Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Recently, PRRI spoke with Smith about America’s “culture wars,” the debate on same-sex marriage, and details about his new book.
In your new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, you argue that Americans generally have broad consensus about moral issues and that “the culture war does not live up to its name.” How do you define the “culture war” and can you explain more about why you think the prevalence of culture wars is overstated? What kinds of issues would you classify as “culture war” issues? Are there any issues that don’t fit the bill?
Scholars typically define the “culture war” as an enduring political and social conflict based on moral differences and clashing worldviews. In my forthcoming book, I argue that the metaphor of a culture war exaggerates the actual amount of conflict in American politics. Yes, Americans are split over several high-profile issues, but we agree on much else. For example, nobody in America today is pushing to criminalize blasphemy, outlaw alcohol production, or ban commerce on Sundays—and yet those religiously based conflicts were all prominent earlier in American history. Americans who follow the news can easily come to believe that the country is fundamentally divided. News organizations report on the issues with conflict, not consensus. Conflict sells, but consensus is boring and therefore doesn’t get mentioned in the news.
You research social issues that, at one point in American history, were culture wars and are now largely settled within mainstream culture: slavery, divorce, women’s rights, etc. Same-sex marriage is the headline issue this year—how do you see this “culture war” playing out?
The Supreme Court appears likely to rule this year that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. Americans’ views on the cluster of issues surrounding LGBT rights (including, but not limited to, marriage) are closely tracking what we saw in earlier periods for slavery, divorce, and women’s rights. Namely, we are seeing new beliefs spread throughout the country due to both (a) individuals changing their opinions, and (b) generational replacement.
For example, white evangelical Protestants (66 percent) and black Protestants (54 percent) are more opposed to same-sex marriage than the country at large (38 percent), and yet support in both groups is far higher than it was two decades ago. Generational attitudes will impact this issue moving forward; 2014 data from PRRI’s American Values Atlas found that white evangelical Protestant millennials (age 18-34) back same-sex marriage at the rate of 43 percent, compared to only 18 percent of white evangelical Protestants from the Silent Generation (age 69 and older). If and when the Supreme Court rules that states cannot constitutionally prohibit same-sex marriage, some amount of conflict in the larger culture will probably remain, but the amount of conflict will continue to decrease with each passing year.
What about the issue of immigration and immigration reform? Do you see religious communities being divided by this issue?
Religious communities are somewhat divided on immigration and immigration reform, but far less so than on other “culture war” issues. The Catholic Church has certainly been a strong voice for immigration reform in recent years, and many mainline and evangelical churches have joined the cause, too. Many religious organizations take no formal position at all on immigration, but those who do are mostly supportive of immigration reform. Based on PRRI’s survey and report last month—which found that 73 percent of Americans said that Congress should prioritize passing immigration reform—it makes sense that we would see that support reflected in many religious communities.
PRRI’s 2014 LGBT survey found that regular churchgoers—those who attend at least once or twice a month—particularly those who belong to religious groups that are supportive of same-sex marriage, overestimate opposition for same-sex marriage in their churches by 20 percentage points or more. Does your research and expertise provide us any insight into this phenomenon?
In many areas of social life, reputations lag behind the reality. Christian groups have traditionally opposed homosexuality in general, and same-sex marriage, in particular. Yet in recent decades, many of those groups—especially mainline Protestants—have shifted their positions. People within those groups sometimes don’t fully realize how much both the leadership and their fellow congregants have changed. I suspect that the reputations will catch up to the reality, but it will take more time.
Looking at the American Values Atlas, some of the union’s most “Christian” states—Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, for example—are also the least supportive of same-sex marriage. But others—like Rhode Island and Minnesota, for example—have a large Christian presence but favor legalizing same-sex marriage. What other cultural elements do you think are at play here?
The most important element is the type of Christianity that is prominent in a given state. As PRRI’s newly released American Values Atlas shows, in Minnesota, Lutheranism and Catholicism are tied (at 25 percent each) for the most prominent religious denomination, and, in Rhode Island, Catholicism is the most popular at 44 percent. The largest Lutheran denomination has become more accepting of homosexuality and, since 2009, has ordained gay and lesbian clergy in committed same-sex relationships. The Catholic Church does not ordain LGBT clergy and has not changed its official positions on the morality of homosexuality, but Pope Francis has certainly taken a softer tone than his predecessors did; and in any case, rank-and-file Catholics have long formed their own opinions on culture-war issues. Meanwhile, most Christians are either white evangelical Protestant or black Protestant in Mississippi (37 and 32 percent, respectively), Alabama (39 and 20 percent, respectively), and Arkansas (39 and 12 percent, respectively). These two groups historically, among both the leadership and the people in the pews, have been less accommodating toward homosexuality. However, support has been growing in all states; it’s just that some states started from a higher base.
Tell us more about your upcoming book.
Much of Secular Faith revolves around the common influences that affect people of differing religions, as well as people holding no religion at all. In a diverse country like the United States where people choose which religious community, if any, to devote their time, money, and commitment, religious leaders cannot compel their followers to adhere to specific doctrines and beliefs. After all, the ordinary members of the groups live in the larger society and absorb its cultural influence through institutions like the media, schools, neighborhoods, and the workplace. As new values emerge in society, leaders often update their groups’ official positions to maintain support among the rank-and-file. Among Protestants and sometimes even among Catholics, these processes of change center around reinterpreting the Bible, and I show how various Christians challenged older interpretations on issues such as slavery, divorce, women’s rights, and homosexuality. In the long run, I claim, Christians take largely the same moral and political stances as atheists and other non-Christians. Such a claim might seem controversial at first, and so I try to document it by analyzing a large amount of historical material, denominational statements, public opinion polls, and other kinds of data.