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

Many Americans, when they think about values and politics, focus on the "religious right"—conservatives led by James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, and interested mostly in cultural issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. So on election night in 2004, when exit polls found that the No. 1 priority cited by voters was "moral values," many jumped to the conclusion that these voters and their agenda had propelled George W. Bush back into the White House.

Soon it became clear that the "values vote" had been exaggerated. Only one fifth of the respondents listed moral values as the primary basis for their vote. Nearly four out of five listed one of several foreign-policy, economic, or other domestic concerns. And the same polls showed Americans to have social views that would make conservative Christians weep: 60 percent said gays should be allowed either to legally marry or to form civil unions, and 55 percent believed that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Religion and values undoubtedly play a large role in our politics. But their impact is often misunderstood. In the most simplistic renderings values come in only two varieties: those held by the religious right and those held by everybody else. During the 2004 campaign we began to map out a very different topology of religion, values, and politics in America, based on survey data gathered by the Ray C. Bliss Institute at the University of Akron in collaboration with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. We combined measures of religious affiliation, behavior, and belief to see how values cluster within the voting public. The resulting picture—which we initially described on the faith-and-spirituality Web site Beliefnet.com and have continued to refine—reveals not two monolithic and mutually antagonistic camps but, rather, twelve coherent blocs with overlapping interests and values. We call these groups the twelve tribes of American politics.

The chart on page 138 shows the twelve tribes and their politics in 2004—Republican tribes in red, Democratic in blue, and swing in purple. The tribes have been placed on a two-way grid that reflects their positions on cultural and economic issues. The cultural issues include abortion, stem-cell research, and gay rights. The economic issues include social-welfare programs and the scope of the federal government. Foreign-policy issues are left off the grid for simplicity's sake, but we will mention them where relevant.

A brief review of the political habits and migratory patterns of the twelve tribes shows both the complex relationship between values and voting in the United States and the striking degree of compatibility in the values of most Americans. It reveals the role actually played by moral values in the 2004 election, and helps illuminate how the clash of values is likely to influence politics and law in the future.

THE REPUBLICAN TRIBES

The fervor and coherence of the Republican base, especially the base of social conservatives, attracted a lot of attention in 2004—and compared with the Democratic base, it is cohesive on moral issues. But it's not monolithic. The Republican base sorts into three related tribes that agree on many issues but place different emphasis on each.

The religious right, consisting of traditional evangelical Protestants, accounted for 12.6 percent of the electorate and the core of the moral-values voters in 2004. Almost 90 percent of these voted for Bush. This cohort is as Republican as Republican gets: no group is more conservative on moral values, economic issues, or foreign policy. Contrary to popular belief, the religious right is not growing quickly; its size barely changed from 2000 to 2004.

Heartland culture warriors stand arm-in-arm with the religious right on most moral issues and are nearly as numerous (11.4 percent of the electorate). They are traditional Christians outside the evangelical community, the most prominent being Bush (a traditional United Methodist). Culture warriors are neither as religiously orthodox nor as politically conservative as the religious right, but they were nonetheless energized by same-sex marriage and other high-profile moral issues in 2004. Seventy-two percent voted for Bush in that election.

Heartland culture warriors did not exist as a distinct political group twenty years ago. They are the product of a convulsive theological restructuring—one that has pushed moral values further into the political limelight. Whereas denomination used to predict political affiliation (Catholics were Democrats; Episcopalians were Republicans), religious beliefs and practices are now more important. Congregations and denominations have split over issues such as the inerrancy of the Bible, the role of women, and sexual morality. In recent decades theological conservatives from different denominations—Catholic, Protestant, Mormon—have found one another. In some cases they've formed caucuses within their churches. In others they've switched to more-congenial congregations. One consequence is that they've coalesced on Election Day, voting for candidates who fit their beliefs rather than their churches' historic loyalties.

Moderate evangelicals (10.8 percent of the electorate) make up the final solidly Republican tribe. The less traditional members of evangelical churches, they are culturally conservative but moderate on economic issues, favoring a larger government and aid to the poor. Bush received 64 percent of this tribe's vote, up from 60 percent in 2000.

Moderate evangelicals are much less absolutist than their religious-right cousins: for example, they favor restricting rather than banning abortion, and support some gay rights but not same-sex marriage. As much as anything, they like Bush's personal faith. If you want a Rosetta stone for Bush's evangelical appeal, watch George Bush: Faith in the White House, a 2004 documentary that was shown at many church-based Republican campaign events and barely mentions gays or abortion. Rather, it emphasizes that Bush once was lost—a drunk and a ne'er-do-well—but found his faith and was saved; that he was persecuted (by the media) for his faith; that his faith gave him strength and moral clarity; and, most controversial, that he was called by God to the office. These themes resonated deeply among evangelicals.

The three red tribes make up about 35 percent of the electorate, and although their members don't vote exclusively on the basis of cultural issues, values are certainly a key ingredient in the glue that holds the three together. Most of these voters desire a measure of religious expression in public life and a person of faith in the White House. But their positions on such hot-button issues as abortion, gay rights, and stem-cell research are not uniform. Should a future presidential election offer two obviously pious candidates, the Republican "values" base may show itself to be less cohesive than it now appears—and moderate evangelicals in particular could conceivably begin to defect.

THE DEMOCRATIC TRIBES

W hile much hay was made of the "religion gap" in 2004—the tendency of weekly worship attendees to vote Republican—Democrats have religious constituencies too. Indeed, though Democrats may attend church less frequently, many have rich devotional lives, and a surprising number hold conservative cultural views.

A deep-blue religious left is almost exactly the same size as the religious right but receives much less attention. John Kerry is perhaps one representative of this group, which draws members from many Christian denominations and is a product of the same theological restructuring that created the heartland culture warriors. Members of the religious left espouse a progressive theology (agreeing, for instance, that "all the world's great religions are equally true") and are very liberal on cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage. About a quarter attend church weekly. The religious left is somewhat liberal on economic policy and decidedly to the left on foreign policy. Its stances on both moral values and the Iraq War—but especially the latter—have pushed it further into the Democratic camp. Seventy percent backed Kerry in 2004; 51 percent had backed Gore in 2000. The religious left was the largest—and the fastest-growing—single tribe in the Kerry coalition.

Spiritual but not religious voters, who made up 5.3 percent of the electorate in 2004, are also increasing in number. These are people with no religious affiliation who nonetheless believe in God or the soul. It might be tempting to imagine the members of this tribe as aging flower children or their cultural heirs—and indeed, these voters are liberal on both economic issues and foreign policy. But they actually lean slightly to the right on abortion and gay rights. In 2004 their votes were based on economics and the war, so Kerry won more than three fifths of them.

Black Protestants (9.6 percent of the electorate) are the most traditionally religious of the Democratic tribes, and the most culturally conservative as well—in fact, on moral-values issues they are remarkably similar to the hard-right heartland culture warriors. Whereas many Democrats worried about the intermingling of Bush's faith and his politics, 50 percent of African-Americans said his faith had too little impact on his policymaking. Bush made modest gains among black Protestants in Ohio and other battleground states, and those gains contributed to his re-election. But this tribe was also the most liberal on economic and foreign-policy issues, and more than four fifths voted for Kerry.

Jews and Muslims and Others make up a small part of the electorate—1.9 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively—but the latter group is growing. Members of non-Christian faiths tend to be liberal on cultural issues, and moral values may have helped Kerry a bit with these constituencies, but like many of the blue tribes, they favor the Democratic Party mostly because of its economic and foreign-policy stances.

Non-religious Americans, or seculars (10.7 percent of the electorate), are largely responsible for the common view that Democrats are less religious than Republicans—and deeply divided from them on most cultural issues. Seculars are the most culturally liberal of the twelve tribes, and also liberal on economics and foreign policy. Many seculars are especially irritated by Bush's religious expression, and most dislike any commingling of religion and public life. Seculars pose a political dilemma for the Democratic Party: Attempts to energize them based on moral issues would antagonize not only the red tribes and many swing voters but also many blue tribes. Yet attempts to play to more-mainstream American views may turn them off, depressing their turnout.

Indeed, while the blue tribes are fairly well united on economic and foreign-policy issues, they're all over the map on cultural issues. Because the Democratic coalition includes highly religious tribes, non-religious tribes, and everything in between, talking about values can be perilous. Go strongly pro-gay, and one will alienate black Protestants and the spiritual but not religious. Go anti-abortion, and one will lose seculars and the religious left. So Democrats tend to elevate one particular moral value—tolerance—above all others. The merits of tolerance aside, it is part of what keeps the coalition together. But it leaves the Democrats open to attack for lacking a strong moral identity.

THE SWING TRIBES

Three tribes were up for grabs in 2004 and are still on the move politically. Bush won two of them, and could not have been re-elected without them.

White-bread Protestants (8.1 percent of the electorate) are the most Republican of the purple tribes. They come from the once dominant mainstream Protestant churches that were the backbone of the Republican coalition from William McKinley to Gerald Ford. By now their more traditional co-religionists have joined the heartland culture warriors, and their most liberal brethren the religious left.

In 2004 Bush won just under three fifths of this tribe. He held those voters because of his views on tax cuts (they tend to be affluent and laissez-faire) and terrorism. But white-bread Protestants are closer to the Democrats on moral issues: for instance, a majority are pro-choice. From a historical perspective Kerry did well among this group—perhaps a harbinger of further Democratic gains.

Convertible Catholics (seven percent of the electorate) are the moderate remnant of the non-Latino Catholic vote. Bush won 55 percent of them in 2004. If Kerry, who is Catholic, had done as well with them as the Southern Baptist Al Gore did in 2000, he probably would have won Ohio and the national election.

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.
Presented by

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In