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May 24th, 2010
02:54 PM ET

How church shopping is polarizing the country

The difference in viewpoints between traditionalists and modernists has dramatic effects on the culture wars, June Carbone and Naomi Cahn say.

Editor's Note: June Carbone and Naomi Cahn are law professors and authors of the recent book "Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture".

By Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, Special to CNN

A report this month on who gets abortions showed some surprising results: Catholic women are about as likely as any other woman to terminate a pregnancy. Then again, the striking thing about American Catholics is that they look almost exactly like the average American.

According to the Pew Research Center, for example, Catholics supported Obama in the 2008 election by 1 percentage point more than the general public. Even when it comes to abortion, which the Catholic Church strongly opposes, American Catholics are only 2 percent more likely than the general public to favor making it illegal.

What explains the divergence between church teaching and political poll responses? A large part of it is the difference between those who check a religious box in a public opinion poll and those who show up at a church on Sunday. If we look at only white Catholics who attend church at least once a week, they favor making abortion illegal by 76 to 27 percent.

The figures underlie a striking change in the characteristics of American churches of all denominations: in the '60s, those showing up in church on Sunday might have represented a cross-section of American viewpoints; today, they are more likely to reflect traditionalist views, further driving modernists away from religion altogether - and intensifying what some have called the “devotional divide” in American politics.

The difference in viewpoints between traditionalists and modernists is profound - and has dramatic effects on today’s culture wars. David Campbell, a Notre Dame political scientist, explains that traditionalists believe in an eternal and transcendent authority that “tells us what is good, what is true, how we should live, and who we are."

Modernists, on the other hand, would redefine historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life. They are less dogmatic, more tolerant, more open to change. Both might prefer that their 17-year-old daughters not sleep with their high school boyfriends. Modernists, however, would have an easier time saying, “But if you do, be sure you use a condom.”

In the era following World War II, both groups attended the same churches. They were likely to subscribe to their parents’ religion, to attend the church down the street, to include their children in community activities the church sponsored. Today, we are more likely to shop for churches that express our individual values, and traditionalists - those searching for “an eternal and transcendent authority” - are much more likely to attend church at all.

The result, according to journalist Bill Bishop, is the “collapse of the middle” in American church life. Mainline Protestant churches, which tended to be more moderate and inclusive, have been losing membership for decades. The churches that have shown the greatest growth have been the large-scale megachurches, where eight in 10 are traditionalist.

During the same period, Catholics have become more likely to choose parishes on the basis of something other than geography, and 72 percent said that “the traditional or conservative nature of the church” was an important or very important reason for choosing their parish.

In the meantime, modernists, who are less comfortable with churches dominated by traditionalists, have become less likely to attend church at all. During the '90s, the number of Americans reporting “no religion” doubled, and sociologists believe the shift reflected the desire of many Americans to distance themselves from the increasingly close association between organized religion and conservative politics.

That association is the result of a set of reinforcing factors. Traditionalists are much more likely to attend church. The Republican Party has adopted more traditionalist rhetoric and policies, locking in the political support of those most in search of fixed rules and uncompromising principles. The association between religion and conservative politics and policies alienate the modernists, who distance themselves from religion. This leaves church attendees talking to the converted - those who share both their religious and political beliefs.

Studies of group psychology show that when people with similar views talk to one another, they end up at even more extreme positions. The very ability to choose - neighborhoods, cable TV stations, websites, churches - increases the risk that we will hear only those with whom we already agree.

As a result, the middle may be dropping out of American politics the same way it did from Protestant churches. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that those who attend religious services more than once per week voted Republican more than those who never attend religious services at all.

Notre Dame’s Campbell adds that, in interpreting these results, traditionalism may matter even more than church attendance. In 2004, for example, only 24 percent of the top quartile of modernists voted for Bush, compared to 84 percent of the highest quartile of traditionalists. Campbell concludes that in explaining the devotional divide “it is clearly traditionalism that makes the difference.”

Catholics as a group may accordingly be quite capable of reaching consensus views. The traditionalists who dominate Sunday mass and the modernists who have become less likely to attend church at all, however, are increasingly unlikely to talk to each other.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of June Carbone and Naomi Cahn.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Abortion • Catholic Church • Church • Culture & Science • Culture wars • Opinion

soundoff (138 Responses)
  1. Ultrasound scan gallstones

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    January 15, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  2. mike

    What is the fastest growing religion in the world?

    June 30, 2010 at 2:04 pm |
  3. knucklehead61

    The Church itself is of the world. Thus it becomes corrupt. Just look at the Catholic Church's response to Nazism, and the child abuse that's gone on. This doesn't prove the nonexistence of God, but the frailty of all humans, even churchgoers. I remember how I was struck when reading Matthew 7 (or so) about the hypocrites and fasting and going into your closet to pray. That's one you won't hear in church. The thing that keeps me out of church is the people; it seems they get between me and God. To quote Kierkegaard (or words to that effect): Satan is in the crowd, but each man goes to God alone. Amen. If there is a God, you will be judged by your deeds, not what church you went to.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
  4. Mosman

    We hear a lot of people who say that the Catholic church should "be in step with the times". This would be suicide. Every culture sooner or later goes down the tubes. When the church attaches itself to transient cultural whims, it will die when the whims do. The reason the Church does not change is because human nature, with all its fickleness, remains the same. The message of Christ thus is till valid. Besides this, who would have any use for a church who tells them everything they want to hear. The Church's purpose is to tell people what they need to hear.

    June 10, 2010 at 11:20 am |
  5. Danny in Oregon

    What this article fails to mention is that the secret majority of people are leaving Christian churches not because we like abortion.
    We are leaving because our preacher tells us to celebrate Christmas and Easter,when Jesus told us to continue the passover.
    Plus he was born closer to spring, and we all know that Christmas and Easter are just adoptions of pagen holidays of several groups. Some of which worship the sun. Not the SON.
    Plus the Christian church tells us to honor SUnday as the sabbath(notice the word SUN?) Even though Jesus told us to continue Saturday as the sabbath.

    Some of us left the church because they told us (very uneducated like) to not smoke Canabis, then called it a drug, when it was a plant. A green herb bearing seed. That people have used in worship since before Jesus was on the earth.

    I mean, seriously has anyone ever read the first chapters of the bible and then told their congregation with a straight face that the herb is a sin?

    Shame.

    It is not about abortion and gay Marriage, it is about the Church lying to us.

    June 7, 2010 at 9:51 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.