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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. lauren

    During His brutal death, Jesus was mocked and a crown of thorns placed on his head and nailed above him read a sign which said here is Jesus King of the Jews. So, he was crowned King of the Jews just not in the sense people may originally think. Jesus wasn’t just sent for the Jew but for all people (the gentile). He loves you no matter how much you choose to run. He loved us so much we were given free will and a way out though His death. Take care

    May 27, 2010 at 8:41 am |
  2. Stephanie

    Robert, Not much tolerance shown by your comment. Sounds like you have been the victim of some very misdirected Christians. Hope that this does not keep you from finding the Truth in your own way. God is the author of science and hopefully through your interest and intelligence you will see Him revealed like many others have. All of the wonderful complexities in our universe can not be simply explained away by chemical reactions. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:20 am |
  3. Jeffrey Rossmann

    Just another glaring example of how "hokey" organized religion is. The article seems to suggest that modern day church goers can shop around for religion like they would shop around for a car. I like this-but i don't like that....hey there's a church saying just that thing – SIGN ME UP. I never knew that God & Jesus needed so much money. I actually managed to stomach 10 minutes of watching the Inspiration Channel and was appauled at how quickly they stick their hands out for money just as easily as they attempt to preach God's word. Sadly, the money keeps pouring in as they prey on people who can least afford to give what little they have. "God will provide for tomorrow, if you only give today." I have yet to see where anyone gave any amount of money and later on said, "I got my next 4 mortgage payments from The First National Bank of Christ, praise Jesus." Just be good to each other and try to help each other.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:18 am |
    • Sarah H

      Some organized religion may be "hokey"to you, but God sure isn't.

      May 27, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
  4. Gull M.

    "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."
    So, are you implying that if we COULDN'T choose, it would DECREASE the risk of hearing only those with whom we already agree? Therefore suggesting that people be forced to hear opposing views? WHAT?!
    That paragraph is nonsensical. Poor writing.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:16 am |
  5. Paul

    The writer of this article should become a politician. Rarely have I seen so little said with so many words.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:28 am |
  6. Drewl

    Nice article, good summary of sociological data on the divide in american religion. Only problem is: you barely mention church-shopping, never define it, and you certainly don't present an argument for how it is polarizing America. Your presumptions of causation also lack examination: are polarized Americans dividing our churches? Or are polarized churches dividing America? You somehow have already concluded it's churches causing the trouble, but not all churches, but just those pesky conservative ones, the ones that are actually growing.

    Essentially this article has a "if only conservative churches were more like mainlines" lament running through it, which is always amusing to me. Most mainline denominations probably won't survive the century, I'm not sure how they've earned such a high place of praise. I'll take Putnam's and Campbell's argument about excessive political engagement, but this article seems to be more of an effort to show traditionalists somehow pose a threat to our society. Again, more evidence (ok, any evidence) would have been a great asset to support such a strange claim.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:39 am |
  7. Reality

    "Jesus did say: "If you love me you will keep my commandments." (John 14:15). " But did he?? Another single NT attestation i.e. insufficient history to prove anything.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:05 am |
  8. Greg

    The angel Gabriel has just appeared to me again, and told me to tell all of you that you simply need to be good people, and that practicing some form of organized “religion” is not necessary, as long as you always just try to do what is right. Please spread my Gospel.

    May 26, 2010 at 11:55 pm |
    • butchbuss

      define the meaning of good people how do you Know what god would have wanted ?????

      May 27, 2010 at 7:11 am |
    • CzarcasticCynic

      butchbuss –

      It's not particularly *hard* to be a good, moral person with subscribing to a particular belief system. Most of the world religions pretty much boil down to the same core ideas with different bells and whistles attached.

      Be "Good" to others: treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. Aspire to improve yourself, and those around you. Do no harm: Don't take acitons that would be intentionally hurtful to others (unless you *really* have to). Leave each day better than you entered it – either through word, deed, or by NOT doing something that would ruin someone else's day.

      I'm not as big fan of organized religion myself -far too many people are willing to listen blindly and let others do their thinking in the name of God. But it is THEIR choice in how they worship their Diety. I am perfectly happy to let anyone worship as they see fit – as long as it DOESN'T hurt anyone else (especially me... :D)

      May 27, 2010 at 8:39 am |
    • Jim

      The flying spaghetti monster told me that all of you – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc. are heading our world down the wrong path. Brothers and sisters this is 2010. Wake up. Grow up and face the reality of the universe. There is not man-invented god to help you! Let's join hands and make this a better planet to live on without your fake dieties!

      May 27, 2010 at 9:29 am |
      • Dave

        You think you sound so intelligent. We'll see if you mouth off like this on judgement day when you beg God formercy. Evolution is a lie, a pseudoscientific ploy of Satan. Use your brain and google search irreducible complexity, that might help you out. Stop listening to Dawkins, who you sound like, or you'll join him, and your spaghetti monster in the afterlife.

        May 27, 2010 at 10:53 am |
        • TheREALtruth

          Your religion is a lie.

          May 27, 2010 at 11:07 am |
    • CzarcasticCynic

      And did ever I say my gospel WAS biblical? I never mentioned the words gospel or biblical... 🙂

      I'm pretty sure that my definition of "good" was contained in my statement:
      "Be "Good" to others: treat others as you would like to be treated yourself." (the part after ":" was the defining part.)

      And the rest of your statement is where I disagree with you regarding religion. Your definition is EXCLUSIVE – you appear to believe that your Bible and belief in Christ is the only path to God. I disagree...

      I believe that God is greater than that – that the way to God is via many paths. No man can know the mind of God, and that we were ALL created in God's image. The God I choose to worship would not damn those who lived good lives, helped others, but did not happen to have access to a specific book or church. That God would not condemn souls simply because they followed a DIFFERENT book, performed different rituals, worshipped him/her/it in a different name – but behaved in a similar manner of daily life, and left the world a better place...

      I beleive in an INCLUSIVE God. And when my end comes – and I face my final judgement – I will say so. And if God is not ithe way I believe – well then – I accept that too. For I refuse to worship a God who WOULD be so exclusive, and would do such things.

      For that what Free Will is all about.

      May 27, 2010 at 11:09 am |
      • Dave

        You will only be excluded if you choose to be excluded. God of the bible has given us a free will to accept or decline. We have no right to question a sovereign God, our thought are not His thoughts, our minds our finite, His is infinite. Besides if we could reason on His level, we would be on His level and He wouldnt be the supreme ruler and creator of the universe. Read Gods response to Job when he asked hi if he was there when HE created the universe, and read Pauls sermon about the "unknown god". A piece of artwork cant ask the creator of the artwork why he made him like that, its the will of the creator.

        May 27, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
  9. loveuall

    Kate, I'm sorry you feel that way. I don't see how you can say living the Christian life is abusive in any way to others. Check out some of the awesome things organizations like Operation Blessing or Samaritan's Purse (a few of many) do to help people around the world. We love people and our God loves people. 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that God wishes that none would perish. That's why he gave us the way to Him if we will only accept . In John 3:16-17 Jesus tells us," For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." I know God is real because he answers my prayers all the time, I'll be praying for you. Love and prayers....

    May 26, 2010 at 10:47 pm |
  10. Eugene

    Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church and while it may not be perfect. It is the means he has given us for our salvation. If you read the Gospel he also gave us the Holy Spirit who continues to instruct us in matters of faith. For those who do not believe in God, I say you are missing out on a lot. God is to be experienced and one of the ways we do that is through the word of God which is the Bible through which God speaks to us. There are many who choose different churches according to what suits them, but the only true way to salvation is through the Catholic Church because he founded it when he said in Matthew " You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of the Netherworld shall never prevail against it" The Catholic Church thus has been around for over 2000 years while all the Protestant faiths have been around for less than 500 years. That should tell you something.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:44 pm |
    • sjenner

      Doesn't leave much room for the Orthodox. Their take on "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I shall build my church" is a little different: that Peter became the first amongst equals. In all matters the apostolic right and respect belongs to the Bishop of Rome, but that is not an absolute veto. I merely point this out, because the Orthodox tradition is every bit as old as that of Rome, just different. Likewise, lest we forget, the Protestant movement arose because of the deep well of contagion infecting the Church. Luther may have yet remained an Augustinian canon and priest had the corrupt clergy of the Church not condemned him first for the threat he posed to their vices and comforts. There is a lesson in that, as there is a lesson in preserving diversity within a movement.

      June 1, 2010 at 9:52 pm |
  11. Les

    David said God made him king. So does every king that ever existed. Hooray! He joins the thousands of kings that killed millions of people and said God made me do it. Of course this pales beside the millions of leaders (sic.) that have have killed many and said it's God's work not mine. I suppose killing because God made him King is far more heroic than other 'leaders' blaming it on god. Then I'm just a Gemini so the duel standard is understandable. Or not..

    May 26, 2010 at 6:44 pm |
  12. Reality

    Some observations about abortion aka the killing of growing, developing child:

    With respect to saving the life of a mother vs that of her and her husband's child:

    With modern technology, that situation is a rare event. When it does occur, the decision should be a made by the mother and father of the child. With no father in the picture, the decision should be left to the mother or her parents if the mother is incapacitated.

    And it is very, very disturbing that we give legal protection to the fertilized eggs and the developing young of protected animal and insect species but give no legal protection to our developing young ones.

    May 26, 2010 at 5:41 pm |
  13. Leslie

    I don't necessarily agree with this article. I think with the use of computers these days to communicate, people talk to each other with technology if they feel a need. I feel this article is trying to sway people to go to a church to worship, which in my opinion is not necessary. In my experience the people who go to church regularly are quite hypocritical, when they are in church they act differently then they do in their everyday lives. You don't need to go to a church to be a spiritual, kind, giving, individual.

    May 26, 2010 at 4:32 pm |
    • cass

      I go to church every Sunday because I enjoy singing with other people, because I like seeing my friends, and because the sermons inspire me to examine my conscience, be aware of other people's needs, and to try to be a better person. For a worshipful experience, I prefer to go for a walk in the woods.

      June 1, 2010 at 6:53 pm |
  14. Kim

    Actually, Jesus never mentioned church. He talked a lot about the kingdom of God.

    May 26, 2010 at 4:05 pm |
    • Jason

      Matthew 16:18: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church."

      June 5, 2010 at 7:26 am |
    • mike

      The Kingdom of God being a Government in heaven, with earthly subjects.

      June 30, 2010 at 2:07 pm |
  15. Kate

    And if you are wrong in your beliefs about your god, you have abused others and wasted a good deal of your life. I can't see a reasonable god religating to hell someone who did what they sincerely saw as the right thing to do with the information they had, on the other hand, who would want to be stuck bonded for eternity with a crazy god who didn't care about what was right ?

    May 26, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
  16. CubanMom

    Sir, GOD IS LOVE. The Creator, gave us the Ten Commandments, yes, but God also sent His Son to redeem our sins! Your comment is what make so many turn away from God! Take a breath. I for one thank God that ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE!

    May 26, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  17. Will E.

    You know what's polarizing the country? People who believe in an invisible man beyond the sky who talks to them, tells them what to do, can read their minds and is terribly concerned with what they do with their junk, and those who don't.

    May 26, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
    • jonathan

      Hey, He's real dude... but he will not do those things you say...he will direct the Christian to his word. The Word of God is food for the Christian..in it are exceeding great and precious promises which can build up and give Christians an inheritance among all them that are sanctified (set apart).

      June 3, 2010 at 8:31 pm |
  18. Reality

    Some shopping tips

    1. Abraham founder/father of three major religions was either the embellishment of the lives of three different men or a
    mythical character as was mythical Moses, the "Tablet-Man" who talked to burning bushes and made much magic in Egypt.

    Many of the 1.5 million Conservative Jews and many of their rabbis have relegated Abraham to the myth pile along with most if not all the OT.

    May 26, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
  19. Lou

    I was born and raised Catholic, went to Catholic elemetary, high school and college and have been working in Catholic high schools as a counselor for my entire career. I am now in my late 50's and have been a church shopper in the past. There are all types of bible references above, and in my opinion, many people misinterpret the bible. When I studied literature in college, I needed a professor who performed quite a bit of research to help explain literature that was written 100 to 500 years ago. The bible was written 2000 years ago, so exact literal interpretations are quite probably somewhat removed from the real truth. The current temple I go to promotes a direct relationship experience with God by getting into a 'God consciousness', so to speak, by meditating and communicating with and feeling a 'oneness' with the eternal. On a more practical level, it is about stillness and clearing the mind of unwanted and incessant thoughts. We believe all people have the potential within themselves to experience 'God or Christ consciousness'. We also read/study all of the books of the Christian Bible as well as the Bagavad Gita. We believe that a number of people have reached God consciousness during their lives: Jesus Christ, the Buddha, Mohammed, Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and many other less famous people who discover or 'get in touch with' God consciousness during their spiritual journey. My experience with the Catholic Church – I was just going through the motions of experiencing the rituals, symbols and sacraments, but I didn't really feel spiritually moved by my 'Catholic experience'.
    To each his own.

    May 26, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
    • jeff

      Woo Woo you speaketh

      May 28, 2010 at 8:52 am |
  20. carla hadj

    focus people the comments kind of float and do not really discuss the article which is simply stating the statistics of how people who consider themselves to be religious show their values or not when it comes to social issues you could argue the interpretation of the ot and nt until your fingers fall off

    May 26, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
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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.