Monday, December 27, 2010

Understanding the God Gap

The census report is out and from what I've heard a number of "blue states" will lose
Congressional representation, while a number of "red states" will gain representatives.  This, according to the pundits bodes ill for Barack Obama's reelection chances.  I really can't comment on the latter, the next election is two years away, so who knows how this all will work out.  But I'd like to think about some of the assumptions, like the idea that the God Gap we currently see in our political landscape will have long lasting governing implications.

I'm reading American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, and have been reporting from my experiences reading this tremendously important book.  I've reached the section of the book that looks at the relationship of religion to American Politics.  One of the interesting points that the authors make is that prior to 1980 there really wasn't much of a God Gap between the two parties.  Things changed around 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan and the decision of the two political parties to place in their platforms planks both pro and con abortion.  The authors write:

Remember, though, that a political issue can only divide the electorate when voters are presented with a choice on that particular issue.  In the case of abortion, the Democratic and Republican parties did not diverge sharply on the issue until the 1980s.  In 1976, the Republican platform was more or less neutral on abortion.  By 1980 it unequivocally endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, language that has been preserved ever since.  Meanwhile, as described by political scientist Christina Wolbrecht, 1980 was "the first time the Democratic party firmly established itself as pro-choice and expressed its opposition to the curtailment of federal funding for abortions."  Beginning in the 1980s, voters had a choice on abortion.  The battle lines had been drawn. (American Grace, p. 391). 
  
From then on the GOP became the party of "moral traditionalism," and at least for religiously observant whites, it became the "God party."  The authors of this book note that Blacks, who are the most religiously observant group within American society, are the exception to this rule -- with few blacks voting GOP!  Although many Blacks share the GOP view on abortion and gay marriage, their list of social issues is much broader and thus they do not find themselves able to make common cause on these issues.  

So, what does that portend for the future?  Does it mean that you can't be religious and a Democrat?  I hope that's not true, but those who take a more secular view are more likely to be Democrat than Republican.  

And then the question is -- what is the electoral impact of this Gap?  Here is where the future is uncertain -- with a growing number of voters declaring themselves Independents -- religion apparently plays little role in their views.  So, with this growing swing group making itself felt, maybe religion will fade into the background in the near future?  Only time will tell, but I think this is a conversation worth having for both the sake of the church and the state!


12 comments:

Brian said...

Bob asks, "Does it mean that you can't be religious and a Democrat? I hope that's not true, but those who take a more secular view are more likely to be Democrat than Republican."

Maybe the ways in which we understand religion can change. I've learned a lot by reading posts and comments on the internet by people who are openly hostile to religion.

For instance, Bill Maher recently said that he doesn't consider President Obama to be a believer. "Believer being Mr. Maher's words". I know that President Obama considers himself to be a believer. Maher would not consider me to be a believer either, but I consider myself to be one.

Hitchens, like Bertrand Russell 100 years earlier, says if you do not believe that Jesus is the son of God and died a sacrificial death for our sins you are not a Christian. By their definition, I'm not a Christian. By my definition, I am.

Hitchens, and Gary, would agree that I'm an atheist. I do not consider myself an atheist. Remember Paul Tillich said that to be an atheist is to have no ultimate concern, which is impossible. Everyone has an ultimate concern.

For the record, I want to say this as clearly as possible, I am proudly and passionately a supporter of safe and legal abortions. In the name of Jesus I say this with no "nuance" at all. Straight talk for hard times.

John said...

My take on this is that the Evangelical Right began to seize control of the Republican Party in the late '70's and early '80's building on the premise of the 'moral majority' rhetoric.

At that time the rhetoric as well as the agenda of the Republicans shifted from political to moral/religious - one couldn't deviate from the party line (or be a Democrat) without risking one's soul. Issues and issue areas which had formerly been purely political became issues on which one's stance was determined by faith, or lack of faith. If you disagreed you were an atheist.

The atheist label happened because, at the same time the Evangelical Right seized the opportunity to try to impose its own creedal stance on Christianity as a whole. The success of this rhetorical and theological achievement led to the current situation where the Evangelical Right, as the loudest voice in Christianity, can say that to be a genuine Christian was to accept not only their theological beliefs but the political positions which they assert are mandated by their beliefs. Today they challenge those Christians who oppose their beliefs or their political positions as deficient in faith, and call them out as atheist.

The voices of Mainline Christianity has been rhetorically drowned out, and today appears to have surrendered the field to their more extremist brothers and sisters on the right. Those outside of Christianity hear only one Christian voice and thus are left to conclude that the rhetoric of the Evangelical Right is accurately reflective of Christianity as a whole.

No wonder so many marginal believers simply walked away - they wanted nothing to do with a faith which is defined by an extreme element with which they cannot identify.

What the Evangelical Right did within the Republican Party they have subsequently attempted to do within American Christianity as a whole, and that is to reshape and redefine it in their image and force out those who disagree or at least render them irrelevant.

John

Brian said...

John brings up a good point. The term 'atheist' is politicially charged. Like the word 'socialist' it elicits an emotional response that is not warranted by the dictionary definitions. Both terms have come to mean "villian".

Disciples pastor and champion of peace, Craig M. Watts, recently reminded us of this in a post titled, "On Being Boldly Atheistic". Rev. Watts starts his post with the following paragraph.

“I am an atheist. Sure lots of people have heard me talk about God, write favorable things about God, pray and worship. And it was all sincere. Still I am an atheist. I’m an atheist the way the members of the early church were atheistic. Atheism was one of the central charges officials of the Roman Empire made against Christians. They were vilified for “irreligiosities” and “sacrilegium.” Christians were regarded atheists because they rejected the gods of the state. They refused to honor the religion of the empire. The charge of atheism was at least as much – if not more – about politics as it was religious.”

Craig M. Watts “On Being Boldly Atheistic”, December 3, 2010
http://www.dpfweb.org/dpf-blog/

As I've shared, I've been making a point to better understand how smart and decent people opposed to Christianity see us. This is not to "convert" myself or others. It is simply to better understand my neighbor. It is also to help me better understand how to better communicate. (How my words are experienced is of more importance than what I intend.)

I believe lots of atheists are frustrated by liberal Christians, such as myself, for understanding the faith in such a rationalistic and metaphorical approach that they see it as being less than honest. I respect where their coming from, but have a responsibility to communicate truth as I experience it.

This issue is a different one from the political one mentioned by John. Here's a line from Bertrand Russell's "Why I'm Not a Christian" (1927).

“I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not think you have any right to call yourself a Christian.”

Brian said...

John brings up a good point. The term 'atheist' is politicially charged. Like the word 'socialist' it elicits an emotional response that is not warranted by the dictionary definitions. Both terms have come to mean "villian".

Disciples pastor and champion of peace, Craig M. Watts, recently reminded us of this in a post titled, "On Being Boldly Atheistic". Rev. Watts starts his post with the following paragraph.

“I am an atheist. Sure lots of people have heard me talk about God, write favorable things about God, pray and worship. And it was all sincere. Still I am an atheist. I’m an atheist the way the members of the early church were atheistic. Atheism was one of the central charges officials of the Roman Empire made against Christians. They were vilified for “irreligiosities” and “sacrilegium.” Christians were regarded atheists because they rejected the gods of the state. They refused to honor the religion of the empire. The charge of atheism was at least as much – if not more – about politics as it was religious.”

Craig M. Watts “On Being Boldly Atheistic”, December 3, 2010
http://www.dpfweb.org/dpf-blog/

As I've shared, I've been making a point to better understand how smart and decent people opposed to Christianity see us. This is not to "convert" myself or others. It is simply to better understand my neighbor. It is also to help me better understand how to better communicate. (How my words are experienced is of more importance than what I intend.)

I believe lots of atheists are frustrated by liberal Christians, such as myself, for understanding the faith in such a rationalistic and metaphorical approach that they see it as being less than honest. I respect where their coming from, but have a responsibility to communicate truth as I experience it.

This issue is a different one from the political one mentioned by John. Here's a line from Bertrand Russell's "Why I'm Not a Christian" (1927).

“I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not think you have any right to call yourself a Christian.”

Brian said...

Please forgive the double post.

Gary said...

Brian, supporting the murder of unborn babies in the name of Jesus is one of the most blasphemous things I can imagine.

I am not affiliated with any political party, yet I am very religious. I know many others who can say the same. So, I think it would be a mistake to conclude that not being a republican or democrat means you have no religious concerns.

David said...

I don't think Brian supports death- he forgives and supports the mother, and the father if involved.

Like Gary, I've a hard time calling myself a supporter of any political party for several years. It's a challenge just stomaching much of the rhetoric from all the groups mentioned here. That's the challenge for me. Good posts. You guys help me cope with this chaotic world. Thanks

John said...

Agnostics and atheists have bought into the theological mantra of the Evangelical Right as well. Thus they understand Christianity as defined and interpreted by the Evangelical Right and respond to moderate interpretations of Christianity with confusion (having no idea who to believe) and typically grasp onto extremist Evangelical interpretations because they are so much easier to attack for all their lack of substance.

The arguments which they make againstthe Evangelical Right were are sure to prevail today, just as they did when they were successfully asserted 1800 years ago by the early church fathers against these same unsophisticated teachings then circulating in the early church. We ignore the lessons of tradition at our own peril.

Gary said...

Hitchens and Russell are right. It's ironic that atheists understand Christianity better than the so-called, "liberal/moderate Christians" do.

Brian said...

I stand by my statement that I support safe and legal abortions. It is not my responsibility to say what is popular, but what is right. I say it in the name of Jesus because, as his follower, I do all things in the name of Jesus.

I know lots of folks consider it murder. I'm not interested in changing their minds. I'm supporting the rights of women. The old cliche is true, that if men had babies this would not even be an issue.

I know abortion is controversial, that's why I generally don't bring it up. The Disciples of Christ have twice (1975 & 1989) publicly affirmed the right for all people to think for themselves on this issue.

Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice:
http://www.rcrc.org/

Gary said...

Brian,

Your thinking, your morality, and your theology are all perverted, and profoundly evil.

David said...

Any choice on the matter should be difficult, or it wasn't thoughtful enough. Let's respect each others' conclusions.