Sunday, May 30, 2010

How Church Shopping is Polarizing the Country

By Naomi Cahn and June Carbone

Editor's Note: This article was first published on May 24 on the "Belief Blog" of CNN.

The difference in viewpoints between
traditionalists and modernists
has dramatic effects
on the culture wars, June Carbone and Naomi Cahn say.

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.

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.

Note: To read comments on the CNN website in response to this article, click here. To read Catholic commentator Colleen Kochivar-Baker's reflections on it, click here.


  1. Let me comment from the Traditionalist point of view. Rodney Stark has done some excellent work showing how religions that demand sacrifice grow and those that demand nothing decline. If you are a modernist who doesn't believe in transcendental things, like hell, then getting up on Sunday morning is not a priority. It might be nice to do it, but I don't owe God anything is how they think. Their religion has no real effect on their life hence they kill their unborn child without a qualm. They are practical atheists with a patina of Catholic culture. So of course they have little to say and no desire to hear. They think all is well. A traditionalist actually believes in the Catholic faith. It makes a difference in daily life. I want to go to Mass, but I owe God due worship so I go even if I don't feel like it. I don't kill my unborn child as it is a mortal sin and morally evil. So who in the end is going to win in the Catholic Church? We already see it is NOT the so-called "progressives." You have been all to successful with many young people who now feel no sense of Catholic faith or identity. Those of us who remain have no desire to follow you down the wide path that heads down. In the end it is the John Paul and Benedict Catholics who will remain and begin to rebuild from the desolation left by the modernists.

  2. This is fascinating! I left the Catholic Church 13 years ago for the more "modernist" ELCA. People don't "get" that I am socially liberal and a Christian. It's sad that we have gotten to a place where people think that's odd. God is not Republican or Democrat, so the fact that political beliefs and religious beliefs are so closely intertwined is interesting to me.

  3. Dear Cestus Dei. Interesting name you use. Does it have some theological import for you? I'd like to hear about it. I think I know the kind of shallow, amoral person you are talking about, and I wish you wouldn't classify all of us who call ourselves "progressive" with that person. I identify with the idea of progressive but I go to Mass on Sunday and I would not kill my unborn child. When some other activity seems momentarily more attractive to me than going to church I can think about it and decide that I will go because I love God. The community of believers I join at Mass is always inspiring by the fact of their being there. We enter into the mystery together and the reign of God is revealed. You and I could be worshipping side by side--you calling yourself a traditionalist, me calling myself a progressive,, and the question is can we see ourselves as brother and sister in Christ?
    Wasn't the point of the article we are commenting on that both superficial traditionalists and superficial progressives become isolated in their own ideologies? I am taking "the middle" that has dropped out to be lovers of tradition who are openminded, i.e. people who are both traditionalist and progressive at the same time. What do you think the "middle" means?

  4. Hi, cestusdei. I will tell you the things here in Portugal, a very conservative counthry in the south of Europe.
    I live between 2 Dioceses, Lisbon, the capital and Santarém, a small, rural, 100 parishes diocese 120Km distance from the capital.

    Here in the capital most of the pastoral service is now done by African Priests, just becouse the Church has no Portuguese Priests in the proper number to serve the communities in charge... Large amount of people are absolutely racist and abandoned the Church, incredibly, just because the Priest is black!... Last 10 years the number of boys in seminaries is decreasing fast. Currently we have only more or less 30 students in the minor seminar (the first 2 years of the degree) from 6 different dioceses and Africans too. Average clergy age is 72 years old. Some are ill and continue their minister just because they have no replacement. Some parishes have medium groups of children, youth and young adults, but only the open minded ones with a modern methodology of teaching and worship and one or another from the charismatic or radical tridentine view, absorving people from all the city who agree with the "flavour" of faith porposed in each parish and not from the traditional local area. Average age of attendees is more or less 75 years old and with a small number of children or young people in the majority of parishes.

    In the small village things are even worse. Last 10 years only 4 boys entered the seminar. 2 of them abandoned in the end of the first year. The last ordination in this conservative diocese was for one of my best friends and other 3 colleagues (1 of them to the Jesuit missions) 9 years ago!... Next expected ordinations will be in 2015 for these 2 seminarists if they remain and pass all they exams... Average clergy age is 76, with no replacement possible with the Africans just because population is extremely racist. Some Italians are well succeed helping the diocese, but even Spanish or Priests from another counthries are not very welcomed. Only people with more than 60 years attend Mass weekly.

    I used to be a conservative Catholic like you, cestusdei, but I realise, in these conditions there is no future to our Church. We have to do something, certainly, but radicalism is not an answer!...

    Good evening!

  5. And I forgot: Nowadays Portugal is 90% of population Roman Catholic baptised, now, more or less 20% of population attending the church weekly.

    Excuse me to be so long and my English mistakes! I'm not a native English speaker!...

    Good Evening!...