Religion and Opinion Polarization on the Masterpiece Cakeshop Controversy

By Jeremiah J. Castle, Central Michigan University

In the case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission decided Monday (June 4), the United States Supreme Court issued a narrow ruling in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop, finding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to treat owner Jack Phillips’s sincerely held right to religious free exercise respectfully. The Court’s decision has already generated massive media attention, and the Court’s narrow ruling ensures that the underlying controversy over the extent (and limits) of religious liberty will continue for the foreseeable future.

Even before the Court’s opinion was issued, experts were discussing the underlying controversy as the latest front in the “culture wars.”  Sociologist James Davison Hunter coined the term in his book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991), and it entered the popular lexicon thanks to Pat Buchanan’s divisive speech at the 1992 Republican convention.  For Hunter, the term “culture wars” signified the deep religious divisions in public opinion toward policies like abortion, LGBT rights, and church and state.  Since then, some commentators have suggested that the “culture wars” are expanding into other issue areas, including religious liberty.  However, to date few have used empirical data to study this question.  This leads me to a question that I consider in ongoing research: Are the religious divisions Hunter found on “culture wars” issues apparent on attitudes towards religious liberty, including the controversy over whether Christian wedding service providers should be able to refuse to serve LGBT couples? Broadly, I find strong evidence that a substantial minority of Americans hold polarized attitudes on this issue, and religion is an important factor in explaining that polarization.

Researchers understand polarization to mean deep division.  If two people hold opposing positions, but see the issue from both sides and admit that the other side has valid arguments, then they cannot be considered polarized.  In contrast, if individuals can only see the issue from one side, then it is fair to label them as polarized.

Two questions from the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (Wave 20) can help us assess the depth of division on the question behind the Masterpiece Cakeshop controversy.  The survey first briefly introduced the controversy: “As you may know, same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states. Some argue that businesses that provide wedding-related services, such as catering or flowers, should be able to refuse to provide those services to same-sex couples if the business owner has religious objections to homosexuality. Others argue that businesses that provide wedding-related services should be required to provide those services to same-sex couples just as they would to all other customers (the order of the two statements was randomized to compensate for question-wording effects).”  The survey then asked respondents how much they sympathized with the liberal and conservative sides of the issue (again, the order of these questions was randomized).  The question from the conservative perspective asked, “How much, if at all, do you sympathize with those who say businesses should be required to provide services to same-sex couples just as they would to all other customers?”  The other asked how much they agreed with the conservative perspective: “How much, if at all, do you sympathize with those who say businesses should be able to refuse to provide services to same-sex couples if the business owner has religious objections to homosexuality?”  For each question, respondents could answer “a lot,” “some,” “not much,” or “not at all.”

I divided respondents into three groups.  Those who sympathized with the conservative perspective “a lot” and the liberal perspective “not at all” were coded as “polarized conservatives.”  Likewise, those who sympathized with the liberal perspective “a lot” and the conservative perspective “not at all” were coded as “polarized liberals.”  The remainder of the sample was coded as “not polarized.”

The figure below shows a substantial minority of the population holds polarized views on this question — about 19% of the public takes the polarized conservative position on the issue, and about 23% of the public holds a polarized liberal perspective.  Overall, then, about 42% of the population holds polarized attitudes on the controversy behind Masterpiece Cakeshop.

fig1

Source: Weighted 2016 Pew American Trends Panel (wave 20).  N=4,538.

Religious tradition appears to be a strong predictor of that polarization.  I divided the sample into six traditions: evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Unaffiliated (the rest were left out of the analysis due to small numbers).  As we see in the figure below, almost 41% of evangelicals are polarized on the conservative side of the issue.  For the sake of comparison, mainline Protestants had the next highest percentage of polarized respondents (almost 17%).  Religion also helps explain which respondents hold polarized, liberal views: 43% of Jews and 38% of the unaffiliated could be classified as polarized on the liberal side of the issue.

fig2

Source: Weighted 2016 Pew American Trends Panel (wave 20).  N=4,180. X2=642.71***.

Consistent with the academic literature suggesting that religious commitment plays an increasingly important role in structuring political behavior, a divide was also apparent when looking at church attendance. I collapsed Pew’s measure of church attendance into three categories: those who attend weekly or more, those who attend a few times a year or once or twice a month, and those who attend seldom or never. The figure below shows that about 31% of weekly attendees were polarized on the conservative side of the issue, compared to just 13% of those who attend seldom or never. In contrast, 31% of those who attend seldom or never were polarized on the liberal side of the issue, compared to just 11% of those who attend weekly or more.

fig3

Source: Weighted 2016 Pew American Trends Panel (wave 20).  N=4,537. X2=281.66***.

In short, the data suggest that a substantial minority of the American public is deeply divided on the question of whether Christian-owned businesses in the wedding industry should be able to use religious liberty as a reason to deny services to LGBT couples.  Furthermore, consistent with Hunter’s “Culture Wars” thesis, both religious tradition and religious commitment are important factors in explaining that divide. If the polarized attitudes on the controversy behind the Masterpiece Cakeshop case are any indication, the “culture wars” are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Jeremiah Castle teaches courses on American politics, political behavior, and research methods at Central Michigan University.  His work has been published in journals including Social Science Quarterly, The Social Science Journal, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Politics & Religion.  In addition, his book Rock of Ages: Subcultural Religious Identity and Public Opinion Among Young Evangelicals is under advance contract with Temple University Press.  This blog post is drawn from his working paper, “New Fronts in the Culture Wars?: Religion, Partisanship, and Polarization on Religious Liberty and Transgender Rights in the United States,” which will be presented at the American Political Science Association’s 2018 conference in Boston, Aug. 30-Sept. 2.  You can find out more about Jeremy’s research and teaching at http://jeremycastle15.wixsite.com/home.

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