Born in the U.S.A.

Religious denominations no longer divide Americans—religion itself, and its role in public life, splits the nation

Born in the U.S.A.

Keystone Press/ Bob Falcetti/Getty Images

Half a century ago, when religion entered the political arena in the U.S., it was as a matter of tensions between denominations, the kind of flare-up in tribal loyalties sparked by Catholic John F. Kennedy’s 1960 run for the presidency. With a full 30 per cent of respondents telling pollsters that they would never vote for any Catholic, Kennedy had to repeatedly assure voters he didn’t take marching orders from the pope.

But religion itself was quiescent—certainly in comparison to other times in American history, including the present—primarily because both religious and secular Americans held the same conservative views on sexual morality. It’s an era that now seem almost as far in the past as the Inquisition: by 2004, when Catholic John Kerry ran against George W. Bush, the religious tribes had almost vanished and Kerry’s denomination was of little interest to Protestant voters. What counted was how devout he was, and how his religiosity, or lack thereof, affected his policies on the hot-button moral issues of American politics.

How American religion lost its interior animosities (mostly, that is—Mormons and Muslims are still largely outside the tent), while becoming a much more militant side of a deep religious-secular divide, is the key question for Robert Putnam and David Campbell in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. To find the answer and to see if current trends seem likely to hold up, the co-authors comb through the two most comprehensive surveys ever done on religion and public life in the U.S., specially commissioned for their book. Campbell and Putnam, the latter a political scientist who rose to fame in 2000 with Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, get where they’re going all right, and they turn up a lot of fascinating information about America’s ever-evolving religious life along the way.

Saying grace before meals, they learn, is an exceptionally strong indicator of conservative political beliefs and cultural practices. The more often grace is pronounced, the more likely the sayer is to identify as a Republican, the less often, a Democrat. And there is very little grey area in the custom: half the nation reports saying grace almost all the time and half almost never. The authors can’t think of anything else—save “carrying a purse”—that is so common in one half of the population and so rare in the other.

Then there are the polls showing that Americans (even the most secular-minded) believe religious people make more trustworthy leaders, which perhaps explains why Bibles are as much a photo prop for political candidates as photogenic children. And despite what the secular-minded firmly believe, there is very little overt politicking in churches, and when it happens it’s more frequent in liberal than conservative congregations. There are so few redoubts of liberal religious believers remaining that such congregations tend to be highly motivated and less likely—especially if they are committed to the social gospel—than their conservative brethren to accept there is any real distinction between faith and politics.

The seismic change in the religious landscape was brought about by the sixties’ social revolution. Most of the decade’s upheavals were accommodated by the devout in America in much the same way as they were by everyone else. Outside of fringe groups, Christian women entered the workforce in the same numbers as their secular sisters, and racial equality—in the struggle for which Protestant churches of all stripes were so vital—is embraced, at least in principle. Even opposition to divorce, once an insuperable barrier to political support among evangelicals, was eventually blown away by the appeal of Ronald Reagan. Where the churched and unchurched parted ways was on sexual morality: casual sex (especially among teens), abortion and gay rights became religious America’s line in the sand.

The current political alignment of the religious right ensconced in the Republican party, and militant secularists dominating the Democrats, didn’t naturally follow—in past political battles, particularly over slavery, evangelicals were often found on the liberal side—and took time to shake out. The first “born-again” candidate with wide appeal to newly politicized evangelicals was, after all, Democrat Jimmy Carter, while the Republicans, historically seen by many churchgoers as the party of godless Wall Street profiteers, had some serious wooing to do. But eventually the sides coalesced, as voters shifted their politics to fit their faith and—increasingly—shifted their faith to fit their politics. Now, while the Democrats still harbour devout (especially black) supporters and the Republicans a subgroup of secular libertarians and pro-choice advocates, they are very much minority voices.

Conservative Protestants now get along with conservative Catholics much better than either side coexists with liberals within their own churches, making denominational differences almost moot. (The exception here being Mormons who, despite their overwhelmingly conservative social and moral views, are seen as cultists by many old-line Christians.) Still, for Putnam and Campbell, taking the long view of their remarkably religious country, the current situation may end more quickly than most observers expect.

Just as the sixties’ sexual revolution sparked a morally conservative counter-revolution, so the latter inspired a reaction against religious intolerance, especially on gay rights. The authors’ polls show that the “millennials,” the children of boomers, are the least religious generation, and are overwhelmingly accepting of same-sex marriage. Generational change is at work. The most religious millennials hold an attitude toward gays roughly as accepting as that held two generations ago by the most secular-minded of their grandparents—meaning the whole of society has shifted leftwards on the issue, a shift that is still ongoing. But millennial Americans (even the most secular) are less accepting of abortion rights than their boomer parents. That leaves Putnam and Campbell to ask what the future holds for America’s culture wars: how will the political coalition of the religious hang together if religious voters start to endorse gay unions and secular voters have qualms about abortion?