FaithWorld

U.S. ideology stable, “culture trench warfare” ahead?

The U.S. Democratic Party has gained a larger following over the past two decades but America’s ideological landscape has remained largely unchanged over the past two decades, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. You can see the analysis here.

What is of interest for readers of this blog may be the implications of this “cultural trench warfare” — with neither side gaining much ground from the other — for red-hot social issues such as abortion rights and the future prospects for both the Republicans and the Democrats.

The Democratic Party’s advantage in party identification has widened over the past two decades, but the share of Americans who describe their political views as liberal, conservative or moderate has remained stable during the same period. Only about one-in-five Americans currently call themselves liberal (21 percent), while 38 percent say they are conservative and 36 percent describe themselves as moderate. This is virtually unchanged from recent years; when George W. Bush was first elected president, 18 percent of Americans said they were liberal, 36 percent were conservative and 38 percent considered themselves moderate,” the report, released late on Tuesday, says.

On the divisive issue of abortion rights, the report, using survey data from October, said 57 percent of Americans believed it should be legal. Breaking opinion up by ideology, it found that 43 percent of conservatives were in favour of it being legal while 77 percent of self-described liberals held that view.

This is not surprising — there are many Americans who regard themselves as economic or “tough on crime” or national security conservatives who still support abortion rights. What may surprise some is that 19 percent of liberals feel it should be illegal. These could be people influenced by Catholic social teaching or other trends who regard themselves as liberal on most issues but not this one.

Pew report looks at media coverage of faith in U.S. election

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and its sister organization The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have just released a study on the media coverage of religion in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. A summary of the findings with links to the whole report can be found here.

“Religion played a much more significant role in the media coverage of President-elect Barack Obama than it did in the press treatment of Republican nominee John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign, but much of the coverage related to false yet persistent rumors that Obama is a Muslim,” Pew said.

It added that there was scant scrutiny of the role of personal faith in the shaping of the candidates’ political values with the exception of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

WashPost column: “Armband religion killing Republican Party”

Has religion turned into a vote loser in U.S. elections? In covering the U.S. presidential campaign, most analysts took religion as an important vote-getting factor and asked which candidate was appealing most to which religious group. Much was made about how the Democrats were more comfortable with “Godtalk” on the trail.

Now Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker has asked whether religion has turned into a serious vote loser for the more faith-friendly party, the Republicans:

“The evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP is what ails the erstwhile conservative party and will continue to afflict and marginalize its constituents if reckoning doesn’t soon cometh. Simply put: Armband religion is killing the Republican Party … the GOP has surrendered its high ground to its lowest brows. In the process, the party has alienated its non-base constituents, including other people of faith (those who prefer a more private approach to worship), as well as secularists and conservative-leaning Democrats who otherwise might be tempted to cross the aisle.”

“Religulous” — a film call to atheist arms

Maher and director Larry Charles pose during Toronto International Film Festival, 7 Sept 2008/Mark BlinchComedian and talk-show host Bill Maher has issued the latest “call to atheist arms” in his recently released documentary “Religulous.”

He wants his fellow non-believers and doubters to “come out of the closet” to counter what he views as religion’s dangerous influence on the world. To do so, he preaches to the converted in “Religulous”, a scathing documentary that skewers Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

The film is part of the “neo-atheist” backlash to the rising influence of religion in public life, following a path recently blazed by a trio of best-selling books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Dawkins, a renowned Oxford biologist, has also presented a documentary critical of religion called “Root of all Evil?” on British television.

Monthly church attenders swing Obama’s way

Americans who attend church once or twice a month have become a sought after “swing vote” — and they are swinging to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in the run-up to the Nov 4. presidential election.

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That is one of the key findings of a new survey conducted by Public Religion Research on behalf of Faith in Public Life, a non-partisan resource center.

It found that, based on religious service attendance, the biggest shift in candidate preferences between 2004 and 2008 was among those who went once or twice a month. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry got 49 percent of their vote in 2004 while Obama is now pulling 60 percent.

Has the faith factor fizzled in the U.S. campaign?

Joe Biden and Sarah Palin after vice presidential debate, 3 Oct 2008/Carlos BarriaAfter the 2004 election, the buzz was that religion was a key factor in U.S. election campaigns. It’s come up this year with Barack Obama’s “pastor problem,” speculation about Sarah Palin’s Pentecostal church and several other points. So I thought it was worth getting up in the middle of the night (cable TV had it from 3 a.m. here in Paris) to see what if any role religion played in her debate with Joe Biden.

From that narrow point of view, I could have stayed in bed.

The only interesting point on any of the usually divisive “culture war” issues was the way Palin agreed with Biden that gay and lesbian couples should not be denied legal benefits granted to married heterosexual couples. “No one would ever propose, not in a McCain-Palin administration, to do anything to prohibit, say, visitations in a hospital or contracts being signed, negotiated between parties,” she said. Neither supported gay marriage, but that was their stated position already.

With the financial crisis dominating the news these days, there was little chance that these issues would take up much time in the debate. But the fact that Palin didn’t use the wedge issue when it arose was interesting. According to a new study by Beliefnet “moral issues are dramatically less important this year than in previous years – even among the most religiously observant voters.”

Pelosi’s abortion comments provoke Catholic criticism

Catholic leaders in Colorado and elsewhere have been swift to react to comments by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the Church itself had long debated when human life begins.

Nancy Pelosi kisses Pope Benedict’s ring in Washington as President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice look on, 16 April 2008//Larry Downing“… I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition … St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know. The point is, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose,” said Pelosi, seen at left kissing Pope Benedict’s ring during his visit to Washington in April.

In Denver, the venue for this week’s Democratic party national convention due to annoint Barack Obama as its presidential nominee on Thursday, Archbishop Charles Chaput and his Auxiliary Bishop James Conley said in a statement on Monday that Catholic teaching on the subject was unequivocal — abortion is gravely evil — and that “Catholics who make excuses for it … fool only themselves.” Similar comments came from Washington D.C. Archbishop Donald Wuerl.

Did Saddleback “faith quiz” cross church-state divide?

John McCain, Rick Warren and Barack Obama at Saddleback Civil Forum, 17 August 2008/Mark AveryDid Rick Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum with John McCain and Barack Obama violate the separation of church and state? Was it right for a pastor to ask U.S. presidential candidates about their belief in Jesus Christ or their worst moral failures? Will the success of the Saddleback Civil Forum mean that major televised interviews or debates about faith will become a regular fixture in American political campaigns?

I didn’t think questions like this got enough of an airing in U.S. media before Saturday’s event. The fact that Warren made it such an interesting evening made me think the fundamental question — should there be a televised “faith quiz” at all? — would be crowded out of the public debate. The initial reactions angled on the winner/loser question or the “cone of silence” issue seemed to bear this out. But some commentators and blogs are now zeroing in on the deeper question.

Obama and Warren, 17 August 2008//Mark AveryIn the New York Times, columnist Willian Kristol (Showdown at Saddleback) applauded the event and said: “Rick Warren should moderate one of the fall presidential debates.” That says a lot about the quality of the usual televised debates but little about the church-state question. Ruth Ann Dailey’s op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put her answer about the church-state question right in the headline: At Saddleback, the wall stands firm.

Does McCain see real faith factor in Russia-Georgia conflict?

Russian tank rolls through Georgian region of South Ossetia, 10 August 2008/Vasily FedosenkoRecognising when religion plays a part in a military conflict can be a tricky business. Its role can easily be overemphasized, underplayed or misunderstood. Having covered several such conflicts myself, I was curious when I saw Ted Olsen’s post at Christianty Today about how John McCain stresses Georgia’s Christian heritage when talking about its conflict with Russia. When Russian forces rolled into Georgia in support of pro-Moscow separatists there,  McCain’s reaction statement noted that Georgia was “one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion.” In his televised discussion with leading evangelical pastor Rick Warren on Saturday, he said “the king of then Georgia in the third century converted to Christianity. You go to Georgia and you see these old churches that go back to the fourth and fifth century.”

John McCain and Rick Warren, 17 August 2008/Mark AveryHistory is fascinating but McCain’s use of it here begs the question whether there is an actual faith factor in this conflict or just in his presentation of it. Russia, after all, is also a traditionally Christian nation, but he made no mention of that. After the fall of communism there, the Russian Orthodox Church has resumed its traditional role there — as has the Georgian Orthodox Church in the Caucasian republic after state-sponsored atheism lost out there too. There are no obvious doctrinal disputes that divide them.

Church-to-church relations also seem reasonable. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, senior officials of the two churches spoke by telephone last week and “declared their common peacemaking position and readiness to cooperate in this field.” Patriarchs of both churches have called for a ceasefire and condemned the violence among fellow Christians. “Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox peoples called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love confront each other,” Russia’s Primate Alexiy II said. “What is most important (is that) we (are) united with Christian faith and must live peacefully without blood,” Georgian Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II said.

New book on Republicans adds to U.S. “culture war” debate

Grand New PartyA new book on the U.S. Republican Party sets out an agenda that its authors argue will help weld working class voters — who have bounced between political allegiances over the decades — to the party as the foundation for the next conservative majority.

Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, by Ross Douthat, a senior editor at The Atlantic, and Reihan Salam, an associate editor at the same magazine, is already making some waves.

What readers of this blog may find most interesting is some of its comments on religious conservatives, a key Republican Party base, and its contribution to the growing debate about America’s “culture wars.”