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. Liz

    Lauren, I've studied theology and philosophy and came across that belief and I have to say that I feel its a lazy explanation for religion. Please understand, I do not mean this to be an attack on you, but how can you justify faith and a belief in a higher power just to "hedge your bets" so to speak? I've heard people use this argument multiple times as justifications for their religion and it just doesn't fly. Basically you're saying that you believe, not b/c you feel your faith deep w/in you, but b/c you're afraid of being wrong. That's not true faith, that's someone who doesn't want to contemplate the complexities of life and belief and is simply choosing the path of least resistance.

    May 27, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
    • lauren

      This was not my reason for believing just a thought I had for non-believers. I believe because when I was 12 years old my father kicked me out of his house not because of disobedience just because he didn't feel like having a teenage daughter anymore and I felt abandoned I began cutting and quit eating my hair began to fall out and slowly I began to plan my death. I decided to kill myself on my birthday I figured the day I was born the day I would die. Well, my mother, a Christian and totally unaware of my plans, forced me to go to a youth convention. When there the music was good the preaching was good but nothing to save me literally UNTIL JUST before I was about to leave a man can on stage and announced that he felt like God was telling him that there was someone in the room who was severely depressed and was planning on killing themselves. My mouth almost hit the floor I thought God didn't care about me until that moment when he reached down and saved me from myself.
      To someone who does not believe this may sound crazy but this is why I believe not because I'm scared of hell or because I just want to live a moral life its because I know that God DOES love me and has intervened in my like on multiple occasions. And yes the world does suck and there is a lot of unfairness but we can't say we hate God and don't believe in him then blame him for those problems...
      *Jesus taught tolerance and love not hate and judgement*

      May 28, 2010 at 10:36 am |
    • Ituri


      Are you seriously telling us that you believe because someone asked a room full of TEENAGERS if someone there was depressed or maybe thinking of suicide?

      Many people have rough family lives, too. It seems as if you're just looking for an excuse for your belief, rather than trying to explain why you have it.

      June 2, 2010 at 6:24 pm |
  2. A

    I'd think you could be a little more tolerant and a little less offensive with your view. I agree with you, but I also have come to understand that not everyone has to believe the same as me. You might also find that people might be more receptive to what you have to say. Of course, I could also say that to the hardcore religious freaks of the world too. I don't like to walk out of a Wal-Mart and be bomboarded by somebody asking me if I've found Jesus, I find that extremely offensive. Not only are they assuming right off the bad that I don't practice any religion, they want me to convert to THEIR religion. What lauren said is all well and good and all, but it still doesn't explain how there are many different religions who don't even worship the same person or God, for that matter. Who's to say which religious belief is right? When you ask, the person you're asking will tell you that their view is right and everyone else is wrong (or "evil" when it comes to Muslims, which is a very unfortunate and intolerant viewpoint, to say the VERY least) believe me, I've asked, I've messed with these "God pushers" standing outside of Wal-Mart just to see what they have to say. Then you have to think ALL the way back to the ancient Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, etc. none of those cultures worshiped 1 God, they had many Gods that served many different purposes. Who's to say they weren't right, why couldn't there be separate entities with different specializations? Makes sense, in theory, people, animals, insects all serve different functions in their ecosystems, why don't Gods?

    Ironically, if science were to prove that there is, in fact, a God or if God magically appeared, I think that atheists would accept that God does exist and worship accordingly (after asking all their unanswered questions, of course). But if science was able to prove, with out a question of a doubt, that there is no and never has been a God, the vast majority of believers (that's the word I'll use instead of naming all the religions of the world in succession) would still not accept that fact.

    May 27, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  3. Talon7

    In an interview, Albert Einstein was asked if he believed in God. He replied that he didn't believe in a "personal god" but that he believed in something like "Spinoza's God". If you Google Baruch Spinoza, you'll see that he was pretty much a pantheist. But to me, that makes much more sense than a cosmic Jewish zombie that was his own father. And being sent to be tortured forever, simply because you were raised to believe in another faith.

    May 27, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
  4. Bailey

    Modernists are no longer attending churches because they are getting increasingly disturbed by supposed grown ups insisting in regressing into fairy tales – and trying to run a society in deep trouble.based on such fantastical beliefs. Welcome back to the dark ages.

    May 27, 2010 at 1:45 pm |
  5. Adam

    Some people are taught religion from an early age and don’t know any better, other’s need it to cope with a loss or their own mortality. If religion makes them happier, that’s fine with me, but it’s all fiction to me.

    It is a little scary how easily people in general can just believe made up stories without any evidence at all. And how easily people have allowed themselves to be controlled through these made up stories.

    May 27, 2010 at 11:30 am |
  6. TheREALtruth

    All hail the Flying Spaghetti Monster!

    May 27, 2010 at 11:05 am |
  7. Roy

    Robert, the more you study science the more you should know the less we understand. Science and religion aren't in conflict, regardless of what either side says.

    But, again, the more you study, the more you should realize just how much science has yet to find out. It may find out most of it over time. But, there's a lot of mystery left in this world even today.

    May 27, 2010 at 10:43 am |
  8. Jumper53

    Doulalisa, you remember that Cross at Calvary Thing. Hanging from that cross the Perfect One, Unblemished Son, of whom the Father was pleased, said "Forgive them father for they know not what they do". He didn't say forgive this one or that one, it was forgive them. Them is everybody. Are you forgeting that the will of the Father was that through the Son all of mankind would be reconciled to him for his glory. Have you forgotten that seated at the right hand of the Father is a Christ Child who remembers that you are his forever and ever Amen. God has already thru Christ forgiven us all because we know not what we do.

    May 27, 2010 at 10:41 am |
  9. Roy

    Let's be honest here....modernist is a euphemism for liberal touchy-feely person here.

    I am traditionalist in some ways and not others according to this piece. However, I can instantly recognize the 'modernists,' and they are the ones who really aren't committed to anything, hence why they only show up on Easter and otherwise aren't involved in politics or other issues.

    And by the way, plenty of "traditionalists" are concerned with issues that might be construed as a modernist concern, such as social justice. This isn't a real article, just commentary dressed up as such.

    May 27, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  10. Greg

    I have left a couple churches due to them talking politics at the pulpit. I left one church due to a sermon where the pastor basically said that an earthquake somewhere in the middle east was God's way of letting Muslims know that they are not the right religion – or something to that affect. I go to a church now that does none of that.

    May 27, 2010 at 10:38 am |
  11. Arthur

    Don't depend on organized religion to tell you the truth, they all have their own interpretation of it. Read the Bible yourself and make up your own minds. God wants a relationship with You directly. He created you so go to the source. Old or new testament, same God, check him out.

    May 27, 2010 at 10:35 am |
  12. Bubba

    Gee, I just want a church that tells me I'm goin' to heaven for believin' what I already believe, and that assures me that none of my ornery neighbors are goin' there at all. Can ya find me one like that?

    May 27, 2010 at 10:20 am |
  13. nunyabusiness

    As people become more educated they, inconvienently for spiritual leaders, form opinions. The time that the "pesant population" was controlled from the pulpit and the king controlled the pulpit is long past. Luther gave the first option of choice and now a person of opinion can shop for a ministry that agrees with him/ her and gather with lots of like minded people. If you dare chalenge a belief the minestry shouts "FREEDOM OF RELIGION" and condems you to hell. I chose to not participate. I do not need a leader nor do I need affermation form a group. And I certainly do not want to controll other's actions.

    If your ministry opposes abortion and demands that a woman birth every child concieved, who do you suggest raises and supports the new family. Does your church assume responsability for any of the children you have saved? Or, is your commitment strictly philisophical? How christian are you? How christian is your church?

    May 27, 2010 at 9:47 am |
  14. Jim

    lauren......you just described Pascal's wager. The wager ia a suggestion posed by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal that even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.......makes sense but I just don't buy it.

    May 27, 2010 at 9:38 am |
  15. Jay

    I left the United Methodist church in the 70's after attending one of their largest seminaries. They taught me that Moses didn't write the pentatuch–it was a pious fraud compiled by an editor from framents of writings found in the second temple. They taught me that miracles didn't happen–those bible stories were all fabricated. They taught me that the bible was not inspired or written by the Holy Ghost–all those stories are just myths with a moral teaching and not to be taken literally. One professor saw that I had a Scofield bible, and said I should throw it in the trash can. They taught me that Jesus' body is still rotting in a middle eastern grave since all that ressurection business is nonsense. They taught a Jesus who was not virgin born, never worked a miracle, did not rise from the dead, and was completely misquoted and misinterpreted by his followers. They taught me that the book of Revelation was just a history of past events written in a secret cryptic code that only a studious preterist could ever possibly correctly interpret...
    Conclusion: this theology is called "Modernism", but there is nothing modern about it. These doctors of theology and scholars are just teaching the same old heresies and false teachings that have been around for centuries. No wonder the servants of God are leaving this house marked "Ichabod". Latter-Day Laodicean Liberalism is a place where you can easily lose your salvation rather than find your salvation. I am still glad I left.

    Q. Why did God allow Liberalism to come about?
    A. So there will be somebody left around to preach the Sunday after the Rapture.

    May 27, 2010 at 9:05 am |
    • Jim

      Jay........please grow up and free yourself from man-invented doctrines. Put you energies to better use.

      May 27, 2010 at 9:44 am |
    • Jay

      Jim....for liberals, all doctrines are doctrines of men since there is no such thing as divine inspiration. Which doctrines of men do you propose that I leave behind? I did grow up out of the godless humanism that the liberals believe.

      May 27, 2010 at 10:34 am |
    • omdusa

      You make Godless Humanism sound as bad as Stalinist Communism. If everyone was a godless humanist we would not have had nearly as many wars, because we will have valued our lives on Earth a lot more than obsessing about the after-life and trying to appease some invisible God.

      May 27, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  16. Steve

    If you go to just ONE other church than the one your elders first brought you to, is that shopping?

    If we have to move to a different area (and a different church) due to a life change or natural disaster, is that shopping?

    May 27, 2010 at 8:57 am |
  17. oh no!

    oh no

    May 27, 2010 at 8:57 am |
  18. Hurpin' n' Durpin'

    So much deleting! 🙁

    May 27, 2010 at 8:56 am |
  19. lauren

    That should read *what have you*

    May 27, 2010 at 8:48 am |
  20. lauren

    Science is all theory. Religions are beliefs. If science is wrong about a theory nothing is really lost but WHAT IF Christianity or any other religion is right, then what you lost? I believe faith and science can and do work together.
    Just a thought...

    May 27, 2010 at 8:46 am |
    • cass

      Science is the collection of facts (a great many of them), which are then used as the basis for developing explanations about how the universe works. When an explanation is deemed truly excellent and far-reaching, it is given the honor of being called a theory: the Theory of Gravity, the Theory of Evolution, the Theory of Quantum Dynamics, etc.
      If an explanation is wrong, then we still have the facts, and we can create a better or more complete explanation. Science is designed to be self-correcting and all-compassing. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out and accept what needs to be corrected, but that's the goal.

      > WHAT IF Christianity or any other religion is right, then what have you lost?
      Before we look at what we might lose, perhaps we should examine the "What If" part of the question.
      What if they're all right? Is that possible? Many of them hold conflicting beliefs. So, at least one or more must be wrong. How do we know which one is wrong? What if they're all wrong?
      Then what have we lost?

      June 1, 2010 at 8:02 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.