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. 1plus1

    Horus similar to Mithra, Attis analogous to Krishna
    Jesus, different name same story
    All based on ancient Egyptian allegory

    June 7, 2010 at 8:21 am |
  2. Will E.

    The concept of gods and its attendant "supernatural" reality is a notion left over from our superstitious ancestors. Please, leave all religion and spirituality on the dust heap of history and join us in the modern world.

    June 4, 2010 at 6:45 pm |
    • helpnout

      Isn't it strange that the evolutionary process of mutation and natural selection left our ancestors (and us) with the need to identify (or invent) God or gods? The religious impulse is absolutely universal among human cultures. But what possible value could there be in inventing supernatural explanations for physical events? It would be not just a waste of time, but positively harmful to reproductive fitness. Evolution should have weeded out this unhelpful tendency long ago. Yet religion is a defining marker (along with language, symbol use, etc.) of what it means to be human. It is strong evidence for the existence of a higher power that played a role in the appearance of humans. That's why religion will never be left on the "dust heap of history."

      June 5, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
    • skeptic56

      Really, helpnout? Religion is strong evidence for the existence of a higher power? Then I guess ancient historical worldwide belief that the earth was flat and that the sun went around it were strong evidence for that astronomical (hehe) mistake? This is the fallacy of argumentum ad populum, which says that a proposition is claimed to be true because it is believed by large numbers of people. You don't get to use that as evidence.

      June 8, 2010 at 2:36 pm |
  3. Matt

    Was a Christian. Now I'm an atheist. I am much happier now, and am encouraged to see that more people are joining me in saying no to religious manipulation through fear.

    June 3, 2010 at 9:59 am |
    • righteous-in-Christ

      Wow, really, you used to be a Christian? How long? A week, a month, not even a year. Yes, the Word of God even tells us about people like you that are built on sand and when the storms comes, he/she is easily knocked down! You should have allowed your life be built on the Rock....Christ!

      June 5, 2010 at 1:57 pm |
  4. Gen

    I used to be Catholic ... no, let me rephrase ... I was brought up Catholic. It is incorrect to say that at any point I actually was Catholic. I went to mass every Sunday and holidays and various social functions in the churches we belonged to. But I was not Catholic. I went through the motions.

    What drove me away from the church is two fold. All of those years it was something I did, generally because I was required to by my family. I went through the motions because my mom drug me to church every Sunday. So, the first reason I left is that I did not believe and saw no reason to get up early on Sunday and do something for no reason.

    The second – and certainly this did not engender any attempt at faith – is that I learned that the church is interested in what's in your pocketbook and its members are interested in having only people like themselves in their church. The moment you fall out of their social class you are no longer welcome. It seemed that work with the poor existed to make church members feel good about themselves – oh, look, how we are helping the poor people – rather than allowing the poor into their church to worship with them, and allowing the poor their dignity and respect.

    If you would protest that your church is not like this, just imagine a homeless person showing up for service on Sunday. Do you truly believe they would be welcome in your church? At your service? To sit among you and be treated with respect and dignity as an equal?

    I have been fortunate to find faith and belief in my heart, I have been fortunate to find the path I was meant to walk. I am Wiccan, and will tell anyone who shows up at the door such. I respect the teaching of Christ – but he is not my God, and it often seems that he is not the God to those who call themselves his followers, for few seem to have truly read his words.

    June 2, 2010 at 10:17 pm |
  5. Mike

    The decline of morality by so called "religious" people is not a minor issue. The separations between those who follow what they believe, and those who want to do what ever feels good to them, has been around forever.

    June 2, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
  6. Jim Samples

    Naomi and June just polarized everyone, or at minimum made the hole deeper by separating us into Red and Blue. Why don't you write about those things that join us or bring us together, instead those minor issues that separate us?

    Stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.

    June 2, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
  7. David

    please wake up

    June 2, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
  8. sjenner

    I think the article points to a deeper fact: preaching to the choir leads to a lot of "Amens," and that isn't good for any movement. As things are currently structured, I genuinely fear for the Christian movement, especially in its oldest parts, which increasingly appear determined to crush debate, ignore critics in good faith, and drive out those who don't fit whatever profile is considered "desirable." Ultimately, it seems to me that it's more important to be obedient than to seek Truth; it's better to condemn than to save. Salvation, after all, is for the purified few. And the bomb belt is such a lovely way to go. Yet in all of this, the message of Christ, of forgiveness and love is lost: he's not the Savior but the Winnower, come early before the Judgment. Now that people have a choice, why should they bother to hear? Sadly the answer from those who call themselves 'faithful' is all too frequently "hear not, for this is not for you."

    June 1, 2010 at 9:45 pm |
  9. Rationalist

    So you see, we have invented something that is not possible: An all-knowing God who is surprised...an omnipotent God whose plans are thwarted, whose desires are not met. These are logical impossibilities. Think. Please.

    June 1, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
    • sjenner

      I'd like to but it makes my head hurt ....

      June 1, 2010 at 9:56 pm |
  10. Sara

    Pretty simple – just live with the belief that God is fake anyway, and just don't go to Church, then you don't have to Church shop. Not believing in God makes life waaaaay easier and then you don't worry about where you go when you die.

    June 1, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  11. Rationalist

    This is all a bunch of nonsense. Think about it: If Christianity were real, how could there be so much dispute about how to practice it? It's all in your mind. The things that Christians say are important are merely things they've seized on–for some inexplicable reason. Tell me where in the Bible it says anything about abortion. It doesn't. In fact, God was the ultimate abortionist. On several occassions he ordered that every man, woman, and child be slaughtered so that their land could be taken by his precious, chosen people.

    But in the end it doesn't matter. Not only does your god not exist: your god CANNOT exist. Think, please, just this once. HOW CAN AN ALL-KNOWING BEING BE SURPRISED, OR ANGRY, OR DISAPPOINTED???? He would have predicted everything ahead of time. In fact, when he created the world, he would have held all possible futures in his hand before him, and chosen the one he wanted–would he not? Don't tell me he didn't make choices about the world he created. He could have created a world of slime on rocks, but he didn't. He (supposedly) created this one. And since he could foresee all things, we must conclude that everything that happens in this world meets with his approval, even the Halocaust.

    And how does an all-knowing god interact with human beings? Again, he would know exactly what choices they were going to make ahead of time. Is he just some Shakespearean actor in a cosmic play, PRETENDING to be surprised?

    As I said. Nonsense. It amazes me how people are so gullible that they will believe a 3,000-year-old fairytale that has not a shred of evindence to support it (42 contemporary historians apparently missed Jesus's existence, as well as the earthquake and awakening of the dead that are reported in the gospels upon his death)...yet these same gullible people will not bother to open up a science book and learn about the world around them. We can only hope that when these people die, their ignorance dies with them. For the sake of humanity, let's hope it does.

    June 1, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
    • Heidi

      Despite the sound logic of your argument, it upsets me that you feel you need to antagonize those who do believe. You obviously are unchanging in your opinions on God and faith but please, if you would like to voice your opinion and have others perhaps think about religion in a different way, preferably your way, you must likewise keep an open mind to the possibility that others could be right or have a point about God. It is not a one way street, and it surprises me that you would so easily come to the conclusion that logic and rationality is the only possible way to live, when you are actually having FAITH in your own logic and the brain you were born with. If evolution is true and your brain is simply a random mess of chemicals which was put together in the optimum way for life on earth, how can you trust that your logic is even sound. Personally, I would prefer to put my faith in an omniscient being who knows what He is doing rather than a random collision of chemicals. I do not deny the logic of the paradox you point out, but if you wish to contribute to a discussion board, you have to be willing to discuss, not acuse and antagonize

      June 2, 2010 at 1:49 pm |
    • Ituri

      Keeping an "open mind" does not require that one respect beliefs which are ridiculous. Its true, we should all be civil, but don't give me the "you must respect my religious belief" nonsense. I will not respect people who believe ridiculous things. Sorry, it simply won't happen, ESPECIALLY when they have little to no respect for me in return.

      I tell the religious harassers who come to my door every weekend that I'm not interested, that I am happy as an atheist, and the FIRST thing they do is get this look of "oh, you poor stupid child." Is that respect? Hardly. They come to MY home, take up MY time, and disrespect MY beliefs, but I should respect theirs... simply because religious beliefs are untouchable, because they're personal? Sorry again, but no.

      Btw, Heidi, evolution has ONE random factor, which is what mutation occurs in the individual animal. The vast majority is a NATURAL PROCESS just like every other natural force (gravity, electromagnetics, etc). One does not "believe" in evolution, because evolution is scientific, not belief-based. I KNOW evolution, just as I know the effects of medication. Its real, so deal with it. Denying what is real is yet another reason there is NO reason to respect your beliefs.

      June 2, 2010 at 5:33 pm |
    • helpnout

      Science is real, but there are many disputes among scientists, because they cling to their theories, interpretations and reputations. But I hope you don't reject science because there are scientific disputes. Likewise there are continual political disputes and cultural disputes over values or simple matters of taste. But I hope you don't reject governments or the arts because of those disputes. By the same token, I hope you don't reject the existence of God simply because of human disputes about how to follow him.

      God knows a lot, but even knowing a lot, he still grieves over the actions of humans. He fabricated a universe that permits physics and chemistry, he invented life, and he directed the manifestation of Mind in living neurons - but he permits humans to be free to do anything they want, sometimes with tragic consequences. He also permits atoms, clouds, and stars the freedom to follow his laws, again with sometimes tragic consequences. God grieves over those consequences, even if he foresees them - just as I would grieve over the all-too-foreseeable death of my self-destructive child. But, for the most part, his creation is very good, as he said at the outset.

      There is plenty of evidence to support the existence of God - you, the rocks, trees, and clouds, the fact that anything at all exists, rather than just nothing. The fact that you trust your own thought processes to arrive at correct conclusions about the deep structure of the universe - you must believe in some higher ordering principle. That would be - God.

      June 5, 2010 at 9:42 am |
  12. Robert Burke

    I wish that traditionalists dominated Sunday Mass. But the truth is that in too many parishes liberal priests are in charge and they are doing their best to destroy traditional faith by making the Mass more "contemporary" (a code word for ignoring Canon Law and the Rubrics of the Mass so they can do whatever they wish).

    If you think liberals are in favor of diversity and tolerance, just try asking a liberal priest for permission to have Latin Mass, or even an English language Mass with traditional music (e.g. Gregorian Chants). Be prepared to be laughed out of the parish.

    June 1, 2010 at 5:25 pm |
  13. Rick Bohan

    Gee, if I thought folks at my church were as mean-spirited and arrogant as AmberG and AmberKrist (assuming they aren't the same goofball), I'd quit going, too.

    May 31, 2010 at 8:08 am |
  14. Kate Johnson

    My struggle with much of the church in America today, is while they proclaim to follow Christ, they are more interested in being the moral police of the world, than loving their neighbor, living righteous lives and serving the "least of these". Maybe we need to start taking the plank out of our own eye before we waste our time trying to force an unsaved world to display saved behavior, to in essence "sanitizing the world for our protection", all the while making excuses for our own behavior and lack of love and service.

    The most important characteristic of a believer is love. If you lose love, then God is not in what you are doing. Without love, even if your right, your wrong. While I may not always agree with what my brothers and sisters in Christ say or do, just as I'm sure they wouldn't approve of all of my views, nonetheless they are still my family, and it is required of me that I love them. "If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen." (1 John 4:2)

    The healthiest churches are diverse in their views, but love each other even if they don't always agree with each other. Shopping for a church that parrots your views only leads to more extremism and like inbreeding it produces malignant consequences. After all what does it say about you if you can love the people who share your views, everyone can do that, not a supernatural thing at all. The truth of who we really are is revealed in how we respond to people who don' agree with us. That love is what reveals the truth of Christ in our lives. JMO

    May 30, 2010 at 4:04 pm |
    • Ituri

      If you think any of the Christian religion sects is based in "love," then you are selectively reading only the parts of your preferred "holy" text that you LIKE. The Bible and its counterparts are filled with hate, violence, and acts of horror that do not belong in a civilized world. The people who were slaughtered to give the "chosen people" what they wanted likely didn't feel your gods "love." His love amounts to a land grab and power shift, nothing more.

      June 2, 2010 at 5:38 pm |
  15. sell

    Or you could just choose REASON and LOGIC instead of human revelationism.

    May 28, 2010 at 9:53 am |
  16. Bill

    It seems the more intelligent we become the more confident we have in ourselves........sometimes leaning us toward thinking God doesn't exist......truly we are in control......big mistake. Nothing can change the truth about God and His son Jesus. I hope that we will become intelligent enough to understand that God exisits and what we should be doing is seeking His understanding on all things. Good Ex: When a cure for a disease is found or something almost impossible in physics someone takes the credit.......let me bring a powerful awareness to all.......we invent nothing nor do we create anything.....we merely discover what already exists.......how can we take the credit nor not undrestand that if something already exists there must already exist a source for all these discoveries......you want evidence and facts to believe........there it is summarized for you.......the source of all things already exists.......we are not creating anything the ceration already exists!

    May 28, 2010 at 8:47 am |
    • Ituri

      Bill, being confident with what we know and can do has very little with your personal favorite made-up deity. We who prefer reality don't need a veil of "control" to understand that all things have natural causes, and that we are no different. That may be scary to religious people, who have a rampant need to disquise their mortality with fantasy afterlives, but there really is no reason to be afraid of reality, and that includes death. You can rant all you like about god and Hey-zues, but reality doesn't alter at your whim.

      As people become more intelligent they leave fantasy behind, and for good reason. Perhaps you need to "understand" more about why that is, rather than lament the loss of religious power. The works of man are the works of man, and your romantic religious idealism doesn't change the fact that if a man cures a disease, that man deserves the credit for those lives he saved. These discoveries come by study of nature and natural process, not through callousing your knees in service to a fantasy.

      You may require a "source" of all things on which to lean, but this is your assumption, nothing more.

      June 2, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
  17. George

    Faith and Church shopping has been with us from the dawn of Christianity. Most of the Church Father's writings were apologetics and were targeted towards herecies. What's the cause? Look no further than American pluralism and its child relativism. What's the cure? I'm not entirely sure but I'm sure that I won't ask BP to spearhead that.

    May 28, 2010 at 7:49 am |
  18. Edward

    Going to Church weekly is supposed to help sustain a community's sense of solidarity and modernization isn't good. Dissension in opinions, however, is always good–and it can be suppressed by traditionalism, especially when those who want it feel threatened by the dissenters. What continues in the middle is the debate, and no one should deny that everyone should always work for peace, to settle arguments in friendship, and to identify (and celebrate) the many things we all share, which in my opinion at least, far outnumber the things we all don't. If you can, therefore, go to Church with an open mind, to help the debate build everyone a better community.

    May 28, 2010 at 12:22 am |
  19. glenn

    I can't help but notice that the first time abortion is mentioned in the article, it is euphemistically called "terminating a pregancy". This is sort of like calling an amputation "terminating an extremity". Moreover, it is less precise than "abortion" since "terminating a pregnancy" could also mean a miscarriage or even a birth.)

    I suppose that the reason for the ambiguous language is that "abortion" has negative connotations, and the authors didn't want those negative connotations to cause anyone who is considering an abortion to think twice about it. Well, OK. But pretty soon "terminating a pregancy" will have the same negative connotations. It's not the words that offend, Ms. Authors; it's the act.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
    • Ituri

      Bunch of subjection nonsense on your part. If you don't like abortion, fine. Don't have one. But for so long as we ignore the social ills that CAUSE a need for safe abortion exist, we will have abortion, no matter what term you prefer for it. Until then I'm not interested in punishing women who have few options already.

      That, and if you vote on a singular issue like abortion, then you aren't mature enough to be voting in the first place. The "lets ban abortion" crowd is easily led in circles by politicians who know full well they can manipulate you, even though they know full well abortion rights are going nowhere. Have fun being led around on a pet detail.

      June 2, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  20. DaveSEMassachusetts

    I'm in one of those slowly collapsing-in-the-middle churches. We have liberal and conservative members, but I know we've lost some members in recent years because we weren't conservative enough. I don't know that we've lost members because we were too conservative, but we definitely have many members of all political stripes who only show up 5 or 10 times per year. It's not a great situation, but it does reflect the main points of the article. Just the same, we have folks of all stripes who will stay to the bitter end because of the love they share for the place and each other.

    Our church happens to be very pro-science because we see science as a means to help more people and that's what Jesus intended. We believe science and belief can and should co-exist. We mostly don't condemn those who have no use for faith or even think that those that do are idiots – I used to think I was my own God and understand the viewpoint. Telling non-believers that they're going to rot in hell accomplishes nothing and perhaps making such condemnations is the surest way to end up rotting in hell oneself. Way to spread the love of Christ – he'd be so proud.

    Those of you who who've dismissed the Christian church because you think all Christian churches are full of bible literalists and fire and brimstone racists, sexists, and homophobes*, may I suggest that you spend a Sunday morning at your local Episcopal church. You might be surprised at how many scientists, doctors, and engineers attend and realize, as I finally did, that maybe you don't know everything. You'll see a sign near your local church – The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. That includes all of you, regardless of what you do or don't believe.

    *Should your local church turn out to be full of racists, sexists, and homophobes, my sincere apologies. Christ pointed out that we all have a lot of work to do. If we were all perfect, we'd be Christ.

    May 27, 2010 at 4:10 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.