State of the Union January/February 2006

Tribal Relations

How Americans really sort out on cultural and religious issues—and what it means for our politics

Convertible Catholics are true moderates. Both the Democrat Maria Shriver and her Republican husband Arnold Schwarzenegger are good examples. Few believe in papal infallibility, but they are less likely than liberals to say that "all the world's great religions are equally true." They are conflicted on abortion and the scope of government, but strongly favor increased spending to help the poor. Many favor a multilateral foreign policy—except when it comes to the war on terrorism, about which they agree with the president. Scholars describe them as "cross-pressured"—in other words, squishy. They feel that neither party represents them well.

Bush pursued convertible Catholics aggressively in 2004 with shrewd appeals to social stability (backing traditional marriage), concern for the poor (faith-based initiatives), and toughness on terrorism. Al-Qaeda was more important than abortion to his success with this tribe.

Latino Christians are the final swing tribe. They went 55 percent for Kerry in 2004, but Bush made large inroads: he'd won only 28 percent of them in 2000. Values played a large part in this swing—but not primarily because of any Latino Catholic affinity for Republican stances on hot-button cultural issues. Latino Catholics, although they tend to be pro-life, voted for Kerry by more than two to one, largely because of their liberal economic views. Bush did best among Latino Protestants, many of whom come from a Pentecostal tradition that stresses conservative values and an emotional, spirit-filled worship experience. Bush's personal history was appealing to them, as were his efforts to reach out to evangelical churches and religious voters.

As one might expect, the purple tribes lean in different directions on different issues. But where they lean least—or, more precisely, where they vote their leanings least—is on moral issues. They are generally religious, but care little for the culture wars. Their values are largely in line with the legal status quo, and they usually vote based on economic and foreign-policy concerns—at least so long as they don't see either party as seeking a revolution (one way or the other) in personal freedom or the separation of church and state.

Given the beliefs and attitudes of the twelve tribes, what can we say about the future of moral values in politics?

Perhaps the most important lesson is that the size and beliefs of the moderate tribes—the "moral middle," comprising the swing tribes and even a few of the tribes within each party's base—strictly limit how much public policy can actually change after an election. Nothing illustrates that better than the behavior of the Bush administration in the White House. Republican control of all three branches of the federal government is the realization of a religious-right dream. Yet Bush, whatever he said on the campaign trail, has done little to advance the religious right's agenda.

In the 2004 election the official Republican policy, as stated in the party's platform, was to support a constitutional amendment banning abortion. The Republicans also championed Bush's support for an amendment banning gay marriage. Since the election, however, Bush has been silent on both issues. He has not proposed any major restrictions on abortion—nor have the Republican leaders who control both houses of Congress—and has limited his public remarks to criticisms of "partial-birth" abortion and general comments about the "culture of life." He has given not one major speech advocating an amendment to ban gay marriage; in fact, he has dramatically reduced his emphasis on this issue. Bush made a few well-publicized comments expressing openness to the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, but he subsequently pushed no legislation to encourage that goal.

In the past when we've asked religious conservatives privately why they tolerated Bush's doing so little on the cultural issues that were so important during the election, they have responded, in effect, "We need to keep our eye on the ball." The "ball" is the Supreme Court. Religious conservatives believe that permissive judges are the root of much evil in America, and consequently they have allowed Bush enormous latitude as long as they thought he would deliver on judicial nominees.

But he hasn't really—at least not obviously. Conservatives reacted so harshly to the Harriet Miers nomination because neither Miers nor John Roberts was prepared to side with them openly on crucial sexual and moral issues. Had Roberts and Miers replaced Rehnquist and O'Connor, the Court would probably not have shifted much to the right; in fact, it might have shifted a bit to the left.

Even the Samuel Alito nomination is telling on this point. Religious conservatives were thrilled with the choice and yet went along with the White House strategy of obscuring rather than clarifying Alito's views on abortion. Alito may yet turn out to be a hero to religious conservatives, but surely it pained them to see him courting Democrats and moderate Republicans by asserting his respect for Roe v. Wade.

President Bush and his political tacticians are fully aware that they won the election in part by appealing to convertible Catholics, Latinos, moderate evangelicals, and white-bread Protestants. These tribes simply do not support most of the agenda of the religious right. Of course, this is not to say that our laws and cultural norms are forever frozen—far from it. For instance, polls suggest public support for some blurring of the church-state divide: many Americans think that God has been ejected too forcefully from the public square. And to judge from the slow drift of public opinion since the 1980s toward expanding gay rights, it's quite possible that government at all levels will eventually become more supportive of gay unions and even gay marriage. But such changes depend on support from the center—and for the most part our nation's current laws and policies on issues of moral values reflect majority opinion quite well.

None of this means, however, that our elections are likely to become any less fractious. In fact, we believe that the culture wars will increase in intensity during the next few election campaigns, even as the government continues to serve the broad cultural center.

There are two reasons for this view. First, although the poles are not demographically dominant, they have grown somewhat as heartland culture warriors and the religious left have each coalesced into a coherent voting bloc that can be cultivated politically. The secular and moderate-evangelical blocs are also growing. Second, both parties have strong tactical incentives to turn up the rhetorical volume in soliciting support from these tribes during campaigns.

This is especially true for the Republicans. Using moral values to rally the base has become a central tenet of Republican strategy. Because of the investments the party has made in building social-conservative networks and cultivating relationships with them, it would be extremely difficult to abandon this strategy in the short term.

Instead the Republicans may be compelled to intensify their strategy. The personal nature of George Bush's connection to evangelicals is unusual. Someone who lacks that "I once was lost but now am found" narrative may need a harder-edged stand on cultural issues to connect with social conservatives. And the state of other issues behind the Bush coalition, such as foreign policy and the economy, may also necessitate further emphasis on values.

Perhaps this is why Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist took on the Terri Schiavo case, and why the would-be presidential nominee Mitt Romney—who starts with the double disadvantage of being a Mormon and a resident of Massachusetts—has taken the lead in opposing gay marriage. It may also explain why the Republican Senator Sam Brownback so publicly questioned the nomination of Harriet Miers.

But most of the specific issues emphasized by the Republicans are likely to be symbolic, and much of their language carefully coded so as not to alienate the swing tribes. Above all, the Republicans will try to paint themselves as the party of faith. One of the most striking outcomes of the 2004 election is that the Democrats were tagged as "anti-religion." A Pew Forum poll last summer showed that only 29 percent of the public—compared with 40 percent in the summer of 2004—saw the Democrats as "friendly" toward religion. It is hard to appeal even to blue tribes if one is perceived as hostile to faith in general. Surely the Republicans, having opened this wound, will want to make it bleed some more.

Yet if the conservative values agenda is advanced too far, Democrats and liberal interest groups may go on the attack, and Republicans will find themselves at a distinct electoral disadvantage. For instance, if religious conservatives prevail in their efforts to allow teaching of intelligent design in public schools, we can expect that liberals will push hard for reversals. And the center—including convertible Catholics, Latinos, and especially white-bread Protestants—may start to get twitchy if Republicans are perceived as "anti-progress." God is popular; but so is education, because most voters consider it crucial to the future economic prospects of their children.

In politics as in physics, every action produces a reaction, so continued pushing by conservatives will no doubt lead to pushing back by liberals. Cultural conflict will remain a staple of American politics for the foreseeable future. But concerns that the nation may become subject to the cultural views of either party's poles are alarmist—as is the view that at any one time half the nation is oppressed by the federal government's cultural agenda. The gap between the rhetoric and the reality of American cultural division is unlikely to shrink anytime soon. And it's that gap that is perhaps the most fundamental feature of our cultural politics today.

Steven Waldman is the editor-in-chief and CEO of Beliefnet.com, the largest religion-and-spirituality site on the Web. John C. Green is a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, at the University of Akron.
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