Looking for strong political prejudices? The Atlantic offers a U.S. map packed with revelations

A quarter of a century ago, America was already a bitterly divided nation — especially on matters of religion, culture, morality and politics.

Thus, liberal theologian Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School (author of the ‘60s bestseller, “The Secular City”) was shocked when he invited to lecture at Regent University. It’s hard, he noted in The Atlantic (“Warring Visions of the Religious Right”), to titillate his sherry-sipping colleagues in the Harvard faculty lounge, but accepting an invitation to invade the Rev. Pat Robertson’s campus did the trick.

Cox was pleased to find quite a bit of diversity at Regent, in terms of theological and political debates. He was welcomed, and discovered lots of people testing the borders of evangelicalism — other than on moral issues with strong doctrinal content. He found Episcopalians, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers.

Politically, too, the students and faculty members I met represented a somewhat wider spectrum than I had anticipated. There are some boundaries, of course. I doubt that a pro-choice bumper sticker would go unremarked in the parking lot, or that a gay-pride demonstration would draw many marchers. But the Regent student newspaper carried an opinion piece by the well-known politically liberal evangelical (and "friend of Bill") Tony Campolo. … One student told me with obvious satisfaction that he had worked hard to defeat Oliver North in the Virginia senatorial contest last fall. If there is a "line" at Regent, which would presumably be a mirror image of the political correctness that is allegedly enforced at elite liberal universities, it is not easy to locate.

The bottom line: Cox found limits to the diversity at Regent, but they were limits that left him thinking about Harvard culture. In terms of debates on critically important topics, which school was more diverse?

I thought of that classic Cox essay a computer click or two into a must-read new essay at The Atlantic that ran with this double-decker headline:

The Geography of Partisan Prejudice

A guide to the most—and least—politically open-minded counties in America

So where does one find diversity that matters, people who are trying to be tolerant of their neighbors who represent different cultures and belief systems? You wouldn’t know that by reading that headline.

So let’s jump-start this a bit with the headline atop the Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher take on this piece, which has been updated several times (including his detailed reaction to a criticism from one of the authors). That headline: “Least Tolerant: Educated White Liberals.”

Where is Dreher coming from? Here is a key passage in the interactive Atlantic piece:

We might expect some groups to be particularly angry at their political opponents right now. Immigrants have been explicitly targeted by the current administration, for example; they might have the most cause for partisan bias right now. But that is not what we found.

In general, the most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves. This finding aligns in some ways with previous research by the University of Pennsylvania professor Diana Mutz, who has found that white, highly educated people are relatively isolated from political diversity. They don’t routinely talk with people who disagree with them; this isolation makes it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents. … By contrast, many nonwhite Americans routinely encounter political disagreement. They have more diverse social networks, politically speaking, and therefore tend to have more complicated views of the other side, whatever side that may be.

We see this dynamic in the heat map. In some parts of the country, including swaths of North Carolina and upstate New York, people still seem to give their fellow Americans the benefit of the doubt, even when they disagree. In other places, including much of Massachusetts and Florida, people appear to have far less tolerance for political difference. They may be quicker to assume the worst about their political counterparts, on average.

How might this affect public discourse in America, especially on hot-button topics linked to religion, politics, morality and, yes, journalism?

To address that question, Dreher turns to the interactive map with the Atlantic essay. Trigger warning: Dreher is rather blunt:

White, highly educated people are the most politically intolerant in the entire country. These are the people who congregate in Boston, New York and Washington. I would love to see the demographic breakdown of who the decision-makers in major-media newsrooms are, as well as in other US institutions. We know from other demographic data that the more educated you are, the more likely you are to be liberal.

Look at this finding: “the most politically intolerant county in America appears to be Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which includes the city of Boston.” Here’s a map of Suffolk County:

Cambridge, home of Harvard University, is in neighboring Middlesex County. According to the researchers, it is equally as prejudiced as Suffolk County. So the most elite university in America is also located in the county that is most prejudiced — in this case, against Republicans.

One of the “big ideas” that run through years of work here at religion is that many journalists make the mistake of assuming that religion doctrines are really just political beliefs and prejudices hiding behind a theological mask. Politics, after all, is journalism about things that are real. Religion? Not so much.

But what if political views evolve into doctrines, for many Americans who think that they have walked away from the narrow world of religious faith? Let’s go back to the Atlantic essay:

As politics have become more about identity than policy, partisan leanings have become more about how we grew up and where we feel like we belong. Politics are acting more like religion, in other words.

This is partly because partisan identities have begun to line up with other identities, as Lilliana Mason describes in her book, Uncivil Agreement. Making assumptions about people’s politics based on their race or religiosity is easier than it was in the past. Black people get typed as Democrats; people who go to church on Sunday are assumed to be Republicans. (But as always, stereotypes still mask complexity: About half of black Americans go to church at least once a week, for example, a far higher rate than that of white Americans.)

In other words, partisan prejudice now includes a bunch of other prejudices, all wrapped up into one tangled mess. “Americans are really divided, but not in terms of policy; they’re divided in terms of identity,” Mason says. 

For millions of Americans, this sense of identity is linked — for better AND for worse — with religion.

Journalists who dug deep into that headline-friendly Pew Forum study on the religiously unaffiliated — “Nones on the Rise“ — found that for many of these Americans their lives were truly defined by their rejection of traditional religious teachings on sexuality and related moral issues. In other words, their rejection of these doctrines had evolved into doctrines that defined how they related to their neighbors.

This reminded me of studies, beginning 15 years ago, by two political scientists at the City University of New York. Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce had discovered a powerful niche “secular” group in American life — voters and political activists driven by their fierce opposition (“hatred” even) — of “fundamentalist” Protestants and Catholics. Click here (2004) and here (2017) for two “On Religion” columns about their work.

Apparently, people who life in “flyover” country are, to one degree or another, surrounded by the viewpoints found in elite media, entertainment, academia and elsewhere. Many of them develop Trump-style anger about that, but many do not — especially when dealing with their neighbors. But the people in the deep-blue centers of urban power? Not so much.

This is a provocative must-read and the interactive map — county-by-county data — is worthy of close attention by journalists.

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