New Fronts in the Culture Wars? Religion, Partisanship, and Polarization on Religious Liberty and Transgender Rights in the United States

Published date01 May 2019
Date01 May 2019
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2019, Vol. 47(3) 650 –679
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X18818169
New Fronts in the
Culture Wars? Religion,
Partisanship, and
Polarization on Religious
Liberty and Transgender
Rights in the United
Jeremiah Castle1
Beginning in the 1960s, the United States experienced religious and partisan
conflict over cultural issues such as abortion that was described as a “Culture
War.” Recent, highly salient battles over religious liberty and transgender
rights have led the media to characterize these issues as “new fronts in the
culture war,” thereby giving reason to revisit the culture wars debate. In
this article, I test whether the public is polarized on religious liberty and
transgender rights, as well as whether these issues share the same underlying
structure of public opinion as traditional culture wars issues. Using a dataset
from the Pew Research Center, I find that a substantial subset of Americans
hold polarized views on these issues, and that religion and party are
important factors in explaining that polarization. The results suggest that the
religious and partisan divides that fueled the original “culture wars” remain
an important factor in American politics.
polarization, religion, religious liberty, transgender rights, culture wars
1Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, MI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jeremiah Castle, Central Michigan University, 247 Anspach Hall, Mount Pleasant, MI 48859,
818169APRXXX10.1177/1532673X18818169American Politics ResearchCastle
Castle 651
One of the most vigorous debates in American politics research concerns
the extent to which the American mass public has become polarized in its
issue attitudes. One widely read account claims that beginning in the 1960s,
American politics became defined by an increasing religious divide on cul-
tural issues known as the “culture war” (Himmelfarb, 2001; Hunter, 1991;
Layman, 2001; Leege, Wald, Krueger, & Mueller, 2002; Wuthnow, 1988,
1989). If this thesis is accurate, we would expect to find that the mass pub-
lic is polarized on cultural issues, and that both religion and party play an
important role in this polarization. However, a second group of scholars
argues that the mass public is not as polarized on cultural issues as the “cul-
ture wars” account suggests (Davis & Robinson, 1996; DiMaggio, Evans,
& Bryson, 1996; Fiorina, Abrams, & Pope, 2008, 2010; Lindaman &
Haider-Markel, 2002). The nature and extent of mass polarization, as well
as religion’s role in that polarization, remain controversial (Niemi,
Weisberg, & Kimball, 2011).
Recent accounts suggesting the evolution of the culture wars present an
opportunity to revisit this debate. One line of inquiry holds that the New
Christian Right is changing its style of politics, including a greater empha-
sis on the language of personal rights and liberties (Jelen, 2005; Lewis,
2017; Moen, 1994). A second, and potentially related, possibility is that the
issue agenda in the culture wars may be expanding into “new fronts.”
Observers have suggested two such sets of issues. First, American politics
has witnessed increasing conflict over transgender rights, and the media
increasingly discusses transgender rights within a culture wars frame
(Burmila, 2017; The Economist, 2017; Elliott, 2016; Scher, 2017; Schlumpf,
2018). Second, the New Christian Right is increasingly emphasizing reli-
gious liberty (Lewis, 2017), leading popular commentators to characterize
religious freedom as a part of the culture wars (Boorstein, 2014; Inzau,
2015; Koppelman, 2017; Laycock, 2014; Stetzer, 2014). To date, however,
few studies have examined whether transgender rights and religious liberty
fit into the culture wars paradigm.
In this article, I explore two related questions.
Research Question 1: Is the mass public really polarized on religious
liberty and transgender rights?
Research Question 2: How much do religious liberty and transgender
rights hold in common with traditional culture wars issues, such as
After reviewing the literature on the culture wars and political polariza-
tion, I discuss several theoretical reasons why we might expect the issue

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