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The Devoutness Divide

This commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.
The death of Pope John Paul got me wondering how religion came to be the defining schism of contemporary American politics. And make no mistake, despite all the talk about culture and class war, religion -- or, really, religiousness -- is now the line in the chads that separates Republicans from Democrats.

There's a mind-blowing fact about the life of John Paul II: more people have physically seen the Pope than any other person in human history. Politically, in Eastern Europe and the rest of the world, the Pope was mostly a force of unity, not polarity.

This may be an historical aberration. Religion has been the greatest seed of battle and hate of human history, and even today the clash between Islam and the religions of the West is the defining fact of geopolitical life.

But that has not always been true in America -- especially in the past century. It seems to be now. The use and abuse of religion by politicians and religious leaders divides people labeled as liberal and conservative but who, I believe, have much in common at their core.

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What divides Americans politically is not feuds between sects, bigotry or prejudice. The antagonism is not between, say, Jews and Baptists or Catholics and Methodists. It is not between believers and atheists; the vast majority of voters consider themselves religious and believe in God. The gap is rather between churchgoers and non-churchgoers; it is between people who are very orthodox or traditional in their religious belief and those who are more individualistic in their worship or less orthodox. The chasm is not defined by what religion people belong to but how they practice their religion.

There is no God Gap. But there is a Devoutness Divide.

There is no better predictor of voting behavior now than religious behavior. People who like to get their religion in churches or temples, served in the traditional ways, vote very differently than people who are religious in less traditional ways and who don't attend religious services. The former vote for Republicans, the latter don't.

The churchgoer cleavage in voting behavior has been around for awhile, but it has widened. According to the 2004 national exit poll, the 16 percent of the electorate that attends church (or synagogue or mosque) more than once a week voted for George Bush by 64 percent to 35 percent. Among the 15 percent of all voters who never go to church, John Kerry prevailed by an opposite margin, 62-36.

The other key variable in how religion affects voting involves how orthodox or traditional a person is. A team of political scientists led by John Green of the University of Akron and sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has tried to measure this by dividing three large branches of American religion -– Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic -– into three subgroups each – traditionalist, centrist and modernist (the labels mean exactly what you would think).

Looking at the 2004 election through the scope of orthodoxy reveals the same kinds of polarization as church attendance, even within religious traditions.

For example, Mainline Protestants as whole were split 50-50 between Bush and Kerry, but within that large group, traditionalists went for Bush 68-32 while modernists voted for Kerry 78-22.

Among non-Latino Catholics, traditionalists were with Bush by 72-28 but modernist Catholics favored Kerry by 69-31.

Traditionalists among Evangelical Protestants, a much discussed and observed group, went for Bush by an 88-12 margin, but modernists in the Evangelical cohort tilted slightly to Kerry, 52-48.

You can't slice up the electorate this neatly based on age, income, geography or education -- or red and blue.

Religious behavior as the great determinant of voting behavior is relatively new. And the polarization within religious traditions is very new. Old patterns have broken. "Historically, religious fissure in the political arena have tended to break along denominational lines rather than by level of religious commitment," notes Pew's study, "A Faith-Based Partisan Divide."

From the New Deal through the 1960s, Mainline Protestants - Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians -- were the backbone of the Republican Party. Now they are evenly split between the parties. Democrats relied on Catholics and Baptists and other Protestants from the South. But since the 60s, the southerners and Evangelical Protestants nationwide have abandoned the Democrats. Catholics barely lean Democratic now.

Remember, this isn't a chasm between believers and non-believers. A huge majority of voters are believers. And they don't mind a certain amount of mixing up of religion and politics; in 2004, Pew's polling found that 72 percent of the public thinks presidents should have strong religious beliefs.

The bad news is that the antagonisms between churchgoing traditionalists and church-avoiding modernists, be they Catholic, Evangelical or Mainline Protestant are just as entrenched, overheated and intolerant as the rantings of Al Franken and Michael Moore against Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

Why the bad blood? Among the reasons: the unusual growth, cohesiveness and clout of White Evangelicals. They make up 23 percent of the electorate and 78 percent of them voted to reelect President Bush. The Republican Party since Richard Nixon has relentlessly cultivated this group with rhetoric -- if only rarely action -- on an evolving list of hot button issues – school prayer, dirty music lyrics, federal funding for irreverent art, flag-burning, abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage.

As natural communities of geography and family continue to decline, as the groups we belong to and have deep connections with grow scarcer, and as a new generation of media technology and news/political performers capitalizes on this uprootedness, many people form deeper attachments to their cultural or ideological identities and communities. I think that is partly what we call the culture war, or red versus blue America.

So, many religious traditionalists believe that secularists or modernists are deeply hostile to them. And they're right. Similarly, many secularists and modernists fervently believe that traditionalists (most especially, White Evangelicals), aided by the party in power, want to take away their way of life. And they're probably right.

I deeply believe (though I seem to be alone on this) that the traditionalists and the modernists -- the alleged extremes -- have a lot in common deep down. I think the hot button issues that get made into political ads don't accurately reflect how people view our times.

I think both groups miss the good old days, real neighborhoods where you lived near relatives, companies that would employ you for a whole career and then pay a pension. I think that both groups think American society has grown too materialistic, ostentatious, portable and greedy. I think that both groups believe Hollywood produces mostly exploitive, over-sexed, over-violent junk that is bad for kids. I think a lot of people in the middle don't think this way at all and aren't critical of American society and commerce in these ways.

I think we don't have the voices -- religious, artistic or secular -- that bring the traditionalists and modernists together. Whatever you thought of the Pope, he was a trenchant social critic -- of communism, capitalism, materialism, consumerism and of culture. People who radically oppose Vatican policy on abortion or contraception can hear him on other subjects. This seems to be also true of many of the men in the running to replace him -- they are sophisticated social and cultural critics who can speak to audiences beyond their faith and who challenge the regimes of their countries.

And that's something America seems to be missing today.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer

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