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James L. Guth, Lyman A. Kellstedt, John C. Green, and Corwin E. Smidt


Religious Coalitions in American Politics

New alliances.

American politics is the politics of coalitions, and religious groups are not exempt from the need to build alliances. Indeed, religious coalitions have often been the subject of hot debate by observers and activists alike. Ever since the presidential election a year ago, the media has been full of reports about "new religious coalitions," at the very same time that battles over abortion, same-sex marriage, and judicial nominees have revived some old ones. The controversy over the current state of religious alliances slides almost imperceptibly from empirical—how do religious groups cooperate in contemporary politics?—to prescriptive: how should religious groups coalesce so that appropriate values shape public policy?

Two rival conceptions have dominated such discussions. The first is the "culture wars" perspective, formulated by sociologists Robert Wuthnow and James D. Hunter, and popularized by journalists and politicians.1 This account sees competing alliances of traditionalists and modernists emerging from America's historic religious traditions. Protestantism, Catholicism, and even Judaism have been riven by such theological factions, which ally with counterparts in other traditions rather than with theological opponents within their own, with the modernist side bolstered by the swelling contingent of secular citizens.

Journalists have focused on the "traditionalist" alliance, if for no other reason than its obvious electoral significance. Religious leaders from Jerry Falwell to James Dobson as well as GOP strategists have long sought to weld evangelicals, orthodox Catholics, and other theological conservatives into a Republican voting bloc, based on "moral" issues such as abortion, gay rights, and religious exercise in public life. In this scenario, modernists appear largely as a reactive opposition to the usual suspects on the right, but in fact they have a coalition and an agenda of their own, which they pursue with vigor.

Although the culture wars perspective ...

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