The Greatest Divide? Don't ask moral questions in pews

There is an old, old saying among God-beat professionals. What most mainstream newspaper editors want when they assign a religion news story is "three anecdotes, a poll and a quote from Martin E. Marty."

That quote is so old I may already have used it on But it's relevant right now, because of a new column offered up by the nation's most quoted church historian on the "Sightings" page at the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago.

Marty was reacting to a series by Bill Bishop in the Austin American Statesman which noted (prepare for stunning observation) that there are basically two kinds of churches in America today and that they don't seem to have much in common with each other when it comes to morality, culture and politics. He calls one side "modernist" and the other side "traditionalist."

Bishop doesn't dig too deep into the theology of this, other than to say that churches on the left are more "universalist." Bingo. Give the man a prize.

(Religious) beliefs and practices have come to align with political party, according to surveys conducted by John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. People who follow more traditional religious practices -- Protestants who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and Catholics who accept the authority of the Pope -- generally supported Bush in 2000 and say they will vote for him again this year.

Those in what Green describes as "modernist" religious congregations, for example, churchgoers who were more ecumenical, or universalist, in their beliefs, tend to vote Democratic, regardless of denomination. Traditional evangelicals support Bush by 68 percentage points over Kerry in Green's latest poll, taken in the spring. But modernist evangelicals back Kerry by 8 percentage points over Bush.

Note the term "modernist evangelical" -- that deserves more attention. You'll be hearing more about the evangelical left in the months and years ahead. Then brace yourself for the charismatic left.

Bishop's "modernist" and "traditionalist" divide sounds very similar, of course, to Dr. James Davison Hunter's thesis in "Culture Wars," in which he described the worldviews of the "orthodox" (truth is transcendent, absolute and eternal) and the "progressives" (truth is personal, experiential and evolving). This sociologist at the University of Virginia Center on Religion and Democracy has been talking about the cultural and political implications of this new divide for 15 years or so. I dedicated by 10th anniversary column to his work.

Of course, anyone who covers the world of oldline Protestantism knows how this divide is shaping the wars among United Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans and everybody else on that side of the church aisle.

Ballot-box politics aside, when you look at these issues in terms of doctrine and sacraments, I have found that you can almost always sort these churches out by asking three ancient questions: (1) Did the resurrection of Jesus really happen -- in real time? (2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? (3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Get answers to those three questions and, nine out of 10 times, a journalist will know who he or she is dealing with in terms of this modernist/progressives vs traditionalist/orthodox divide. How does this affect politics? Well, what percentage of the heat in political life today is generated by discussions of issues linked to the Sexual Revolution, such as abortion and homosexuality? While we are at it, it is also interesting to ponder the impact of these questions on the growth and decline of churches and denominations.

So Bishop never should have expected to find churches in which people calmly and gracefully discuss the issues of the day. Martin Marty says so. Instead of calling his article on churches and politics "The Great Divide" between the two Americas, Bishop should have called it "The Greatest Divide." Marty noted:

To do our own framing, let me suggest an experiment for those who attend worship (non-attenders can easily get reports from experimenters). In the polite company of fellow-believers, on church premises, whisper words such as "Bush" or "Kerry," "Democrat" or "Republican." Thereupon, if you are not met with spite or spit, go on to the second part of the experiment: voice support for one party or candidate and reject the other. The custodian will clean up your broken glasses or other debris left over from the smashing that will follow. ...

A church building will not have a sign out front: "This is a Republican congregation" or vice versa. But when the Republicans go trolling for votes by asking for membership lists, or ask pastors for formal endorsements, they know exactly which congregations in any urban or town and country setting to approach. And Democrats, should they also go pushing the edges of I.R.S. regulations by asking tax-exempt churches to go partisan and support a candidate -- as some do especially in the case of African-American congregations -- they know better than to walk down the aisle of "the other kind" of church and bid.

This divide is disturbing, but real, noted Marty. Religious people have few chances to hear the arguments of other believers, or perhaps even the voice of divine judgment.

But politics will be politics and the religious voices are certainly not staying silent out there in the larger debates. If you don't believe me, check out the New York Times coverage of the landslide victory in Missouri for an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriages. You can click here or even here.

Print these stories out and grab a yellow highlighter pen. You should find a dozen or more passages that sound something like this ballot-box collision between two people who probably don't go to the same church.

Mary Klostermeier, 77, said she saw the need to bar gay marriage. "I guess I'm in the old school," Ms. Klostermeier said. "I'm just a very religious person."

But her friend Gene Gabianelli, 72, said he had voted against a ban. "People should do what they want to do," Mr. Gabianelli said. "This whole thing is all about politics as far as I can tell -- all about mobilizing people for George Bush."

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