Minding the US political 'God gap'

By Martin E. Marty
July 16, 2010

“A New Roadmap for Reaching Religious Americans on Public Policy Issues” is the subtitle for Beyond the God Gap, a 49-page report and chart for those who are trying to find their way among US religious groups as they show up in politics and culture.

The co-agents are think tank Third Way [no relation to the UK Christian magazine of the same name] and the Public Religion Research Institute, whose regular issuances are useful for those who would “reach” and also those who “observe” religious Americans.

The authors of Beyond the God Gap do know that there are non-religious people and forces out there, but in their minds they cannot be “reached” efficiently on public issues. Forget the “new atheists” then, for a moment, as the authors of this report do.

What is more, while both of the sponsors of this project have interests in all religions, Beyond the God Gap deals only with Christians. The surveyors know that the varieties of Jews and Muslims are also reaching and being reached on public policy issues, but the topic for the Third Way and PRRI is “Catholics” and “Protestants.”

What is clear from this and countless other opinion surveys is that the old standard typified by Will Herberg’s 1955 classic, Protestant, Catholic, and Jew, would be almost useless in changed America. What Herberg called “Protestant” stood for “White Mainline Protestants” (WMPs). He hardly noticed what today are termed “White Evangelical Protestants” (WEPs) or “African American Protestants” (AAPs). These are the two groups where the “reaching from and to” is most strenuous, effective, and controversial today.

Quick, now: Think of the few times when cable news dealt with “White Mainline Protestants” on public issues. We can foresee one, as the Presbyterian General Assembly soon will debate topics relating to Palestinians and Israelis. Another has to do with conflict over gay marriage and ordaining homosexuals.

For the rest, dealings with WMPs are mainly diversions as politicians and public figures court or avoid WEPs and AAPs, who encamp in sufficiently definable identity sectors to warrant attention.

Even here, Beyond the God Gap has to parse things somewhat more finely – for example, where they find substantial differences between young versus middle-aged WEPs on homosexuality and other such fronts of controversy.

It is also clear that there is no simple “Roman Catholics” group, since left and right factions there differ so much from each other that politicians using this road map might well drive into the ditch, and certainly will hit potholes. AAPs are somewhat more predictable when it comes to addressing public issues, or being reached. Most still vote Democratic and get cast as “liberal,” but their part of the map is also increasingly diverse.

The authors of this report say they set out to shatter stereotypes simply by interviewing citizens and finding where their loyalties and goals may be. Add up these diverse groups, and it is easy to see why three-fourths of the road-mapped groups resent it when some WEPs claim that theirs is “The Christian vote,” and when mass communicators sleepily suggest that when polled majorities among white evangelicals are interviewed as they exit voting booths, they should have a monopoly on the term “Christian,” as in “the Christian vote.”

They are claiming too much, and the members of the media who grant them a monopoly do the surveys, the faiths, and social scientists a disservice.

Beyond the God Gap will help with more accurate reporting, and give the public a better picture of how the religious groups line up at the polling places. The old model won’t work. A significant power shift has already occurred.


(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion - and the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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