Religious and cultural cleavage

Other boundary shifts of religion and culture are divisive and polarizing. Controversies over moral values and lifestyles tend to pull people in either a left-ward or right-ward direction. They generate pressures that cut across faith communities, reflecting new alignments of religion, culture, and polit­ics. Conservative Protestants, for example, often have far more in common with traditional Catholics (including many Latinos) and Orthodox Jews than they do with liberal Protestants. Congregations themselves are often intern­ally divided. Given that over 90 percent of Americans report believing in God, religious beliefs and values easily get drawn into controversial moral issues and often invoked passionately. Even college-educated American Muslims, much newer to the American scene and more self-contained within their community, are increasingly pulled into public discussion.20

Debate over values, morality, and lifestyles became more pronounced during the Reagan era of the 1980s. For televangelists and fundamentalist preachers, the issue was the gap between Judeo-Christian principles, on which the country and its way of life were founded, and misguided liberals, non-believers, left-leaning ideologues, and secular-humanists. This rhetoric increased in the years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall when reactionary Americans began to look for internal enemies in place of the communist threat. Patrick Buchanan brought the notion of moral warfare to the atten­tion of the nation in his declaration of a “war for the nation’s soul” at the

Republican National Convention in 1992. Of growing importance were divisions not grounded in economic class, race, or some other structural source of inequality, but instead in moral values and lifestyles. Partly be­cause it is simplistic, the resulting rhetoric – “us” versus “them” – was useful in mobilizing moral and religious crusades, aimed particularly at a growing Evangelical audience concerned about traditional values and whose political involvement was on the rise.

In 1989, sociologist Robert Wuthnow described the situation as follows: “one finds general agreement in the following points: (a) the reality of the division between two opposing camps; (b) the predominance of ‘fundamen­talists,’ ‘evangelicals,’ and ‘religious conservatives’ in one and the predom­inance of ‘religious liberals,’ ‘humanists,’ and ‘secularists’ in the other; and (c) the presence of deep hostility and misgiving between the two.”21 He cited survey data from as early as 1984 showing that even religious people in the country were split down the middle between these two camps: 43 percent of those surveyed claiming to be religious liberals and 41 percent religious conservatives. Two years later, James Davison Hunter went fur­ther, describing the situation as a “culture war,” naming the two opposing camps as “orthodox” versus “progressives.”22 In his view the two constitu­encies differ primarily in their views of moral authority. The orthodox see authority as arising out of transcendent sources and emphasize the central­ity of biblical text and divine revelation as opposed generally to scientifically and evolutionary explanations. Progressives, on the other hand, see author­ity as resting within society and underscore the arbitrary character of texts, teachings, and moral codes. Hunter saw the cleavage intensified by the growing number of religiously non-affiliated, free-thinking, and atheist constituencies who typically align themselves with progressives. These are the people – along with some religious liberals – who most express alarm about the intrusion of God-talk in the public arena. A small “Religious Left” now joins them, calling for greater attention on the part of the religiously faithful to social justice.

Progressives are concerned with how conservatives have co-opted God – talk in support of their pro-capitalist and national imperialistic views; they also point to the fact that religious language is just as adaptable to progressive causes, and thus subject to ideological construction. A good example is the German director Wim Wender’s film, Land of Plenty, set in Los Angeles two years after the World Trade Center attacks, in which the leading woman character is an idealistic young missionary looking for her uncle, a Vietnam veteran. As a Christian, Wenders wanted to emphasize the compatibility of liberal ideas and Christian ideas. In spite of excellent reviews the film cannot find a buyer in the United States, indicating, as

Wenders put it, “that Christian ideas are so occupied by the right-wing that [buyers] don’t know what to do with [the film].”23 Speaking of how conservatives use religious language, television com­mentator Bill Moyers writes:

And they hijacked Jesus. The very Jesus who stood in Nazareth and pro­claimed, “The Lord has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor.” The very Jesus who told 5,000 hungry people that all of you will be fed, not just some of you. The very Jesus who. . . offered kindness to the prostitute and hospitality to the outcast, who raised the status of women and treated even the tax collector like a child of God. . . This Jesus has been hijacked and turned into a guardian of privilege instead of a champion of the dispossessed. Hijacked, he was made over into a militarist, hedonist, and lobbyist, sent prowling the halls of Congress in Guccis, seeking tax breaks and loopholes for the powerful, costly new weapon systems that don’t work, and punitive public policies.24

This division within the culture is linked to old religious controversies from the early 1900s between the “fundamentalists” and the “modernists,” but is now more visibly aligned with politics. It became more apparent as a backlash to the moral and political freedom of the 1960s and early 1970s, and has continued down to the present. Issues pertaining to women’s reproductive rights, stem cell research, and, most recently, homosexuality have been at the center of the controversy. Family as an institution is a key concern. Progressives talk about “individual rights,” and accept new types of families formed on the basis of choice; conservatives counter with the rhet­oric of “family values,” insist that marriage be restricted to heterosexual couples, and stress legitimate male authority in marriage and parental con­trol over children, all judged to be in accord with biblical teachings. To an extent, the cleavage is exaggerated by the media, including televangelism, which has become an important means of popular persuasion especially for conservatives. Typically, the media portray issues in the most extreme ver­sion, and thus help to polarize public opinion. Important, too, are the many special-interest organizations selectively retrieving religious teachings and symbols suitable to their ideology. Both liberals and conservatives make use of mass marketing techniques and the Internet as a means of mobilizing large numbers of people around one or another moral perspective.

Of considerable importance in understanding the basis for this cleavage is the expansion of higher education since the i950s. Large public universities have replaced small religious colleges as the major educational institutions. This expansion has placed greater emphasis on science and technology, their values and worldviews. It has also brought about greater attention to biblical criticism and the study of comparative religions, which in turn has encouraged greater relativism in matters of faith and ethics. Important too is the rise of the “knowledge class,” those whose work involves the creation, distribution, and interpretation of symbolic knowledge in a modern, infor­mation-oriented society. These latter tend to look upon values, beliefs, and moral codes as themselves humanly constructed. They are thus less inclined to affirm them as absolute or universal. College-educated baby boomers born after World War II are still far less inclined to attend religious services and hold to literal biblical truths than a previous generation, and more likely to look upon all religions as differing paths to similar goals. Religious conservatives benefit from a backlash against the agnosticism and secularity of the highly educated and media elites; they exploit the moral relativism and lack of religious teachings in schools by offering absolute answers to life’s big questions. At bottom is an irreconcilable conflict in truth-claims.

Talk of a “God-gap” emerged in the 2004 presidential election as poll­sters and commentators recognized a radically realigned pattern of religion and politics. Based on survey studies prior to the election, it became evident that the best predictor of voting Republican was religious attendance, better than economic class, race, gender, or region. This current coalescence of churchgoing and Republican preference breaks significantly with earlier voting patterns. Until quite recently, both Republicans and Democrats drew upon a sizable social base that would describe itself as religious; both political parties appealed to civil religious values and symbols in their campaigns. But at a time when cultural values are more important than economic issues, political conservatives have as Bill Moyers says, “hijacked Jesus.” This pattern runs against political loyalties as Americans have long expressed them. Working-class Americans, once inclined to vote Demo­cratic for bread-and-butter reasons, are now likely to respond to concerns about values and lifestyles as much, if not more than, economic issues. Even Latinos, who on economic grounds would likely vote Democratic, are divided, many of them drawn to positions on moral and lifestyle issues championed by the Republicans. The same divide has emerged among African Americans, who are now being drawn to the Republicans as Presi­dent Bush’s party seeks their support by providing financial backing through faith-based initiatives. Some argue that the churches should accept federal funding while others point out that the government is simply trying to stifle black activism. A bulwark of support for Democrats in the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the South is now almost solidly a Republican stronghold. Republicans are now seen as the party of God and country, Democrats as the party of liberal elites, humanists, and secularists, those uncomfortable with religious language.

Not to be overlooked, too, is the role of the Supreme Court in creating these new alliances. Prayer in public schools was ruled unconstitutional in 1962. This ruling rattled the Protestant establishment, which had long relied upon the schools to impose its prayers and ceremonies with little regard for people of other faiths or no faith. Then, in 1973, Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the first trimester and made it negotiable in the second and third. It was this decision handed down by the highest court in the land that galvanized the country into intensely divided “pro-life” and “pro-choice” constituencies. Debates ever since have raged over basic moral and religious questions centered on the issue of when human life begins, the rights of the mother versus those of the fetus, and the role of the government in such private matters. Concern now arises out of the possibility that freedom of conscience is threatened by the Supreme Court and that the Bush adminis­tration might push to restrict possibilities for abortion in late-term pregnan­cies and appoint justices to the Supreme Court who may try to overturn the i973 decision. In the past couple of years, battles have focused on issues that evoke strong moral and religious reaction such as marriage rights for gay couples and the “under God” clause in the American pledge of allegiance in the schools.

Updated: 18th July 2015 — 3:16 pm