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The Party of Unbelievers

A new survey shows that the religion gap is bigger and of more consequence than you think--both for Republicans and Democrats.

11:00 PM, Jan 7, 2003 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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THE RELIGION GAP--the tendency of religious conservatives to vote Republican and of atheists, agnostics, and non-churchgoers to vote Democratic--is large, relatively new, and systematically underreported in the media. For while half the story, the GOP activism of religious traditionalists, is boringly familiar, the other half, the secularists' preference for the Democrats, passes nearly unnoticed in the prestige press. Consider some figures:

-The New York Times and Washington Post ran 682 stories about the GOP and evangelical or fundamentalist Christians between 1990 and 2000. During the same period, they ran 43 stories identifying secularists with the Democratic party.

-The network news shows, meanwhile, were abundantly covering the political activities and policy preferences of conservative Christians--but never reported the Democratic voting and policy activism of those without religion.

-Although the religion gap has dwarfed the gender gap in recent elections, the latter has had vastly more coverage--392 stories in the Times and Post in 1990-2000. In those same years, all of 14 stories pointed out the traditionalist-secularist divide between the parties.

The religion gap and the rise of a new type of voter--the anti-fundamentalist--is the subject of a fascinating piece in the Fall 2002 Public Interest. The article is long and political-sciency--the work of two professors at Baruch College, Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio--but full of interesting points.

Bolce and De Maio trace the emergence of the religion gap to the cultural liberals' capture of the Democratic nomination in 1972. "Prior to the late 1960s, there was something of a tacit commitment among elites in both parties to the traditional Judeo-Christian teachings regarding authority, sexual mores, and the family," they write. The nomination of George McGovern shattered that consensus on the Democratic side. This "secularist putsch" in one party set in motion what would eventually grow into the culture wars. (Another galvanizing event, of course, mere months later, was the Roe v. Wade decision in January 1973 by which the Supreme Court overturned all state restrictions on abortion.)

As secularists have grown more numerous, they have become an important Democratic voting bloc. In 1992, three out of four voted for Clinton, while religious conservatives chose Bush by two to one. Today, say Bolce and De Maio, secularists are as large and loyal a Democratic constituency as organized labor: In 2000, both "comprised about 16 percent of the white electorate, and both backed Gore with two-thirds of their votes."

Another striking finding is the intensity of many secularists' dislike of conservative Christians--vastly greater than any dislike of Jews of Catholics discernible in the survey data from the University of Michigan that the authors analyze. "One has to reach back to pre-New Deal America," they write, "when political divisions between Catholics and Protestants encapsulated local ethno-cultural cleavages over prohibition, immigration, public education, and blue laws, to find a period when voting behavior was influenced by this degree of antipathy toward a religious group."

As for why the Democrats' secularist support goes unreported, Bolce and De Maio articulate well the obvious explanation. Mostly secularists and Democratic voters themselves, elite journalists tend to see the influence of conservative Christians as a danger and therefore a story. At the same time, they are all too aware that Americans at large remain a predominantly religious people; thus, journalists "implicitly understand the political ramifications of characterizing the Democrats" as the party of unbelievers--a group even more disliked than Conservative Christians.

I'm not sure how I managed to miss this piece in the Public Interest, but I learned about it in that jewel of American journalism the Public Square, the 15-page roundup of thoughts and news items with which Richard John Neuhaus ends each issue of First Things. His item on Bolce and De Maio is in the January issue, which is not yet web-accessible to non-subscribers. Otherwise I would've simply sent you there.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.