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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 has influenced many observers, a competing vision has emerged from both academic debate and the aspirations of some religious leaders. Many social scientists doubt that there is much polarization or structuring of public attitudes, even on hot-button moral issues.2 Rather than mobilized religious armies facing each other across a moral issue no-man's-land, they see religious coalitions constantly developing, shifting, and redeveloping, depending on the issue. This perspective assumes that the historic religious traditions, defined in part by race and ethnicity, have distinctive values apart from theological orthodoxy and that not everyone gives priority to culture war disputes. Such "centrists" often hold the balance of power within religious traditions—and the electorate. We might call this the pluralist perspective, predicting diverse political coalitions, often of strange bedfellows.

From this vantage point, religious people are not confined to joining the right or left but can form unique alliances on specific issues, of which traditional morality is just one. For example, President Bush has wooed Catholics and black Protestants for support on charitable choice and school vouchers. Evangelical and Catholic conservatives such as Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Charles Colson, Richard Cizik, and Rick Santorum have weighed in on international issues such as AIDS in Africa, religious persecution abroad, and world hunger, while also expressing concern for domestic poverty, racial justice and the environment.3 Even the Catholic Church's campaign against the death penalty has been touted as a harbinger of new alignments.

But religious coalition builders, like politicians, must work within constituency opinion, at least in the short run. What do religious voters think about issues at the core of these competing descriptions? Do the people in the pews reflect the culture wars or pluralist perspective? To find an answer, we use the Fourth National Survey of Religion and Politics, conducted at the University of Akron in 2004, co-sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

In the accompanying table, we report how voters in major religious groups see some critical policy questions. Although we list results by historic religious traditions, we also apportion evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and white Catholics into traditionalists, centrists, and modernists to test the culture war hypothesis.4

What do we find? First, the 2004 presidential vote provides a useful baseline for the discussion. Mormons voted almost unanimously for Bush, who also carried Hispanic Protestants—mostly conservative in theology. The key test of the culture wars perspective, though, is vote choice within the major white Christian traditions, constituting almost 60 percent of the electorate. In each, traditionalists chose Bush in overwhelming numbers, centrists favored him more narrowly, and modernists backed Kerry. As further confirmation for a culture war interpretation, secular voters and atheists/agnostics joined religious modernists in a massive vote for the Democratic nominee. Nevertheless, some pluralistic elements survived, as evangelical modernists were leery of Kerry and mainline traditionalists less enthusiastic about Bush, while Kerry swept a host of religious, racial, and ethnic minorities, including black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, Jews, and "all other" religions.

The next three columns show that the same coalition that re-elected Bush reappeared on key issues: religion in public life, abortion and stem cell research, and gay issues.5 The only notable deviation was black Protestants, who were friendlier toward a major role for religion in public life, more pro-life, and less supportive of gay rights than other Democratic religious groups. Thus, we have additional evidence for culture war alliances—at least on the battleground issues of that "war."

But do the culture wars define all religious alliances? What about foreign policy? In the next column, we report on what has been called "the Bush Doctrine," combining items on the Iraq War, the permissibility of pre-emptive military action, approval for unilateral versus multilateral action, and support for Israel. Despite some discussion about new religious alignments in foreign policy, public support for the president's foreign policy fits the culture war pattern quite nicely. Mormons and religious traditionalists of all sorts—even Catholics—endorse this aggressive national posture, while religious modernists, most religious minorities, and secular voters are critical.6

Still, there is more room for new coalitions outside the realm of strategic foreign policy. A solid majority of voters (66 percent) think the United States should put high priority on fighting the international AIDS epidemic, and over half (53 percent) think the same about famine and disaster relief. The strongest support for action on AIDS, though, comes from black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics and Protestants, seculars, and Jews, with other groups less concerned. Evangelical traditionalists and Mormons are least likely to make AIDS a priority (both at 53 percent), despite the highly visible activity of some evangelical leaders. On famine relief the pattern is more idiosyncratic, with centrist and Hispanic Catholics most supportive and, once again, evangelical traditionalists and Mormons least concerned, joined by atheists and agnostics.

Surprisingly, only 28 percent would put a high priority on fighting religious persecution, led by evangelical, mainline, and Catholic traditionalists, while Jews, modernists, and secular voters fall well below the sample mean. Still, on all three issues there is still the potential for effective coalition-building across groups otherwise divided by the culture wars.

Charitable choice presents a similar picture. As suggested by the protracted battles over President Bush's plans, religious communities were at odds on such issues. We find roughly the same alignments as on the culture war questions, but with a lot less clarity. Religious traditionalists (especially Catholics) are warmer toward such proposals than are centrists and modernists, but black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics are also more positive than their usual Democratic propensities would predict, while evangelicals are less enthusiastic than they are about Bush himself.

What about a domestic "war on poverty"? Although the divisions over programs to help the poor are not nearly as deep as on foreign policy, the culture war pattern fits a little better than a pluralist model: Mormons, traditionalists, and even religious centrists tend to oppose tough actions such as middle-class tax increases to fund anti-poverty programs, while seculars, modernists, and religious minorities support such programs. Still, there is clearly room to maneuver across culture war lines: there are plenty of voters in each religious category open to helping the "least of these."

Is environmental concern a promising basis of new coalitions? Environmentalism clearly has much public support, but the table shows that many religious people still have reservations: Mormons, evangelicals, and Hispanic Protestants are still skeptical of tough policies, and few other traditionalists and centrists show strong environmental commitment. Nor do black Protestants, often concerned that stricter enforcement may mean fewer jobs. The strongest friends of the environment come from the liberal alliance of atheists/agnostics, modernist Catholics and mainliners, Jews, and the "all other" category. To be sure, part of the negative response from traditionalists, especially among evangelicals, comes from distaste for "environmentalists" rather than for environmental protection itself. Nevertheless, this attitude presents an obstacle to a new "green" coalition of religious people.

Finally, we look at voter responses to the death penalty, long a target of religious debate and revived recently by the Catholic bishops' action. Here we do find a unique configuration of religious groups, much as the pluralists predict. The death penalty is backed by solid majorities of Mormons, evangelicals of all stripes, Hispanic Protestants, and Catholic and mainline centrists, as well as secular voters. The abolitionist coalition consists of traditionalist Catholics and mainline Protestants, Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants, "all other" religions, and atheists/agnostics. Thus, the most traditionalist Catholics and mainline Protestants have apparently followed their denominations' leaders and abandoned the "conservative coalition," while secular voters (ironically) maintain a more "traditionalist" position.

What can we conclude? Clearly a modified culture wars perspective fits grassroots religious coalitions better than the pluralist alternative. The pattern is clearest on religion in public life, abortion, gay rights, and the Bush Doctrine, where the usual suspects align on the right and left. However, this pattern is weaker on faith-based programs, poverty, and environmental programs—the very issues where the media hail new religious alliances of strange bedfellows. Although attitudes there are less structured by religious orthodoxy and, thus, perhaps more malleable by religious leaders, the underlying cultural divisions are still visible. The exception to this rule and the best example of pluralist religious politics is capital punishment.

The continued influence of culture war divisions reflects several factors. Not only have "moral" issues been at the center of religious politics for three decades, but political and religious leaders alike have used them to mobilize constituency support. The resulting coalitions have been long in the making and their existence may inhibit creation of new alliances, especially with former antagonists. Indeed, culture war activists will resist expanding the traditionalist agenda to new issues. A good example is Focus on the Family's hostile reaction to the recent environmental initiative by leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals.7

Such alliances also have deep-seated "structural" support. In each religious group, political activists are often more committed to the culture war than less active members. Thus politically engaged evangelical traditionalists are far more conservative on most issues, not just moral ones, than less active co-parishioners, and active secular citizens are consistently more liberal than their unengaged counterparts.

When national religious figures do seek new approaches, they often confront deep-seated attitudes of local clergy, who have clear preferences for what we have called the moral reform and social justice agendas.8 Even if national leaders in a religious group are amenable to new alliances, local clergy—especially the current activists among them—may not be.

And that brings us to a deeper level, the theological and cultural values invested in religious traditions. These commitments are difficult to overcome, especially in the short run. The dispensationalist strand among some evangelicals, for example, inhibits new alliances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and environmental issues. Meanwhile, the "Protestant work ethic" still shapes evangelical and mainline reactions to anti-poverty programs, and Catholic teaching on sexual ethics may limit action on AIDS.

Theological differences may also discourage new religious alliances. Despite some changes, religious suspicions are still rife among American believers: traditionalists feel distant from modernists—and often from each other, whether evangelical, Catholic, or mainline. Seculars distrust Catholics, evangelicals, and other religious conservatives. This explains, perhaps, why the most effective religious coalitions, such as that supporting President Bush's re-election, are cobbled together by secular strategists, not religious leaders.

All this is a counsel of caution, not despair, for those who hope to move toward a new, more pluralistic religious politics. After all, the culture war coalitions were created by political and religious leaders within recent memory. The efforts of "new" religious leaders to apply faith to a full range of issues may well be a harbinger of innovative alignments. This is especially true if they can excite those who are not part of contemporary religious politics, such as nonvoters and politically passive clergy, both considerably less tied to the culture war alliances and more open to alternatives. The Catholic bishops' accomplishment in moving the faithful on capital punishment reminds us that there is nothing inevitable about contemporary religious alliances.

At the same time that some religious leaders are seeking to form new alliances, prominent politicians (and potential presidential candidates) such as Senators Hillary Clinton and Bill Frist have cautiously tested new approaches to issues such as abortion and stem-cell research that seek to modify existing alignments. Whether these and similar ventures succeed depends ultimately on the reaction of religious notables, political activists, and, most of all, America's laity.

James L. Guth, Lyman A. Kellstedt, John C. Green, and Corwin E. Smidt have collaborated on many projects, including (with Margaret M. Poloma) The Bully Pulpit: The Politic of Protestant Clergy (Univ. Press of Kansas). Guth is based at Furman University; Kellstedt is emeritus at Wheaton College; Green is a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron; and Smidt is at Calvin College, where he is executive director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics.

1. Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton Univ. Press, 1988); and James D. Hunter, Culture Wars (Basic Books, 1991).

2. Rhys Williams, ed., Culture Wars in American Politics (Aldine de Gruyter, 1997); and Morris Fiorina, Culture War? (Pearson Longman, 2005).

3. For an insightful catalogue of these "new" endeavors, see David Brooks, "A Natural Alliance," New York Times, May 26, 2005.

4. These classifications are based on adherence to classic Christian orthodoxy and religious practices. For a preliminary report, go to pewforum.org/docs/index.php?DocID=64

5. With the exception of the Bush vote and capital punishment, all the issue scores in the table are based on multi-item scales, scored to run from most conservative (100) to most liberal (0). For information on the items included in the scales, contact the first author.

6. See our "Onward Christian Soldiers? Religion and the Bush Doctrine," Books & Culture, July/August, 2005, pp. 20-21.

7. The statement is found at www.family.org/welcome/press/ a0035827.cfm.

8. See Corwin Smidt, ed., Pulpit and Politics (Baylor Univ. Press, 2004).

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