“Insofar as Evangelicals have demonized gays and lesbians [they] should repent before God.” Was it Jon Stewart who said that? Bill Maher? Barney Frank? No, it was said by an Evangelical pastor of a Southern megachurch — a conservative who calls Mike Huckabee a friend. We live in a new era, marked by an aging and declining Christian right that is increasingly eclipsed by the Tea Party, a nascent but growing chorus of diverse progressive religious voices, and a broadening of political agendas among many people of faith. Maybe it’s time to rethink our assumptions about religious Americans and public policy.
That conviction is the guiding principle of a new paper called Beyond the God Gap, which provides a road map for navigating the complex terrain of religion and public policy in America. Our team brought a diverse set of expertise and experience to this project. One author is a public policy veteran who grew up in a liberal, Jewish, suburban household outside of Philadelphia and was raised to believe that many Christians, especially those in the South, were close-minded reactionaries able to justify abhorrent practices like racism through selective interpretations of the Bible. The other is a scholar of American religion who was raised Southern Baptist in Mississippi, attended church every Sunday, and grew up hearing that the political left was largely opposed to religious values.
These old “god gap” assumptions we encountered in our pasts were not atypical. Public conversations about religion and politics continue to fall into well-worn ruts based on stereotypes: evangelical Christians march monolithically to a right-wing tune; mainline Protestants are no longer relevant; Catholics in the pews affirm all official church positions; and the non-religious are moral relativists. But as we have discovered through research and in our own lives, the truth is more nuanced and interesting. And understanding this truth is heartening and essential not only for anyone hoping to make progress on specific issues such as gay and lesbian rights, abortion, and immigration reform, but also for anyone working to foster a more civil dialogue throughout the country.
Today, four religious groupings make up about three-quarters of the U.S. population: white evangelical Protestants, white Mainline Protestants, African American Protestants, and Roman Catholics. In Beyond the God Gap, we took a fresh look not only at political attitudes on key issues, but also at the underlying cultural fabric and theological beliefs that help explain attitudes toward government, voting patterns, and shifts taking place within each of these religious families.
For example, support for same-sex marriage varies significantly across the groups. But majorities of each religious group favor laws protecting gay and lesbian people from job discrimination, and favor allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military. Majorities of mainline Protestants and Catholics support some form of legal relationship recognition (either same-sex marriage or civil unions), as do white Evangelicals under the age of 35.
By a margin of approximately 2-to-1, people of each faith group support a comprehensive approach to immigration reform over enforcement alone. And strong majorities of every faith group would like to see leaders working for common ground policies that reduce the need for abortion by addressing unintended pregnancies, supporting pregnant women, and increasing support for adoption.
Does this mean all the old battle lines have been abolished and that we’re all ready to sing Kumbaya? Not quite. There are still significant fault lines in the American religious landscape, even if they are running in less predictable ways. But there is new opportunity because of the seismic changes that are riling all of the major religious groups in the American landscape. A younger group of Evangelicals is moving to the political center. Hispanics have radically changed the face of the Catholic Church. Mainline Protestants, once the bedrock of the Republican Party, are now politically split and lean progressive on many issues. And African American protestants are feeling the force of two theological currents: the liberationist “social gospel” and a newer “prosperity gospel” that preaches personal fulfillment.
The evidence clearly indicates that it’s time to retire our old stereotypes and evaluate with fresh eyes the new terrain in the American religious landscape. At a minimum, there are compelling reasons for policy makers to think twice before writing off particular religious groups because of old assumptions about “evangelicals” or “Catholic voters.” And religious groups themselves can expect that they will need to set extra spaces at the conversation tables that reflect the surprising, evolving coalitions as we move beyond the era of the old God gap.
Jim Kessler is Vice President for Policy at Third Way and Robert P. Jones is President of Public Religion Research