By Mark Mellman - 12/16/09 12:22 AM EST
Despite our current economic crisis, cultural politics remains firmly entrenched. Recent Gallup data demonstrate that religiosity still powerfully structures political attitudes. Gallup defines more than a third of the public as “highly religious,” and among non-Hispanic whites in that category, Republicans sport a 34-point lead in party identification. At the other end of the spectrum, among non-religious whites, Democrats enjoy a 28-point advantage.
Obama’s gains were registered among those who rarely, if ever, grace a religious institution with their presence.
With differences in political behavior so striking and persistent, it’s worth exploring the ways in which religious and secular voters differ, as well as how those differences map onto politics.
Some chalk it all up to a couple of issues — abortion and gay marriage. In truth, it goes much deeper.
Contemporary political orientations emerge from worldviews that diverge on at least three fundamental dimensions:
Autonomy vs. authority — Secular voters celebrate personal autonomy, according primacy to individuals’ right to direct their own lives with as little interference as possible. “Do your own thing, as long as you don’t hurt anybody” became a mantra of secular thinking. Those on the religious end of the spectrum often subordinate autonomy to what they regard as higher authorities — priests, popes, ministers, imams, rabbis, even G-d.
Piety vs. humanism — Religious voters elevate piety — gratitude and respect for the source of our existence — to a central place. Secular voters tend toward humanism, which attaches primacy to the human over the divine, sometimes denying the latter and rejecting the distinction between the sacred and the secular.
Purity and fairness — As Professor Jonathan Haidt has made clear, these are not opposites, but arise from very different moral emotions. Secular morality is driven by concerns about fairness, reciprocity and the need to prevent others from being harmed. Religion, too, advocates fairness — Deuteronomy first codified it in the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But religious voters respond to other moral emotions, some of which are predicated on purity, which turns concerns about bodily activities like sex, for example, into a moral contest between the carnal and the chaste.
These differences underlie the political G-d gap, as well as attitudes on specific issues.
Democrats’ issue discourse is decidedly secular, wrapped in autonomy, humanism and fairness. Rarely are fairness and justice not at the heart of our rhetoric when Democrats speak out. We embrace personal autonomy as a core value that dictates our positions in a variety of spheres, while emphasizing the humanistic, rational tradition and rarely veering into the sacred. Indeed, discussions of piety and purity cause us congenital discomfort.
Republicans, by contrast, veer toward the religious perspective, seeing respect for authority — heavenly and earthly — as the foundation of a good society. They embrace piety and espouse purity. Hence Republicans and Democrats are about as likely to divide over premarital sex as over abortion and gay marriage.
The G-d gap reflects a fundamental values gap that will not be closed merely by “outreach” or by talking about issues like poverty that unite religious and secular voters. If Democrats truly want to win religious voters, they must adopt a new vocabulary and a different perspective, without betraying the values that define us.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.