Does The God Gap Matter?

Commentary

The reigning view of religion in America is that the ranks of both true believers and hardcore nonbelievers are growing and that the religious "middle," twice-a-year churchgoers, is dwindling. That is probably an accurate portrait.

But the standard political and cultural story that accompanies this account of the spirituality schism, I believe, is a cartoon at best and probably all wet. The "two Americas" gang believes America is divided into red and blue, liberal and conservative squadrons that can't abide each other.

Now, it is obvious that there are conservatives and liberals and there are religious people and nonreligious people, that their public arguments are loud and irreconcilable and they often feel threatened by each other. What I would suggest is that this schema focuses solely on the differences at the expense of the common ground, the public face not the private, and generally ignores the motivations, actual behavior and deep values of people.

However, there is some impressive new scholarly information about believers and nonbelievers in America that could enflame the already overheated fretting about the culture war we are allegedly waging.

"There is a real and growing theological polarization in American society," according to scholars at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., who have just published the American Religious Identification Survey 2008 (ARIS), a large, respected study that was previously conducted in 1990 and 2001.

The piety poles are these: 34 percent of the population believes they are "born again" while 25-30 percent does not believe there is a "personal divinity" at all.

The survey's authors, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, say the findings "reveal the cultural polarization between the pious and nonreligious portions of the national population, which are today roughly similar in size."

This seeming polarization is exacerbated when you look at where there is growth on the scales of American religiosity.

Overall, the country is becoming less Christian. The 1990 ARIS study found that 86.2 percent of the population described itself as Christian, a slice that shrank to 76 percent in 2008. Catholic, Baptist and "mainline" Christian faiths (e.g., Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopalian) populations declined, as did those who described themselves as Christian without a particular denomination. But there were more people who described themselves as evangelical or born again and in Pentecostal denominations. Now, 49 percent of all Christians describe themselves as "born again."

So traditional Christian denominations declined while the nontraditional and unaffiliated Christian population grew.

One other cohort grew: the "nones."

"Nones" either are atheists, agnostics or people who simply say they have no religion. They made up 15 percent of the 2008 population, up dramatically from 8.2 percent in 1990.

For those inclined to diagnose social schisms, these statistics give ammo to the culture war canon. Americans really are divided by piety. The numbers seem to support the idea common in political life that there is a God Gap: Believers are conservative and vote for Republicans, and nonbelievers are liberal and vote for Democrats.

This is a radical caricature, of course. After all, 80 percent of Americans say they believe in something. If there really were a God Gap, Barack Obama couldn't have been elected. But the idea that America's believers and nonbelievers are radically different and sharply antagonistic runs deeper than that.

But I wonder if the two groups that are growing — "nones" and "born agains" — aren't actually influenced by similar pressures, anxieties and quests. I think they have common ground even if they might disagree on all the hot-button issues that fuel cable news and campaign marketing. Mostly what they share is a rebellion against traditional institutions and the wisdom of their elders.

We don't normally think of "born agains" as nonconformists, but in the sweep of American religious history, they are.

"Evangelical Protestantism is anything but traditional in its outlook on the world," the sociologist Alan Wolfe wrote. "If I had to invent a term that meant the exact opposite of 'traditional,' I would use the phrase that evangelicals apply to themselves: 'born again.' To be traditional is to be born into a world shaped by one's parents and grandparents and to feel an obligation to pass that world on unchanged to one's children and grandchildren."

Neither "born agains" nor "nones" have that conservative impulse to respect and protect the forms of spiritual life they have inherited. The push of history and the pull to preserve it for posterity are weak. They are turned off by traditional religious communities, institutions and rituals. They are inclined to the quintessential American path of being self-made, whether it leads to religious rebirth or renunciation.

While "born agains" and "nones" may have rabid arguments over abortion and gun control, their behavior in life may not be so different in reality. The divorce rate, for example, is 11 percent for "nones" and 16 percent for Pentecostals.

There is every reason to think that "born agains" and "nones" share the general population's mistrust of government, media and business. And they share each others' values about the fundamental things in life — family, work and security.

This shouldn't be surprising. Religion is not the only path to meaning and morality in life. Scandinavians, for example, have widely rejected organized religion and, more than Americans, God. But a recent study found that they are just as moral and even spiritual as practitioners of traditional religions. In a broad study of the middle-class in America, Wolfe wrote, "Convinced that the middle way is the best way, they believe that the modest virtues by which they want to lead their lives are not shared by those who have the power to determine how they will lead their lives. This is especially true of those in the media and government, who, in their opinion, have lost touch with the moral truths important to them."

The name of his book is One Nation, After All.

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