to make same-sex marriage legal in Utah, a deep-red state where streets in the capital are numbered by their distance from the Mormon temple, Robert J. Shelby arrived on the bench with enthusiastic praise from Republican leaders.

He had been a combat engineer in the Persian Gulf conflict and was, according to state voter records, a registered Republican. Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a seven-term Utah Republican, recommended him for a federal judgeship, calling him an experienced lawyer “with an unwavering commitment to the law.” Senator Mike Lee, a Tea Party Republican, said that Mr. Shelby was “pre-eminently qualified” and predicted he would be an outstanding judge.

Now, less than two years since he joined the bench, the same-sex marriage case has transformed Judge Shelby into a hero for hundreds of newlywed gay couples and an object of derision for many social conservatives who supported Utah’s 2004 ban on such unions.

OK, so remember point (b) mentioned above?

What is the logical information that readers almost certainly need to know to understand this legal puzzle?

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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).

Imagine that: ‘Pew gap’ among Latinos on gay rights?

I am sure that this will come as a major shock to many occupants of The Washington Post newsroom: The divisions among African-Americans over gay rights also show up among Latinos and, no surprise, these differences often are rooting in faith and varying levels of religious practice.

Once again, there is a “pew gap” at play in this scenario.

Of course, it is certainly news — as shown in a Pew Forum poll that’s making headlines — that Latino views on gay-marriage are rapidly changing, with a slight majority now affirming government attempts to change the definition of marriage.

That’s an important story. I know that.

Yet, at the same time, there are Latinos — just as there are millions of African-Americans — who for a variety of reasons, including religious beliefs, do not equate ethnicity with sexual orientation. There are other people of color who do.

In other words, this is a story with two sides.

This leads me to that fascinating story that ran in The Washington Post the other day under this headline: “Immigrant, gay rights groups form alliance — and meet resistance among some Latinos.”

A few weeks ago, CASA of Maryland and other immigration advocacy organizations formed an alliance with gay rights groups to urge passage of two hot-button initiatives on the Maryland ballot in November, one legalizing same-sex marriage and the other making some undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state tuition.

Elected officials joined them in making the announcement, which came as no surprise. The news media had been alerted days in advance.

Of course media had been alerted days in advance.

And, of course, this alliance “came as no surprise” to those who engineered the alliance.

However, the alliance did come as a surprise to some Latino leaders who, obviously, were left on the outside of this political marriage. You will be stunned to know that this has something to do with religion.

… (For) Bishop Angel Nunez of the Bilingual Christian Church of Baltimore, a longtime CASA of Maryland ally, the news struck out of nowhere.

Nunez has long worked with CASA to promote immigrant causes, including the Dream Act in-state tuition initiative, but he strongly opposes same-sex marriage.

“Pastors are calling me up saying, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” he said, adding that he has been urging his 250 regular congregants, who hail from 23 nations, to vote for the Dream Act and against the Civil Marriage Protection Act. “I don’t know if I feel betrayed or not, but right now I’m confused.”

Typically, he said, he gets ­e-mails from CASA about its plans. But this time, Nunez said he didn’t know what CASA was up to until he read in the newspaper about the alliance, which also includes the prominent Latino advocacy group National Council of La Raza. “No outreach got to us … to at least say, ‘I know we don’t agree on this, but this is what we’re doing,’ ” he said.

So why the lack of outreach to Latinos who are active in evangelical Protestant churches or highly active in Catholic churches? Why is it surprising, to CASA and to the Post, that — while the beliefs of many Latinos are changing on gay-rights issues — that this is not the case for millions of Latinos who frequent church pews?

Doesn’t everyone outside newsrooms and activist offices understand that sexual orientation and ethnicity are equal? Well, some believe that and some do not. That’s the heart of the story.

Thus, to its credit, the Post team does get around to stating the obvious:

Experts say that younger Latinos and those whose families immigrated less recently are more likely to be open to same-sex marriage.

But many Latino religious leaders remain staunchly opposed to the referendum that would allow civil marriage for gay men and lesbians. The alliance has brought to the surface a conflict many Maryland Hispanics face between supporting an organization that has helped them in the past and going against deeply held religious beliefs. And while many are eager to see the Dream Act pass, their enthusiasm does not translate to supporting the marriage equality referendum.

Calling Nunez “a huge leader in our community” and a longtime ally of his organization, Gustavo Torres, CASA’s executive director, said last week that the failure to inform him about the alliance was “totally an oversight.”

So there is a story here, a good one. But is this story surprising?

Only to people at the Post, it seems (and certainly in other newsrooms). To me it looks like another example of one of the most dependable forces in American politics — the pew gap. It’s there. Cover it.


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