Renowned Catholic sociologist William D'Antonio has a new book out entitled "Religion, Politics, and Polarization: How Religiopolitical Conflict is Changing Congress and American Democracy." In the book, William D’Antonio, Steven A. Tuch and Josiah R. Baker trace the influence of religion and party in the U.S. Congress over time. The authors examine several contemporary issues and trace the increasing polarization in Congress. In hopes that you'll read this important new book, we've asked Professor D'Antonio to provide a brief summary of what you'll find in his latest text.
Our study of Congress roll call votes over 40 years, and of the changing nature of the religious affiliation of all members of the House and Senate over 50 years shows how polarized both Houses became as they changed in religious affiliation and party. But everyone knows the Congress and the society are polarized. The important finding from our study is the nature of that polarization. We found that our study strongly supports the thesis put forth by James Davison Hunter in his 1991 book Culture Wars. Note the date of that book—published 3 years after the end of the Reagan administration. Reagan brought the Evangelicals into the Republican Party, and we document how he did that, and with what consequences. It was also the time period that Pope John Paul II had become a charismatic leader trying to restore a more-hierarchal Church. He preached directly and unceasingly against contraception, abortion, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, and became almost as popular among Protestant Evangelicals as he was among American Catholics.
What did Hunter discern? He discerned that there were two distinctive visions of the “good society” emerging in American society. One vision he called the Orthodox vision; it was of a society based on an extreme orthodox belief in a transcendent God who had created the world in seven days, and had provided the people with the Bible which contained all the truths and rules that the people needed to live by. These persons see government as having a moral responsibility to uphold the absolutist values they place on sexual morality and family life.
Hunter called the other vision progressive, a vision grounded in the Enlightenment, which accepted and looked to reason and science. Religious believers among them combined reason and faith. In this vision, the world is seen as evolving, and that reason and lived experience are important ways by which many truths are searched for, and values questioned.
We found that these two visions were increasingly becoming embedded in the political ideologies of the two parties: thus, the political ideology of the Republican Party was grounded at least in part in the Orthodox vision of the good society, epitomized by its use of government to support its vision of family, absolute opposition to abortion, homosexuality, denial of climate change and evolution.
On the other side, we found that the voting patterns of the Democratic Party were grounded at least in part in what we have called the Abrahamic Tradition, that is, that the government shares a moral responsibility not to turn its back on the stranger, that it has a moral responsibility to reach out to help the neediest in the population, that it respects the search for truth as found in scientific research on health, the environment, and all aspects of evolution. The Abrahamic Tradition has found itself embedded now in what we often call the Judeo-Christian-Muslim concern for and commitment to social justice. It is part of the cultural teachings of these religions, and found also among a growing body of non-religious who have adopted these beliefs and values from the enlightenment period.
Thus, we found that the Reagan period brought into the Republican party an absolutist morality and narrow vision of the role of government that gradually did away with moderates whose beliefs and values were more open to science, reason and lived experience. It's interesting to note that this also coincided with a large decrease of mainline Protestants in Congress, which of course, was the main tradition of the founding fathers. In the past sixty years, the number of mainline Protestants in the Senate has been cut from 64 to 35. A similar correlation exists in the Senate.
So who has replaced the Mainline Protestants? Mostly Jews and Catholics. Only two Jewish persons served in the Senate 1960 and now 11 serve in office. And Catholics have increased 12 to 27. Within Catholicism, however, an important shift has occurred. In 1960, zero Catholic Republicans served in the Senate. Today, they're nine. Catholic Democrats only saw a modest increase in the same time period. The subsequent marriage of the orthodox camps of Catholic Republicans and conservative Evangelicals, which was centered around a shared admiration for Pope John Paul II, has created little breathing room for moderate Republicans in the American politics and contribute greatly to the political polarization in Washington.
If you want to know more about how paradigms and attitudes form the two parties and how these differences form the contours of today's political debate, I encourage you to read our book. Because in the end, understanding the differences can make all the difference in American politics.
Religion, Politics, and Polarization: How Religiopolitical Conflict Is Changing Congress and American Democracy is available for purchase starting at $15.49 from Amazon.