America fifty/fifty.

Author:Guth, James L.
Position:Religion and U.S. presidential election 2000 - Cover Story
 
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G. K. Chesterton's famous description of the United States as a "nation with the soul of a church" was never more apt than during the 2000 presidential campaign. Religion was in the limelight from the moment that George W. Bush named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher to the day when Joseph Lieberman joined the Democratic ticket, quoting the Book of Chronicles. And when it was all over, Bush entered office amidst a flurry of worship services, clerical blessings, and religious consultations.

The pervasive religiosity of the campaign helped produce one of the closest and most controversial elections in history. America seemed to have two souls--or one torn in half. Experienced observers from journalist Thomas Edsall to social thinker Francis Fukuyama saw in the results a massive cultural divide. Newspapers produced brightly colored maps limning the political boundaries between the rustic heartland and cosmopolitan urban centers. The sharpest differences between the official party platforms were on cultural matters, from abortion to school vouchers, and religious groups campaigned vigorously for their respective champions. In the end, cultural disputes and widespread dismay over the country's moral state overshadowed the economic optimism that was expected to put Al Gore in the White House, allowing Bush to eke out a victory.

Despite the precarious electoral margin, the public was not as bitterly divided as the pundits thought. Even some deeply religious voters were only vaguely conscious of the stark cultural differences evoked by the campaign. And only about one-half of the eligible electorate even bothered to vote. Alan Wolfe might easily have seen "one nation after all," albeit one strangely aloof from the struggle for its soul. Indeed, many citizens were thoroughly disengaged from public affairs--or, to paraphrase Robert Putnam, they were bowling alone and abstaining together. The candidates seemed to sense this civic malaise and drew up alternative blueprints for rebuilding civil society: Gore proposed a revitalized public sector, and Bush a reenergized private one.

All these tendencies converged in a "50 percent solution": half the people voted, and half of those backed each major candidate. (See table, p. 21.) More fundamentally, the outcome revealed the consolidation of a new religious order in American politics, an altered relationship between faith and public affairs.

Throughout American history, voting has been shaped by ethnoreligious loyalties in which distinct religious traditions, often wedded to ethnic and racial identities, exhibited characteristic partisan ties. Such connections reflected the special culture of each tradition, formed in local neighborhoods and churches, engendering both ideological commonalities within the tradition and persistent social conflict with other traditions. In the mid-twentieth century, for example, mainline Protestants supplied most of the Republican Party's leaders and its most faithful voters, while Catholics, Jews, and other religious minorities--including regional out-groups such as southern evangelicals--constituted the bedrock of the Democratic Party. These alignments survived even the class politics of the New Deal.

Since the 1960s, however, these attachments have been transformed by three critical developments. First, some religious traditions have shifted their partisan loyalties. White evangelicals, for example, abandoned the Democrats for the GOP in droves, while African-American Protestants finally deserted the party of Lincoln, becoming monolithically Democratic. And many Catholics strayed from their ancient Democratic home, with some joining the Republicans but others becoming swing voters available to either party under the right circumstances. Evangelicals and black Protestants are now prominent among the elites of their respective parties, and Catholics are leaders in both. Such shills have been a staple of electoral politics, reflecting the political values of the special cultures of religious traditions. This revised version of the old ethnoreligious politics is still taken for granted, although it is not often seen as particularly religious. Even polls sponsored by the religiously tone-deaf New York Times routinely distinguish the political behavior of "white Protestants," "Catholics," and "Jews."

More recently, a new kind of partisan divide has opened, based on conflict within religious communities over belief, practice, and the role of religion in society. By the 1980s disputes pitting "traditionalists" of many stripes against a variety of "modernists" had partially restructured the larger American religious traditions, modifying their distinctive cultures. Traditionalists in all communities began to find more in common with each other than with modernists in their own traditions. Modernists had a comparable experience. The famous "culture wars" theory both describes and then overstates these trends by ignoring a crucial fact: many of the faithful have not been drawn into these disputes, but remain loyal to the "center" of their historic tradition.

Despite the continued presence of such "centrists," the incipient lines of cleavage within traditions and the budding alliances across old boundaries have had substantial political ramifications. Traditionalists have gravitated toward the GOP, while modernists have joined the Democrats, fracturing--but not destroying--the old ethnoreligious alignments. These trends are most visible among religious and political activists; the real question is how far the partisan polarization will extend to people in the pews. Whatever the answer to that question, this new politics of religious believing and behaving has complicated the old politics of religious belonging.

The new religious order has a third feature: the persistent (and, some would say, growing) detachment of Americans from civic life. Turnout in presidential contests has steadily declined since 1960, with only modest and temporary upturns. Although political factors have played a role in depressing turnout, the deeper cause lies in the decay of the nation's "social capital": the everyday social and organizational connections that nurture citizens' values, define their interests, and connect them to public affairs. As Robert Putnam and his colleagues have amply documented, voluntary activity in organizations has declined significantly since the 1960s, affecting groups from the American Bowling Congress to PTAS to the League of Women Voters. Not even religious life, a most resilient form of social interaction, has been exempt. The atrophy of mainline Protestant churches and dramatic reduction in Catholic mass attendance have been accompanied by the growth of the unaffiliated or secular population. Indeed, most religious institutions have suffered, even the conservative churches that have remained vital by dint of extraordinary effort. Simply put, good "organization citizens" are harder and harder to find. Thus, the complex politics of religious belonging, believing, and behaving occurs in the wider context of social disengagement.

These three changes in religious politics are closely related, but in complex ways. The partisan realignment of evangelicals and black Protestants and the partisan dispersion of white Catholics were strongly encouraged by the culture wars and fostered by an uneven pattern of decay in social capital. And there was a strong link between the culture wars and the decay of social life itself. In many respects, the cultural warriors of right and left have been responding to the decline of social institutions. On one side, traditionalists lamented the erosion of family life, religious institutions, and traditional values caused not only by impersonal social developments but also by the conscious assaults of modernists. For their part, modernists attacked traditional institutions in the hope of building broader and more inclusive communities. Indeed, modernists--and their secular allies--were often as disturbed by decaying civic life as the traditionalists, but preferred to envision new institutions, not resuscitate old ones.

In this sense, the collapse of civic life undermined the special cultural expression of many social groups, threatening to create Richard John Neuhaus' "naked public square."...

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