The Devoutness Divide

A woman walks through a market in Kabul as Muslims observe the second day of Ramadan, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan.
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.

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.