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The Math of Religious Polarization

If you haven't read this Virginia Postrel essay or the academic paper on which it was based do take a look. The theory is that the increasing religiosity of American politics is actually caused by decreased levels of religious observance. When you think about it, that makes sense. Race is not an issue in racially homogenous polities. It's only when diversity exists that you get conflict. America used to be so religious, that it didn't make any sense to make an issue out of religion for campaign purposes. But religiosity has been dropping to the point where there's the sort of roughly-even divide at which it makes sense to mobilize observance (or non-observance) for political purposes. Interesting stuff.

November 8, 2004 | Permalink

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» Religious Polarization from Jeff the Baptist
Matthew Yglesias's is commenting on the correlation between increasing religious involvement in politics and dropping rates of church attendance. I think that church attendance is a bad metric, but their thesis is still fairly sound. [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 8, 2004 4:33:23 PM

Comments

interesting...however,

"while tax rates rise significantly under Democrats"

I wish this line were better explained. Is this Presidential, Congress, mixes, etc.? And why use tax rates, rather than say, taxes (or spending plus interest)? For example, Bush II has massively lowered tax rates, but significantly increased taxes (unless a default is a consideration).
And how do you measure someone like Reagan, who had enormous tax rate cuts and enormous tax rate increases? I know it is a little tedious, but the examples (abortion and tax rates seem to me to be much more affected by exogenous situations, and are more complicated than at least what Postrel puts forth.

Posted by: theCoach | Nov 8, 2004 10:56:32 AM

Check out the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey:

http://www.gc.cuny.edu/studies/introduction.htm

Among other interesting tidbits of information you can find in that survey is the fact that between 1900 and 2001, the percentage of Americans who defined themselves as Christian declined from 86% to 77%, and the percentage of Protestants was on the verge of dipping below 50% for the first time in US history.

The percentage of Americans who described themselves as having no religion at all doubled - although some of these people identify themselves as "spiritual" though not "religious."

That study and others indicate national declines in church membership and church-going. The decline has taken place in the south as well. However, the percentage of people who say they are "absolutely committed" to Christianity has gone up, as has the number of people who identify themselves as non-denominationally Christian.

What appears to be happening is an intensification of commitment and political assertiveness among fundamentalist and conservative Christian groups as the overall percentage of Christians declines - a classic backlash phenomenon.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Nov 8, 2004 10:59:34 AM

"It's only when diversity exists that you get conflict."

And you're the one who says illegal immigration is not a problem?

Posted by: tc | Nov 8, 2004 11:22:18 AM

When has non-observance been mobilized for political purposes? I haven't ever seen a politician making a big deal about not being religious.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Nov 8, 2004 11:23:36 AM

Two thoughts:

(1) The theory doesn't seem to apply so well to race, since there are serious attempts to mobilize African American and Latino voters even when they fall significantly short of 50% of an electorate (either separately or in combination).

(2) Postrel writes: "Candidates need a way to target their messages so their supporters are more likely to respond than their opponents. ...While outsiders may know something about a candidate's more extreme positions, group members know more - because the messages are aimed specifically at them." This beautifully explains Bush's reference to Dred Scott in the debate. Liberals were scratching their heads. To us it was as if he were speaking in tongues. And he was!

Posted by: Michael Otsuka | Nov 8, 2004 11:25:25 AM

This also brings to mind the whole gay marriage/gay rights conflict we're now facing. Some have said that liberals have started the culture wars, but I disagree.

Gay people didn't just suddenly spring into existence a few decades ago. They've always been around and, at times, a lot more open than they've been able to be over the past few centuries.

At any rate, we're now facing a culture war over gay marriage/gay rights because gays aren't going to stand for inequality anymore. They're not going to sit at the back of the bus. They're going to get, well, uppity. In other words, being oppressed almost invariably leads to a 'fighting back' stage. That's what we're seeing now.

And if religiosity has been declining over the years, then what we are now seeing is a 'fighting back' of those who still are fervently religious. They will not go quietly into that good night.

How this all pans-out remains to be seen.

Posted by: Matt (not MY) | Nov 8, 2004 11:32:45 AM

Gimme a break. Rural fundies and urban secularists have been fighting for 200 years. Liquor regulation, Carrie Nation, Scopes trial, etc. etc.

Posted by: dr limerick | Nov 8, 2004 11:48:48 AM

I'm thinking that Bush managed to get his fundie base out to vote in large measure because they know they have already lost the battle over gay rights. They are pissed, resentful, and bitter. They are in disbelief that there are actually popular mainstream TV shows with gayness as the primary focus. Gay people have made incredible progress in recent years, in spite of the conservative social revolution, and in spite of the fact that with Bush in the White House we have the most culturally regressive administration that this country is ever likely to see. This drives the wingnuts crazy. They see the country going to hell in a hurry, and their vigorous turnout at the polls shouldn't necessarily be viewed as an expression of political strength; to a large extent it is symptomatic of desperation.

Posted by: old grizzly | Nov 8, 2004 11:52:49 AM

Sorry, I don't read Virginia Postrel. She's part of the fraud that got us here. You should be at war with her ilk.

Posted by: top | Nov 8, 2004 11:53:59 AM

It occurs to me that the link between religious attendance and poltical affiliation is more directly linked. Catholics aside, voting, even participating in campaigans for the right candidate is substitutable for church attendance. So do good works (charitable donations), accept Jesus as your personal savior and make sure that abortion is illegal and the school teaches creationsim and, viola, your ticket to heaven is punched. Who needs a boring sermon followed by a bake sale?

You can see how this especially appeals to males. The current political tenor gets them out of church and back on the couch watching NASCAR.

Posted by: j | Nov 8, 2004 1:21:56 PM

What Top said.

Posted by: Hedley Lamarra | Nov 8, 2004 1:29:51 PM

"Sorry, I don't read Virginia Postrel. She's part of the fraud that got us here. You should be at war with her ilk." -Top

"What Top said." -Hedley Lamarra

Yeah that kind of attitude will win you the next election. I find it especially humorous considering this exactly the attitude that people hate about with the religious right.

Posted by: Jeff the Baptist | Nov 8, 2004 2:28:42 PM

This argument can be extended by analogy to Bushian foreign policy. Bush acts like boss of the world who can do as he pleases precisely because some (many) Americans are in denial over the trends that are causing America to lose influence over world developments.

America isn't going to give up its "empire" without an effort to command the tide to not come in.

Posted by: liberal elitist | Nov 8, 2004 2:39:52 PM

There is a relationship between decreasing religious affiliation and decreasing party identification.

Put another way, the decrease in the number of people willing to be committed to a religion is symptomatic of a decrease in the number of people willing to be committed to anything.

Posted by: Anthony | Nov 8, 2004 3:08:10 PM

Jeff Baptist:

It is a war. And as this thread makes clear, you're losing it. Religious belief and behavior are in dramatic decline in America, just as they are virtually everywhere else in the developed world.

Posted by: Don P | Nov 8, 2004 3:11:54 PM

"Sorry, I don't read Virginia Postrel. She's part of the fraud that got us here."

I agree with Baptist Jeff, tho probably not for his reasons. Libertarians will become increasingly available to the Democratic Party as America moves to Forever-War mode, and tho small in numbers, they have an intellectual heft that can help build the arguments.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 8, 2004 3:43:06 PM

Post WW2, most European countries went through a brief period where the society rapidly transitioned to a more secular, less religious state - to the point where overt attempts to mix faith with politics became something to be punished by voters.

We may be coming much closer to such a "tipping point" in the US than the religious triumphalists suspect.

Posted by: liberal elitest | Nov 8, 2004 3:47:56 PM

"Put another way, the decrease in the number of people willing to be committed to a religion is symptomatic of a decrease in the number of people willing to be committed to anything."

Maybe it's just a decrease in number of uneducated or superstitious people able to believe the Grand Canyon was created in some Noachian Flood.

Posted by: liberal elitist | Nov 8, 2004 3:52:28 PM

Bob -- agree with you that libertarians will find that the "new" republican party is not for them.

Posted by: spencer | Nov 8, 2004 4:21:25 PM

"Religious belief and behavior are in dramatic decline in America, just as they are virtually everywhere else in the developed world."

There is a big problem with your assumption, you completely neglecting the partisan polarization of the church. It is mostly the left side of the church that is dying. This is what is killing the total numbers. The evangelicals like me are going strong and actually picking up dissatisfied members leaving the left and middle. So while total belief is dropping, my side is doing just fine and, even better, has our political act together. Basically what this study is saying is that the left is becoming more secular and its firing up the religious right.

Posted by: Jeff the Baptist | Nov 8, 2004 4:31:38 PM

Jeff Baptist:

There is a big problem with your assumption,

It's not an assumption. It's a conclusion from the evidence.

you completely neglecting the partisan polarization of the church. It is mostly the left side of the church that is dying.

No, Christianity is declining overall. Liberal denominations tend to be declining faster than conservative ones, but they're both declining. Moreover, most conservative denominations are themselves liberalizing. Some individual conservative denominations and sects are growing (the LDS Church, for example), but they are typically small and their growth is not sufficient to offset the losses in others. If you doubt this, I suggest you look at the data from the ARIS study referred to earlier, or from other large-scale national studies of American religious identification and practise, such as the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey or the National Election Studies surveys.

The evangelicals like me are going strong and actually picking up dissatisfied members leaving the left and middle.

No, you're not going strong. You're also dying out. The ARIS survey, for example, found that the number of Americans identifying themselves as Baptists declined in both absolute and percentage terms between 1990 and 2001. And amoung Americans who continue to identify as baptists and evangelicals, virtually all measures of religious belief and practise show declines, from church attendance rates to measures of the intensity of religious committment. See, for example, the data from Barna Research, a polling organization specializing in evangelical Christians.

Posted by: Don P | Nov 8, 2004 4:59:40 PM

I've always thought much of the red state concern about religion is a "think of the children" issue.

When red state children reject their parents religion its not the parents' fault but the fault of the damn liberal media in New York and Hollywood that makes it cool to expose your belly button.

This may be similar to the "protect the children" argument against drugs and alcohol. If parents consider their drug-using child a failure it must be the drug's fault, rather than lack in upbringing. A 20 year old could have easily turned out a "failure" without substance use, and being considered a failure may lead to substance abuse.

I've heard that drug and alcohol usage is highest in red states.

Posted by: MonkeyBoy | Nov 8, 2004 5:13:33 PM

Jesse Ventura said "Religion is a crutch for weak-minded people" and it apparently didn't hurt him a lot. Minnesota's jerkish governors are far superior to California's jerkish governors, or anyone else's.

Posted by: Zizka | Nov 8, 2004 5:23:03 PM

I've read that New York and Massachusetts have the lowest divorce rates of almost any state. Newt Gingrich still thinks they're dens of iniquity, though.

Posted by: Zizka | Nov 8, 2004 5:25:17 PM

What's next?

Faith based voting machines?

Ooops- TOO LATE!

Posted by: Armsagettin' | Nov 8, 2004 5:30:02 PM

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