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. jad31

    I'm 46 years old, was raised Catholic and abandoned all organized religion when I found out that 2 of my childhood friends had been molested by our priest. This priest had been sent to our parish after molesting children in his previous parish. I know that no all organized religion is bad, but I'll be honest....I'm tainted. I don't trust any organized religion and I have raised my children that way. I believe in God, I'm just not a fan of his followers. All they want you to do is show up each Sunday and put your hard earned dollars in their coffers.

    May 26, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
    • Lea

      I'm sorry that happened to your friends and I agree with you that you shouldn't trust organized religion. Basically it's how the powerful have kept the populace under control for so long. The reason people today are leaving the churches is that we no longer have to fear their power, and it's important that we don't ever let them get into power again.

      June 2, 2010 at 6:47 pm |
    • Lee

      I feel bad for the 2 friends who were molested. But I also feel bad for the 95-99% of priests who have never touched a child but get lumped in with them by people like you and used as an excuse not to go to church. If you don't want to go, I don't have a problem with that, but please, don't turn into a bigot and use "profiling" (ie a priest molested them, therefore all priests are molesters). It's the same thing bigoted white people do when they see a black person on the news comitting a crime and therefore think all black are criminals. WRONG! So don't attend chruch, makes no difference to me, just don't become the same hypocrite you accuse those of who to go to church as being. As for those hard earned dollars, where do you think they go? Most go to help those in need, to run the church, pay the electric bill, help a parishoner who may be behind on their bills etc. Tired of all the misinformation and downright lies posted on the web.

      June 10, 2010 at 10:31 am |
  2. Fred Evil

    Nope, it's not church SHOPPING that is dividing America, but CHURCHES THEMSELVES that are having that effect.

    It's not just the 'radical Muslims,' Xtians are just as guilty...

    May 26, 2010 at 11:54 am |
  3. Tim

    you would think after 10,000 years of this that people would have figured out that we made all this up... there is nothing wrong with believing in something bigger than ourselves, but to think it interferes in our lives, saves people and cares what you do on a daily basis is just silly... have your faith just keep it out of my life...

    May 26, 2010 at 11:21 am |
  4. Robert

    The author's describe a real phenomenon, I have no doubt. But they don't mention the whole picture. Many who have left traditional churches have used the change as a means to revitalize their faith lives. I believe I am one of these.

    I left the "official ranks" of the Catholic church because I could no longer ignore the politicization and hypocrisy I heard preached by the current Pope and many bishops. But once that albatross was off of me, I felt a renewed energy to serve God. I now meet with a group of like-minded Christians who pray the Liturgy of the Hours and do community service to help neighbors in need, especially the aging ones. That is how we choose to live our faith community at this time.

    I deeply love the true Church, the community of believers who "judge not" and seek to live the love of Jesus in their lives, and for that reason, could no longer stand silent while that Church was twisted into the Church of Caesar, little more than a mouthpiece of worldly politics. I pray every day the Church's leadership will be renewed by the Holy Spirit in the years to come. I will be happy to return to Mass when it does.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:38 am |
  5. Ralph in Orange Park, FL

    People who check a religious box in a poll but never attend church are most likely closet atheists or agnostics.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:02 am |
    • Kate

      Either you have some data you aren't bothering to report or you are making that totally up. Which is it?

      May 26, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
    • bill

      Wow! You act as though those last two categories are bad things.

      May 28, 2010 at 10:15 am |
  6. Joel3

    @ The Entire Board

    All of this traditional and modernist non-sense is completely meaningless and has absolutely NOTHING to do with the reason Christ was sent here. He did not come here to set up some type of new or old "structured religion." He came to offer GRACE from the Father by simply believing in Him and building a relationship with Him through PRAYER and FAITH. Yes this is how it works: PRAYER + FAITH = SALVATION. There is no denomination of the church which makes you more right or wrong about being a follower of Truth in Christ. THIS IS THE PROBLEM. Stop dividing up the church. Keep your faith, pray, and do good works. THAT"S REALLY ALL THERE IS TO IT PEOPLE.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:35 am |
  7. andrew kennedy

    I thought that this was a very provocative article. More on culture and cultural polarization than Christianity per say. I was looking for to reading the comments about the topic. Man was I surprised! Why do I get the sense that most of the people who post to topics here do not really read the article or if they do are more interested in having a platform for their own agenda. How very sad.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:26 am |
    • oakhill3

      I have to agree with you. Wow.

      May 26, 2010 at 11:52 pm |
  8. Lou47

    Alot of you have valid points. I myself go to Church because I like to, and it is one way in which I stay close to God. Not everybody needs to do that. You can be a moral and terrific individual without going to a Church Building. It is all about building your Country up anyway, and helping each other, and being nice to one another. The Religious Right needs some serious makeovers, like getting rid of their tendancies to be GREEDY! And to be thoughtfull and kind and mean it. And by accepting everyone, and not talking about guns every minute that they don't get their own way. And by not being the big hypocrites that they seem to be most of the time. I am a church goer, and a big Leftie-Liberal, and you can be both. I love this country and I will not let the middle class go down the drain "PERIOD"!

    May 26, 2010 at 2:18 am |
  9. grg999

    Jesus was a radical in his time and would be in ours today but you would never know it by going to church. The article nails my personal experience. I swtiched from a conservative to a liberal church. With the politicalization of religion becoming more and more extreme, I dropped church altogether. Church for me does not equal lax regulations for companies like BP and Goldman Sach's and tax cuts for the rich and famous, but you would never know it by listening to the talk in the narthex.

    May 25, 2010 at 9:21 pm |
  10. goodgirl777

    I like the article cause it explained what its like to go to a "Christian Church or Catholic Church or Lutheran or Whatever"
    It's like there all mostly republicans and if you don't vote or think like them ,they judge you or they constantly bash Obama out in the open and democrats, even in church, these fools are being negative about this country.
    I think religious people today are about the worst ,they are so judgemental I can't stand them. Plus they commit the same wrongs as everyone else. So the religion is not really helping them at all.

    May 25, 2010 at 9:11 pm |
  11. Ron

    "Church shopping" is an interesting term. But why would you go to a church that you don't like, be it the sermon, the people, church leadership? You "shop" to find the church that needs you wants/desires for your spiritual growth. It is like buying a car, you find the vehicle that fits you needs and budget.
    A personal example of "church shopping" is my own church. We have an older crowd 50+ that regularly attend. Resently our pastor of 29 years left, leaving a void for a few months until a new pastor was selected. Eventually we got a new pastor, very energenic, dynamic and passionate about his faith but also much younger (mid-30's). Still very traditional but it had turned off many of the older people and they left for churches with older pastors. A common reason for the people leaving was they didn't think a younger pastor was "qualified" to pastor them.
    Personally, if a pastor in any of the churches I have been in was preaching politics or anything other then faith and salvation and God then I would leave. Lucky for me I have not had to leave a church because of that.

    May 25, 2010 at 1:04 pm |
  12. Sarah

    Interesting article. One problem with the logic here, however, is the idea that traditionalists are "driving out" modernists. This is simply not the case. There are many Catholic parishes that act as a haven for "modernists" (trust me, I grew up in an entire diocese that encouraged modernism). Yet these parishes continue to dwindle. Modernists, for their own reasons, are simply not as willing to show up to Mass on Sundays even when their views are supported. I believe this is more of a spiritual and theological issue than a political one. From my understanding of typical modernist beliefs, formal religious celebrations are seen as optional and unnecessary to spiritual growth. Honestly, who wants to get up early on Sunday morning if they don't feel the celebration of the Mass is necessary to their faith in God?

    Sure, traditionalists sometimes can get "clannish" and scare people away (I've seen this happen, too), but the reality is, if a modernist values church attendance, there is a range of parishes ready and willing to accommodate. Where are the attendees?

    May 25, 2010 at 12:05 pm |
    • Sarah

      One more note... sorry if it's already been said (haven't had time to read prior comments): The term "traditionalist" in Catholic culture does not refer to those who adhere to universal Church teachings on politically-charged issues. It is a term that is usually used for those who prefer traditional *liturgy* (especially pre-Vatican II style liturgy). There are plenty of charismatic Catholics who adhere to say, the Church's teaching on abortion, but do not attend a pre-Vatican II style Mass.

      May 25, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
  13. Mark Sadler

    Church Shopping is a phenominon of the refermation. Christ said their is but one way and it is thru him. Scisam begets scisam. Even the Catholic Church has been impacted by this when they changed the structure of the Mass to reflect a more protestant perspective 40 years ago with vatican 2. The real interesting aspect of the revival of the latin mass is that these are young folks who never saw the old mass are flocking to it. Lex Credende Lex Orende.

    May 25, 2010 at 10:30 am |
  14. Amberkist

    Church Shopping? It seems like people want a religion that will excuse their sinful lifestyles and let them live however they like, a God they can put on the shelf. Professing to be christians but denying the power thereof. You can attend a catholic mass and not once understand the plan of salvation; it isn't preached there. Catholics are like the world because their priest keeps them in the dark. I rather sit in the pew where the truth is being preached rather than someone tip-toeing on God's word. People don't want to hear the truth of God's word from the bible, they rather believe in contradicting scientists how they came about rather than open their eyes to creation.

    May 25, 2010 at 9:43 am |
    • Ted

      As a Catholic and a weekly participant in the mass I can assure you that God's plan for our salvation and the bible are central to our experience of lturgy. As a community who is blessed with the lectionary, we indeed have the wonderful opportunity to hear and reflect upon vast collection of scriptures. Infact, in my observations we hear more of God's word than many "bible churches" do on a typical Sunday.

      May 27, 2010 at 11:15 pm |
  15. Annapolis

    I'll try to answer your question, at least as I understand the article. "The top quartile of modernists" probably means the 25% of people who answered survey questions who fit most into the personal and political profile of modernists. I believe it means that if 10,000 people took their modernist/traditionalist survey, they looked at the 2500 people who were most extreme in their modernist answers and found that of those 2500 people, only 24% voted for Bush.

    The sentence is telling you about how a certain sub-group in the modernist/traditionalist divide voted.

    May 25, 2010 at 9:36 am |
    • jonathan

      I reluctantly agree with Brett; sad but true...perhaps if we just clearly identified them as false brethern who killed supporting their beliefs which had to be false....

      June 3, 2010 at 8:23 pm |
  16. Hannah

    Wake up. This has been going on since I entered the Catholic Chuch thirty years ago. Faith in Jesus can sustain a person for a lifetime through many tragics but religion fades with the trends of society. Those who go to church now are people of faith regardless what church they attend. We are united by our love for Jesus and we follow his teachings with his help. So what, unselfishness and self control isn't popular. It has never been popular and never will be.
    Though as Benjamin Franklin did say religion can act as a frame work for good values in society. I work with troubled youth and it's not about religion or even morality. It is about self destruction and eroding of society. Our children are left without protection or even safety net. The church is being pruned and it can only result in a stronger and healthier church whether Protestant or Catholic. So these are the worst of times but also the best of times. We are getting back to our true Christian heritage and the truths that produces good. The gospel of Jesus Christ has survived for 2,000 years with top knot persecution and critics, and it only took a small band of ordinary people.

    May 25, 2010 at 9:12 am |
    • Paul in Asheville

      Good post 🙂

      May 25, 2010 at 9:16 am |
    • Brett

      " The gospel of Jesus Christ has survived for 2,000 years with top knot persecution and critics"

      Actually, for most of that time Christians were killing their critics.

      May 28, 2010 at 7:46 am |
    • Tyrone

      Thank you for reminding those of us who are Christians, we have an obligation to strive to be more like that of Christ though it is not as easy as one would think. The Church of Jesus Christ has always risen to the challenge, thank you for your post

      May 28, 2010 at 12:14 pm |
  17. Paul in Asheville

    Christians (including myself) have a hard time pulling away from a worldly life. This is nothing new and this article just supports Paul's call to christians in a letter to the Roman church of his day. So, if a christian really wants to be "progressive", it would to be to come out of the world and follow the straight and narrow path. Here is an exerpt:

    Rom 12:1 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.

    Rom 12:2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

    Rom 12:3 For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.

    May 25, 2010 at 9:08 am |
    • Bryan in Boone

      You nailed it perfectly, Paul. It doesn't matter which congregation you belong to or what you "think" you believe. If the church you're attending doesn't follow what's in the book (the Bible), then leave it. Denomination doesn't matter. Only what God's Word says.

      May 28, 2010 at 7:16 am |
  18. AmberG

    Amen. This article is exactly what's wrong with people today. For example, "I want to sleep around. I want to murder my friend. I want to use drugs as recreational fun. I am going to steal from my neighbor. I am going to have an affair. I want, I want, I want, I want. " Then it's "Well gee, I don't like that religion, they follow the teachings of Christ. I don't like Catholics, because they don't like abortion. I don't like that religion because they prefer people marry each other. Wait, a minute, I don't like that religioun because it doesn't condone my lifestyle of beating my girlfriend and procreating outside of marriage. Wait a minute, you don't support drug use?? I don't like your religion. You don't like my progressive view on life, well, I am going to degrade you and your religion to the whole world."

    May 25, 2010 at 8:38 am |
    • Oster

      Freedom of religion allows choice, and it's uncommon for someone to practice what they don't believe. That's why secular law is necessary.

      June 2, 2010 at 12:10 am |
    • Amy

      This description of "church shopping" just shows how terrified people are of what they don't know, and aren't happy until they can convince themselves that what they've thought all along is the case.

      As an atheist, I'm fine with what I do in my life, because I believe my body will be burned into ashes and scattered on the beach (though at 24, it's really too early to tell if, at an older age, I'll want to be cremated or not). And I don't sleep around/have affairs, use drugs recreationally, murder my friends, or steal from my neighbors.

      June 2, 2010 at 7:26 pm |
  19. Andy

    "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."

    Does anyone else see a math error here?

    May 24, 2010 at 10:25 pm |
    • Frank

      I'm glad you spotted that too....just goes to show these two are just spouting off their 'intellectual singularity of knowledge'

      May 28, 2010 at 10:44 am |
    • Gene

      No math error – just bad writing...leaving out implied statements. Read it as:

      "If we look at only white Catholics who attend church at least once a week, they favor making abortion illegal by 76 [compared] to 27 percent [of all surveyed]."

      May 28, 2010 at 11:04 am |
    • chri

      LOL! I missed that, but thats a great find... definately a typo that was overlooked.

      June 4, 2010 at 10:13 pm |
  20. Paul in Boston

    What a strange headline vs the article. "Church shopping" means visiting several churches/congregations to see which one is your best fit for a spiritual home. The article is interesting but it has more to do with the formation of hive cultures within the USA these days. The article has little to do with the practice of church shopping, and does not make any kind of case for why, quote, "church shopping is polarizing the country."

    May 24, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
    • gaw

      Actually, it's pretty self explanatory. You shop for a church the agrees with you already. Therefore, your ideas are not heard by anyone with whom you disagree and the ideas of those you disagree with are not heard by you. Therefore, the group that each side is with tends to stay firmly rooted in the beliefs/ideas that you already have because there is no cross pollination of ideas which might cause some of each group to drift to someplace between the two ideas. Therefore you get the social equivalent of north and south poles on a magnet. Also known as polarization.

      May 25, 2010 at 11:19 am |
    • snipman

      Funny, I always thought "Church Shopping" was jumping from church to church, trying to find out which congregation hates the same people you do.

      May 25, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
    • Sally

      I agree with Paul in Boston (first post).

      May 28, 2010 at 6:34 am |
    • RichP, easton, pa

      To me church shopping was finding the most active church in the area for feeding the hungry, helping senior citizens maintain their homes, jumping in and helping families in the town going through tough times, in short a church that is more focused on local problems instead of feeding the starving in some other country. I never paid attention to denomination, raised a RC, settled on a Methodist church which may change again depending on the minister that is replacing our retiring one next month.

      June 1, 2010 at 7:07 am |
    • Mike

      Paul, I agree with you completely. Not only does the "blog" have nothing to do with "church shopping," they also limit the nuances of a religion with terms like "traditionalists" and "modernists." Are there only two kinds of Catholics? Even Ghandi would agree that there are probably as many kinds of Catholics as there are Catholics! I recognize the need to use and define terms, but beware generalizations that are polarizing in and of themselves.

      June 2, 2010 at 11:12 am |
    • Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness

      Well, for me, the primary criteria when I "shop" around is that the church has the most powerful and most consistent presence of God/Jesus/Holy Spirit. I figure, while NO church is perfect; if it's good enough for Him, it's good enough for me!

      June 10, 2010 at 12:17 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.