Religion, Race, and Political Polarization in America

by Dorsey Bass

Written for Issues and Elections: Electoral Politics (LARTS 344, Fall 2010)

Polarization in the American political arena seems to be on everyone’s mind these days. Experts are divided on the causes of this problem, or indeed, whether it is really a problem at all. Morris Fiorina, professor of political science at Stanford University and co-author of “Polarization in the American Public: Misconceptions and Misreadings,” argues that polarization is largely the result of noisy activists and elites, and that the majority of Americans have remained as moderate as ever. Others, such as Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders, authors of “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Reality of a Polarized America,” argue that there is a widening gap between conservatives and liberals, red states and blue states, rural evangelicals and secular city dwellers. Abramowitz offers convincing evidence that there has been a shift in the American public’s political views, but argues that this shift is much more complicated than a simple divide between Republicans and Democrats. The cause of this so-called political polarization is a complex mix of cultural, religious, and racial issues and tensions.

Abramowitz’s strongest evidence is in the divide between religious and secular voters. Data from the 2004 National Exit Poll show a significant gap between white regular churchgoers and white secular voters on a range of issues including abortion, gay marriage, and the Iraq War. Evidence gathered from this poll also shows that “among white voters, two variables measuring religious beliefs and practices, church attendance and born-again or evangelical identification, were more strongly correlated with party identification and presidential candidate choice than any other social characteristic including income, education, gender, marital status, and union membership” (Abramowitz 15). Furthermore, the religious/secular divide has increased among whites since the 1950s; Abramowitz concludes that “[t]he religious divide is now much deeper than the class divide in American politics” (16).

In many respects, this trend makes a lot of sense—there has been a resurgence of evangelical Christianity in the past few decades, and of course evangelicals generally support conservative positions on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion. If religion is the basis of—or at least the strongest contributing factor to—polarization, then polarization would appear to be a cultural phenomenon rooted in religion: even if polarization extends well beyond the born-again and/or evangelical crowd, it is the presence of those evangelicals and the influence of their views that is driving the shift.

From an ideological standpoint, however, this explanation falls short. Evangelical Christianity generally takes a clear and conservative position on social issues such as abortion and LGBT rights, but not on economic or foreign policy issues (with the possible exception of support for Israel). If a cultural divide rooted in religion were the cause of political polarization is the US, one would expect polarization to exist primarily in social issues rather than issues of economic and foreign policy. This may be true to some extent, but Abramowitz’s research suggests that polarization extends across a much broader set of issues, and that both ideological identification (liberal vs. conservative) and the alignment of that identification with liberal or conservative positions on a variety of issues has increased substantially since 1972 (7). So if polarization on non-social issues does not come from evangelical Christianity itself, even if it is an influence, where does it come from?

A key distinction in Abramowitz’s data is that he refers only to the differences between religious and secular white voters. It is well documented that African-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic, including many African-Americans who are religiously and socially conservative. In fact, being African-American is a much better indicator of voting patterns than either evangelical identification or church attendance (at least in the 2004 presidential elections from which Abramowitz draws his data), which may indicate that race is more important than religion in the shift towards political polarization. Unfortunately—although understandably—Abramowitz does not delve into the topic of race.

Merle Black’s study of the Southern Democratic party, however, provides a good starting point for the discussion of race in American politics. In his essay “The Transformation of the Southern Democratic Party,” Black describes how white voters in the South moved from overwhelming Democratic identification to identifying with the Republican Party. He traces this development to the civil rights movement, especially to the joining of “racial liberalism to economic liberalism” during the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson (Black 1010). White voters in the South recognized that Republicans were more aligned with their interests and less likely to support civil rights for African-Americans, and they switched party affiliation accordingly.

Black notes that “the crucial turning point” in Southern whites’ party identification “was the 1984 presidential election between Reagan and Walter Mondale . . . Reagan took conservative positions on a wide range of issues: civil rights, the role and size of the federal government, tax cuts, a stronger military and national defense, and conservative cultural and religious issues” (1010). What Black does not point out is that while civil rights are clearly an issue of race, Reagan’s other conservative positions, specifically in regard to economic policy, were also intimately tied to race. Limiting the role and size of the federal government resonates strongly with people who have long supported “states’ rights” in defense of racist laws and policies. Reagan’s focus on individualism and curbing government entitlements is highly racialized as well—he was able to tap into an underlying resentment of whites towards African-Americans by conjuring images of lazy minorities taking advantage of government entitlements, the most notorious of these myths being the “welfare queen.” Conveniently, this encouraged white voters to support economic policies that favored the rich, as policies that favored the poor and working class would undoubtedly be taken advantage of by the black boogeymen and women that Reagan and other conservatives were busily conjuring.

The alliance of economic conservatism with white racism, though never articulated directly by its proponents, created an ideological bloc that previously did not exist in American politics. White social conservatives, including many evangelicals, vote for conservative economic policies not simply because they are packaged with issues such as abortion and gay marriage, but because liberal economic policies are associated with assistance to racial and ethnic minorities. This is not to say that white conservatives are consciously thinking, “I want my vote to screw over African-Americans” (although surely some of them are), but that many whites believe that liberal economic policies disproportionately help racial and ethnic minorities, rather than themselves or members of their own communities, and that an undercurrent of resentment towards minorities and a fear of losing privilege exerts a strong influence on how they vote.

The tangled, confused emotions that racial issues elicit in many white people is most visible now in the rise of the Tea Party movement. Tea Partiers do not generally concede that race is an issue at all in this country—in fact, if you bring it up you are likely to be called a racist. However, the preponderance of “birthers” and the rampant Islamophobia in the Tea Party suggests otherwise. After all, why should Obama, whose “socialist” health care plan didn’t even include a public option, be made out to be such a radical? It is precisely the perceived alignment between the rights of ethnic and racial minorities and liberal economic policies (or as Tea Partiers see it, black power and socialism) that creates this explosive reaction to Obama—and thus to his policies.

The phenomenon of polarization in American politics is somewhat misnamed: what has happened is not so much the movement of voters’ opinions from a moderate center to liberal and conservative poles, but an alignment of different political interests in a new and powerful way. Specifically, economic conservatism has been effectively tied to religious and social conservatism, and—more importantly—to resentment of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African-Americans. While this alignment is rarely if ever stated outright, it has created a political climate where conservatives frequently see no need to compromise their views. If America wants to deal with its polarized public, it has to deal with its race issues first. Whether or when this will actually happen remains to be seen, but as long as race cannot be discussed without allegations of “playing the race card” and an insistence that the United States is a “post-racial” society, we won’t get very far.

Works Cited

Abramowitz, Alan and Kyle Saunders. “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Reality of a Polarized America.” The Forum 3.2 (2005): 1-22.

Black, Merle. “The Transformation of the Southern Democratic Party.” The Journal of Politics 66.4 (2004): 1001-1017.

Fiorina, Morris, Samuel Abrams, and Jeremy Pope. “Polarization in the American Public: Misconceptions and Misreadings.” The Journal of Politics 70.2 (2008): 556-560.

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