The quiet rise of a secular coalition in US politics

By Terry Mattingly

NEA Columnist

NEW YORK -- Believe it or not, most Americans think their nation is becoming more tolerant, at least when it comes to warm feelings about most religious believers.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that, in terms of "thermometer" ratings, Americans felt "warmer" about nearly all religious groups than they did in 2014. Even normally "chilly" ratings for atheists and Muslims are approaching a neutral score of 50.

But there was one glitch in this warming trend, with evangelical Protestants stuck on a plateau. Christianity Today magazine noted that, when the views of evangelicals were removed from the mix, only a third of non-evangelical Americans had warm feelings toward evangelicals. Flip that around and that means two-thirds of non-evangelicals have lukewarm or cold feelings about evangelical Christians.

"There's a sharp divide in this country, and it's getting stronger. ... This tension has been obvious for years, for anyone with the eyes to see," said political scientist Louis Bolce of Baruch College in the City University of New York. "It's all about moral and social issues. Some people don't like the judgmental streak that they see in traditional forms of Christianity, like in evangelicalism and among traditional Roman Catholics."



Bolce and colleague Gerald De Maio have, over two decades, mustered research demonstrating that journalists have shown little or no interest in the liberal side of this divide. While offering in-depth coverage of the Christian Right, journalists have all but ignored a corresponding rise in what the Baruch College duo have called "anti-fundamentalist" activists. Among Democrats, the term "evangelical" has become as negative as the old "fundamentalist" label.

When journalists deal with religion and politics, "prejudice is attributed to people on the Religious Right, but not to people on the secular and religious left. Everything flows from that," said De Maio.

Journalists and researchers, he added, fail to "recognize secularism as an analytical category to describe beliefs found in American public life. ... They can see the Religious Right because they can see connections between what religious people believe and how they act. But they cannot see that secular people have beliefs that affect how they act."

Obviously, there have been dramatic changes in America's political landscape in recent decades, noted Bolce and De Maio in a 2014 article in the Journal of the American Society of Geolinguistics. In the past, Catholics, Jews and Southern evangelicals, black and white, backed the Democrats. Most non-Southern whites -- especially mainline Protestants -- voted Republican.

Then came the 1960s, with liberals in many religious traditions backing Democrats on issues of social justice, the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution. Evangelical Protestants, meanwhile, remained on the fringes of American political life -- until Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973. By the end of the 1970s, the Religious Right had emerged as a key force in the rise of President Ronald Reagan.

Digging into decades of elite news media coverage, Bolce and De Maio charted one dominant trend: Journalists and political scientists focused all of their attention on the political activities of religious conservatives in the Republican Party, while failing to note a corresponding pattern, especially among white voters, on the left.

Now, as researchers are focusing attention on the rising number of "religiously unaffiliated" Americans -- a third of millennial adults are "nones" -- Bolce and De Maio have noted that atheists, agnostics, "nones" and religious liberals are merging into a powerful coalition in the Democratic Party base.

Journalists have all but ignored this development.

"Partisan division rooted in religious differences -- at least from the perspective of the mainstream press -- was a Republican problem with occasional spillover effects afflicting the rest of America," wrote Bolce and De Maio, in their 2014 academic study. "The secularist-Democratic contribution to an increasingly religiously polarized nation was, for all intents and purposes, invisible to the press."

Most journalists and political professionals, said Bolce, "don't get this story because they see the secular or liberal point of view as normal and mainstream. ... It doesn't stand out for them and, thus, it isn't salient. It isn't news.

"What's newsworthy about normal people acting in what they believe is a normal, rational matter? But these conservative religious people stand out, and are seen as a threat, because their beliefs are not normal. That's news."

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