It was one of those symbolic questions that pollsters toss into the mix when probing fault lines inside political coalitions.
The Pew Research Center recently asked, as part of its “Beyond Red vs. Blue” political typology project, whether voters agreed or disagreed that it is “necessary to believe in God to be moral.”
Among the voters called “Solid Liberals,” one of three major Democratic Party camps, only 11 percent of those polled said “yes.” People in the emerging “Next Generation Left” felt the same way, with only 7 percent affirming that statement.
However, things were radically different among the voters that Pew researchers labeled the “Faith and Family Left.” In this crowd — the survey’s most racially and ethnically diverse camp — an stunning 91 percent of those polled saw a connection between morality and belief in God.
“That number, the size of that gap, jumped out at me” in the results, said Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the Pew Research Center.
Faith and Family Left voters are “pretty loyal Democrats, the kind that supported Bill Clinton and Al Gore. They voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and most of them voted for him again in 2012,” he added. “But when it comes to moral and cultural and religious issues, they take a very different approach” from the Solid Liberals and those in the Next Generation Left.
Asked if American society is “better off if people prioritize marriage and having children,” 64 percent of Faith and Family Left voters agreed. However, 77 percent of Solid Liberals and 72 percent of the Next Generation Left disagreed with that statement.
These faith-friendly Democrats were twice as likely to self-identify as “religious” than other liberals. Just over half of them said they attend worship services “weekly or more,” compared with 19 percent of Solid Liberals and 21 percent of the Next Generation Left. A slim majority of Faith and Family Left voters opposed gay marriage, compared with only 7 percent of the Solid Liberals. The same sharp divide existed on abortion.
The Pew team noted that “fully 85 percent of the Faith and Family Left say religion is very important and 51 percent want the government to do more to protect morality — the highest percentage of any typology group” described in this survey.
This division among progressives jumped into the news recently when the Obama White House announced plans for an executive order banning discrimination by federal contractors against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those identifying as transgender.
A coalition of religious leaders friendly to the president, including the 2012 Obama campaign staffer in charge of outreach to faith groups, immediately pleaded for a religious exemption. Its letter focused on an Obama statement that “our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry” and help others.
“We could not agree with you more. Our identity as individuals is based first and foremost in our faith. … The hiring policies of these organizations — Christians, Jewish, Muslim and others — extend from their religious beliefs and values: the same values that motivate them to serve their neighbors in the first place,” said the letter to Obama.
“While the nation has undergone incredible social and legal change over the last decade, we still live in a nation with different beliefs about sexuality. We must find a way to respect diversity of opinion on this issue in a way that respects the dignity of all parties to the best of our ability.”
This religious divide on the political left is not new, but these distinctions are “getting sharper,” said John C. Green of the University of Akron, a specialist in faith-and-politics research. However, Faith and Family Left voters — whether they are African-American Protestants, Latino Catholics or white Evangelicals — still retain a positive, “populist” view of government, especially when it comes to helping others.
“They are pro-government and pro-safety net,” said Green. “But they are also pro-life, they are pro-religion, they are pro-family, they are pro-morality. …
“There are a lot of things that unite people in the Democratic coalition right now, but there is a values divide there. On one side are people who are very modern and their values are highly individualistic. On the other side are these people who have an older set of values based on community and tradition and, yes, on religion.”