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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Religiosity Gap

I'm in a bit of a mood today, so why don't I take on the religion issue while I'm at it and piss off everybody I haven't pissed off already?

Atrios takes umbrage with this Slate article that claims Kerry isn't acting Catholic enough and, therefore, will lose the religious vote and the election. The author says, "if Kerry's uncomfortable with religion then he's uncomfortable with Americans...If Kerry's really secular, he's abnormal." He quotes an anonymous Kerry aide telling the Washington Times,"Every time something with religious language got sent up the flagpole, it got sent back down, stripped of religious language."

Uh huh. Certainly, anxious Democrats who anonymously talk to the Washington Times must be telling it just like it is.

This comes on the heels of an earlier article by Amy Sullivan chastising Kerry for not using values language and imagery and thereby alienating religious voters who might vote for him. In the course of her article, and this one in Slate today, it becomes clear that an even more significant problem for the religious left than John Kerry's alleged lack of religiosity, is the aggressive secularism of the activist base of the Democratic party. They are rude to religious people, evidently, and this is seen as a serious threat to Kerry's chances. (Both articles, by the way, mention how David Brooks really "gets it" in this NY Times column. Now, come on kids. David may be a nice guy, but he is not giving the Kerry campaign political advice out of the goodness of his heart. Think about it.)

Before we go any further, we should look at some actual data instead of relying on anecdotal tales of hurt feelings or bad communications. Ruy Tuxeira of Donkey Rising posted on this subject a month or so ago and reported some interesting numbers on the subject:

*Most progressives are religious. For example, in 2000, 81 percent of Gore voters professed a religious affiliation. That’s within shouting distance of the 89 percent of Bush voters who professed a religious affiliation (2000 National Study of Religion and Politics [NSRP]).

*It is true that progressives attend church less than conservatives. In the 2000 VNS exit poll, 33 percent of Gore voters said they attended church once a week or more, compared to 49 percent of Bush voters who said they attended church that often...

But the whole US population is trending toward less observance, not more. For example, in surveys taken over the last thirty years, it is the ranks of those who never or rarely attend church that have grown the most. According to a National Opinion Research Center (NORC) study, those who said they never attended church or attended less than once a year went from 18 percent in 1972 to 30 percent in 1998. Confirming this latter figure, the National Election Study found that those who say they never attended was at 33 percent of the citizenry and 27 percent of voters in 2000. That is a group about twice the size of those who identify themselves as members of the religious right, and it is a group that has tended to vigorously support Democrats rather than Republicans.

Indeed, according to the NORC study, if you add to the 30 percent mentioned above those who say they attend church only once or a few times a year, it turns out that about half the US population attends church only a few times a year or less.

* In the 2000 VNS exit poll, it was widely noted that Bush won the support of voters who say they attend church more than weekly by 63 to 36 and voters who say they attend church weekly by 57 to 40 . And these voters make up 43 percent of the electorate. But even according to these unusually high VNS figures, the more observant groups were only a bit over two-fifths of the electorate. Each of the groups in the less observant three-fifths of voters those who said they attended church a few times a month, a few times a year or never--preferred Gore over Bush, with support particularly strong among never-attenders, who gave Gore a 61 to 32 percent margin.


* Conservatives and the GOP have made aggressive efforts to target Catholics. But there is no evidence that this targeting is actually working. "Traditional" Catholics, to be sure, are strongly supporting Bush (60-30), according to the 2004 NSRP data. But they are only 27 percent of all Catholics. The rest of Catholics -- 73 percent -- are supporting Kerry. The includes the "modernist" group (31 percent of Catholics) who support Kerry by a lop-sided 61-33 and the "centrist" Catholics -- who are both the largest (42 percent) Catholic group and the real swing group among Catholics -- who support him by 45-41.

More broadly, there is little evidence that centrist and modernist Catholics, which is the overwhelming majority of Catholics -- including among Hispanics -- are likely to vote the conservative social positions of the Catholic church on issues like abortion or gay marriage. That is what the GOP has been banking on, but it is highly unlikely to happen. Polling data suggest strongly that these Catholics are far more concerned and moved electorally by other issues, such as the economy, education, health care and so on.

There is also quite a large school of thought that even among those who report regular churchgoing that they "overrepresent," due to social expectations and other pressures. In other words, they lie about how often they go to church. Furthermore, when pollsters ask about religion in specific terms it often turns out that people consider themselves very religious simply because they believe in God, or a Higher Power which actually falls under the secular category, not the religious category. In other words, the idea that there exists a huge monolithic number of highly religious Americans who will reject anyone who isn't explicitly appealing to them in religious terms is probably a crock. Indeed, with the exception of those who "claim" to attend church once a week or more, the Democrats consistently pull even with the Republicans.

As it turns out even that gap has narrowed significantly in this cycle. The religion gap is highly overstated even among the super observant. According to the Pew Research Poll quoted by Tuxeira:

Another intriguing finding is an apparent narrowing of the "religiosity gap"--that is, the tendency for those who attend church more often to vote Republican with far greater frequency than those who attend less often. According to the Pew data, the gap in Bush support between those who say they attend church every week and those who attend seldom or never is now 14 points, compared to 27 points in the 2000 VNS exit poll.

There's more here on the fact that Kerry is doing fine with Catholics.

So, what is this all about? Why are we having yet another interparty argument over something that isn't even particularly relevant to our electoral chances?

Here's the thing. This insistence that Democrats are disrespectful to religion is another one of those GOP propaganda ploys that we Democrats keep falling for. They have always claimed that we are godless heathens since back in the McCarthy era --- of course, then it was godless communists. Nobody has ever believed it and from the polling, it doesn't look like they do now. They have their bloc of extremely conservative Christians, but we have no hope of getting those votes even if we have Kerry wear a crown of thorns and flay himself on Meet The Press.

Besides, the entire argument validates this insulting notion that only very religious people can be elected to office in this country. In the Slate article, the author calls this new religious test "shorthand" for character. I think that's exactly the association the Republicans want you to make.

All this infighting is, once again, playing into established GOP talking points to our own detriment. It simply is not true. Democrats are as religiously observant as Republicans and with the exception of the fundamentalists and extreme Christian conservatives, religious people vote with the Democrats as much as with the Republicans. (If we are going for Christian Right votes then might I suggest that we also adopt some racist rhetoric and promise to cut taxes for the rich. Those votes are ours for the taking.)

There has long been tension between the secularists and the religious in this country, but interestingly they have both fared well when they worked together to maintain the separation of church and state --- as when the evangelicals and the secularists (which includes Deists) worked together to ensure the inclusion of the establishment clause in the bill of rights. (At that time evangelicals were a minority religion and in grave danger of being outlawed.) If one were to ask American Muslims and Buddhists today if they felt comfortable with all the religious talk in politics, I would imagine they'd say no. It's all in where you're sitting at the table, isn't it?

I think it's probably true that a lot of non-believers are rude about religion. But people need to grow up about this. The self righteousness of the religious believer has always inspired a certain, shall we say, ascerbic response. You want rude, I'll give you rude --- from two quintessential All-American boys:

"There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing and predatory as it is - in our country particularly, and in all other Christian countries in a somewhat modified degree - it is still a hundred times better than the Christianity of the Bible, with its prodigious crime- the invention of Hell. Measured by our Christianity of to-day, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the Deity nor His Son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilt."
Mark Twain

"Science, testing absolutely all thoughts, all works, has already burst well upon the world --- a sun, mounting, most illuminating, most glorious, surely never again to set. But against it, deeply entrench'd, holding possession, yet remains (not only through the churches and schools, but by imaginative literature, and unregenerate poetry) the fossil theology of the mythic-materialistic, superstitious, untaught and credulous fable-loving, primitive ages of humanity." Walt Whitman


So, let's be clear, here. Secularism is most definitely not abnormal. It never has been and it isn't now. It is as American as apple pie and we will take our slice of the body politic, thank you.

Shaun at Upper Left has some instructive comments on this topic, as well.

Update: For an inspiring look at the good people of the religious left, check out this interview with the head of the National Council of Churches by my American Street colleague, Chuck Currie. I'm happy to be on the same political side as this man.

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