Americans who want to understand conflicts between Democrats and Republicans during the election season have received precious little help from the media. While reporters usually recognize that there is some sort of problem about “values” and about “faith-based” principles, and that the Democrats and Republicans are often on opposite sides, writers and editors tend to publish news and analysis as if the situation were as follows: The Christian right, having infiltrated the Republican Party, is importing its divisive religious ideas into our public life, whereas the Democratic Party is the neutral camp of tolerant and pluralistic Americans.
This way of framing the matter predominates, not only because it reflects the personal beliefs of many journalists, but also because it draws upon a long American tradition of suspicion and fear of committed Catholics and evangelical Protestants. (In the elite newspapers and magazines, the number of journalists in either of those groups is tiny.) It is thus comfortable for journalists to conceive of religiously based political conflict in terms of an aggressive Christian right advancing upon a beleaguered neutral and pluralistic center and left.
What the journalists leave out of their accounts is the fact that the nonreligious have also become aggressive actors on the political stage and that they possess and promote, in fact, an overarching religious worldview of their own—one that can fairly be called secularism.
This point is strongly supported from the results of our analysis (using the Lexis-Nexis database) of how the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post wrote about the culture wars between 1990 and 2000. Over this ten-year period, these three newspapers published just eighteen articles linking the culture wars to the secularist-religious cleavage dividing the Democratic and Republican parties. During this same time span, however, these papers published 929 news stories about the political machinations of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, while doing only fifty-nine stories about the pivotal role played by secularists in these conflicts. The press did not overlook the culture wars, just the involvement of secularists in them.
If the themes conveyed in headlines and magazine cover stories of the past several months—“The Religion Gap,” “The God Gulf,” “Howard Dean’s Religion Problem,” and so on—are indicative of the press’ current take on the religious issue, then media elites appear to have been awakened, if only momentarily, to the secularist factor in American politics. Between mid-September 2003, around the time of the first Democratic presidential candidate debate in the 2004 primary and caucus season, and mid-February, the time of this writing, the New York Times and Washington Post published twelve news stories conveying to their readers that the Democratic and Republican parties were split along a secularist-religious divide. As a comparison, consider that these two newspapers published just two articles about the religious divide during the entire 2000 presidential election season. An interesting fact, which publishers of such religion-gap articles would do well to recall, is that when cultural conflict is framed as a clash between Democratic secularist values and Republican traditionalist ones, the Democrats suffer more in the people’s estimation than do the Republicans, particularly in the South and Midwest. American National Election Survey (ANES) data and Pew Research Center polls support this point: more than twice as many respondents in these surveys felt antagonistic toward “nonbelievers” as toward the “Christian right”; these same polls also showed that the positions favored by nonreligious respondents on gay marriage, vouchers, partial-birth abortion, and school prayer are opposed by majorities of religious moderates and traditionalists—opposed, that is, by the majority of the American people.
The association of the Democratic Party with secularism, according to press accounts from the current electoral cycle, is a relatively recent development that is largely attributable to the person of Howard Dean—with his arrogant style, his Northeastern elitism, and his indifference to the religious sensibilities of middle America. Presumably, with Dean out of the picture, the secularist faction of the Democratic Party has also been removed. But this analysis is, at best, incomplete.
A quarter of a century of political science research and public opinion surveys point up that the prominence of secularists in the Democratic Party these days is not unique to the Howard Dean insurgency nor new in the 2004 election cycle. Dean’s religion problem was emblematic of the wider “God Gulf” that has separated the core of the Republican and Democratic parties over the past several decades. Secularists are not outsiders fighting to gain a foothold in the Democratic Party; they are the regnant wing of the Democratic Party, and have been so for over three decades. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1976 study of The New Presidential Elite and Geoffrey Layman’s 2001 analysis of national party convention delegates, activists, and platforms for the years 1972 to 1996 in The Great Divide, trace the religion gap to the “new politics” of the 1972 Democratic convention. According to the 1972-1992 Convention Delegate Surveys, secularists (that is, atheists, agnostics, religious “nones,” the unchurched, and assorted self-identified irreligionists—most of whom were McGovern supporters) constituted the largest “religious” bloc among Democratic delegates. Their substantial presence at this convention, combined with their zeal and cohesion, overwhelmed the culturally traditionalist (southern Evangelical and white ethnic Catholic) wings of the party, which in the past could be counted on to temper secularist policy initiatives. It was at the contentious Miami convention of 1972 that secularists first became an important political force within a major party.
The ascendancy of secularists in the Democratic Party had long-term consequences for the relative attractiveness of each party for members of different religious groups. The Democratic Party became more appealing to secularists and less hospitable to traditionalists. Party stalwarts, many of whom were Catholic (for instance, Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago and congressmen such as New York Representatives John Rooney and James Delaney) eventually found themselves isolated and their influence waning. Representatives and senators from the party’s more conservative southern wing found the cultural liberalism of the national party ever more distasteful and more difficult to explain to their constituents. Many withdrew from active participation in national Democratic Party gatherings, and some bolted to the Republican Party. Without the moderating influence of cultural traditionalists, the party became visibly more secularist, as reflected in its national platform planks and the roll-call voting behavior of its congressmen and senators. (The difference between these two Democratic parties is personified by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who has traveled far down the secularist road from his father’s cultural conservatism.)
The triumph of secularism in the Democratic Party had the opposite effect on the GOP. By the first Clinton election, divisions among party elites spilled into the electorate and were so apparent in exit poll and public opinion data that one team of well-known academic researchers identified 1992 alternatively as the “Year of the Evangelical” and the “Year of the Secular.” The vote distribution of white respondents who indicated that they backed a major party candidate in the 1992 ANES data support this assertion. Clinton carried three-fourths of the secularist vote, while George H. W. Bush won two-thirds of the traditionalists. This polarized voting pattern continued through the 2002 congressional elections.
Since the 1992 election the religion gap has been more significant than all other divisions in the electorate, with the sole exception of the racial divide. Though much has been made of the gender gap in political commentary over the past decade, the difference in the voting preferences of men and women is far narrower than the one that separates the political orientations of the religious from the nonreligious. White women, for example, were eight percent less likely than white men to support Bush in the 2000 election, but white secularists were 42 percent less likely to back Bush over Gore than were traditionalists.
The degree to which one is religious or secular reflects a larger mindset that includes a moral outlook, a political ideology, a distinct set of attitudes toward cultural and church-state issues, and a political identity. Answers to a battery of questions included in ANES and Pew surveys indicate that the secularist moral perspective (humanistic relativism), ideological outlook (liberalism), political identity (Democrat), and stance toward the contentious values issues of secularists are just as neatly packaged and identifiable as those of traditionalists. According to ANES and Pew survey data, for example, more than seven out of ten secularists felt that the influence of religion in politics is divisive; over three-quarters opposed laws restricting abortion; two-thirds backed gay marriage; three-fifths agreed that “we should adjust our views of right and wrong to changing moral standards”; over half were against school vouchers; and a third felt antagonistic toward Catholics, while two-thirds expressed antipathy toward Evangelicals. By at least equal margins, religious traditionalists took opposite views on these matters.
Secularists and traditionalists each expect their political representatives to take their side on such issues, particularly when casting roll-call votes in the House and Senate. And indeed, congressional Democrats can be counted on as reliable supporters of the secularist cultural agenda. The core opposition to school vouchers, faith-based charities, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the banning of partial-birth abortion is overwhelmingly on the Democratic side of the aisle. On each of these issues, congressional Democrats who self-identify as “Catholics” voted no differently from other Democrats: they affirmed secularist values over traditionally religious ones. (Catholic Republicans in the House and the Senate, in contrast, lopsidedly supported traditionalist values in opposition to secularist ones.)
Take the case of the voucher bill that authorized federal funding for a school-choice program for low-income families in the District of Columbia. The school choice bill arrived on the floor of the House after the historic Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision (2002) in which the Supreme Court affirmed the right of low-income parents to use publicly funded education vouchers to send their children to religious schools. Only three of the 195 Democrats voting in the House supported the bill, and of these two were Catholics—Walter Lipinski, who represents one of the last white ethnic Catholic enclaves in Chicago, and Gene Taylor, the Mississippi congressman from Trent Lott’s former district. Sixty-three Catholic Democratic House members voted against this voucher bill. (In contrast, forty-six out of fifty-one Catholic Republican House members supported it.)
Of course, it is likely that the party’s commitment to secularist values was not the only factor that motivated Democrats to oppose vouchers. Opposition by teachers’ unions, no doubt, was influential. Still, it is difficult to imagine that the Democratic Party’s historic relationship with unions, or the power of the education lobby, explains the line-up of Democratic roll-call votes on bills concerning partial-birth abortion, parental notification, gays in the Boy Scouts, or other congressional action pitting secularist values against traditionalist ones. A better explanation is the Democratic Party’s commitment to secularist values. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Democratic senator from New York and an elder statesman of the party who had a consistent pro-abortion record, offered Catholic Democratic senators a perfectly sensible rationale for moving away from the secularist position on partial-birth abortion. While in the Senate, Moynihan branded this procedure a form of infanticide and voted to ban it. But even on a vote that would have conformed to the Catholic Church’s teaching and to the judgment of a substantial majority of the American people—and with political cover provided by Moynihan—still nine out of fourteen Catholic Democratic senators registered votes that reflect the secularist worldview.
John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, exemplifies very well the secularist direction of the Democratic Party. We created a ten-point secularism (or antitraditionalism) scale from National Journal’s Almanac of American Politics, which compiles congressional roll-call votes over the past decade. These votes concerned education savings accounts and IRAs that could be used for religious schools, restrictions on abortion (such as parental notification and the partial-birth ban), and various bills affecting homosexual issues. A senator’s vote was coded “secularist” if the position taken on the bill was in accord with a majority of secularist sentiment (and in opposition to a majority of religiously traditionalist opinion) on this type of issue in the ANES and Pew surveys. A ten on this scale indicates that the senator had a perfect secularist score; a zero indicates a perfect antisecularist or traditionalist score. The average Democratic Senate score was 8.9; the average for the Republicans was 0.95. Senator Kerry scored a perfect 10. With the retirements of John Breaux from Louisiana (who had a score of 1.0) and Georgia’s Zell Miller (who scored 0 during his tenure), senate Democrats will in all likelihood come to reflect even more the secularism of Kerry and even less the values of cultural traditionalism.
The recent attention paid by media elites to the “God Gulf” means that the pivotal role played by secularists in this divide may be more difficult to mask than in the past. This is particularly so since the advent of cable television political news programs. A January 2004 Pew survey found that cable news has overtaken national network nightly news as the principal source for information about the presidential campaign, especially among the college-educated and among registered voters. Cable news viewers are more likely than those who watch network news to be provided with information about the political clash between the forces of secularism and traditionalism—a motif that has been a recurring theme on the O’Reilly Factor, and increasingly discussed on other cable political news programs during the current season of primary elections. In contrast, viewers of network evening television news programs are left in the dark about the secularist and traditionalist divide in the electorate. When we checked the abstracts from the Vanderbilt University Television News Archive for stories between 2003 and 2004 on the religion gap theme, we could not find a single news segment devoted to the topic.
The brief entry of secularism into political discourse was disquieting to many Democrats. Howard Dean tried to ameliorate his “religion problem” by expressing his admiration for Job (whom he placed in the New Testament) and by flying down to Georgia the weekend before the Iowa caucus to attend church with Jimmy Carter. John Kerry’s injection of “God” into his standard stump speech on tax loopholes and the environment was so out of character that it caught the attention of the New York Times. The efforts by Democratic presidential aspirants to distance themselves from the “secularist” tag are reminiscent of the flight of Democratic politicians from the “liberal” label since the Reagan era. Underlying Democratic unease with secularism is their recognition that an overt and public embrace of secularism is politically damaging in the United States, a nation that once was famously said to have “the soul of a church.” (It seems that Chesterton’s dictum has not yet been rendered out of date.)
Since the implosion of the Dean candidacy, the major media have shown little interest in the secularist-religious divide in the electorate. Yet the emphatically secularist record of John Kerry, and the continuing agitations over abortion, gay marriage, school choice, and the place of religion in public life, will inevitably keep before us—if we have eyes to see it—the clash of worldviews that increasingly defines our politics.
The question for our media is: Will they attend to the secularist-religious divide, or will they revert to writing about these value conflicts in terms of a tolerant pluralism assaulted by “divisive” sectarians? In view of where the electorate comes down when given a choice between religion and secularism, and in view of the dominant political proclivities of the major media, one might reasonably bet on a return to the discredited categories.
Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio teach political science at Baruch College of the City University of New York.