Religion and the Culture Wars: A Re-examination

Jeremiah J. Castle, Metropolitan State University of Denver

Kyla K. Stepp, Central Michigan University

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a major abortion case, one that directly challenges Roe v. Wade (1973) and could change the landscape of abortion rights in the United States. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is the first direct challenge to Roe v. Wade accepted by the Court in decades, and the first abortion case to be heard since the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Court. Its potential to dramatically alter abortion rights and to possibly overturn a prominent 50-year old precedent in Roe v. Wade makes Dobbs a case that will be closely watched over the next year. Moreover, when considered alongside other recent cases, like Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018) and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia (2021), it begs the question: Is the public (still) fighting the culture wars?

James Davison Hunter’s famous 1991 book Culture War: The Struggle to Define America argued that religious differences were fueling polarization on a host of cultural issues. Hunter’s thesis has been hotly debated in the academic literature. One group of scholars, including Morris Fiorina, Samuel Abrams, and Jeremy Pope, argue that the public does not hold polarized attitudes on issues, and that religious divides in the population are much smaller than Hunter’s thesis would lead us to believe. Other scholars, including Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders, contend that the public is polarized along religious lines, at least on some issues. The lack of scholarly consensus on mass-level religious polarization is, at least in part, a product of poor measures of issue polarization. In our recent and upcoming research to be published in Political Behavior, we introduce a new way of measuring issue polarization and then analyze how religious identities impact issue polarization. We find sizeable differences between key religious groups on cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, but little evidence of religious polarization on most non-cultural issues.

The concept of issue polarization implies “deep” disagreement, meaning that individuals view their own position on the issue as the only morally acceptable one and see opposing viewpoints as evil, degenerate, or corrupt. However, the traditional questions asked on widely used surveys like the American National Election Study (ANES) and General Social Survey (GSS) only ask respondents about their own opinion on the issue; they do not enable researchers to differentiate between individuals who view those with opposing views as legitimate and well-intentioned and individuals who view those with opposing views as illegitimate.

We introduce a new way of measuring issue polarization based on the logic of the feeling thermometer difference that has become the standard measure of affective polarization (that is, polarization in feelings toward the two major parties). Our question format presents respondents with a conservative frame of the issue and a liberal frame of the issue separately, and then asks them how much they “sympathize” with that view (response options were “a lot,” “some,” “not much,” and “not at all”). As an example, here is our wording for the question about abortion:

● How much, if at all, do you sympathize with those who say that in most cases a woman SHOULD NOT be able to obtain an abortion, because abortion is murder? [conservative frame]

● How much, if at all, do you sympathize with those who say that in most cases a woman SHOULD be able to obtain an abortion, because she has a right to control her own body? [liberal frame]

By taking the difference between the respondent’s position on the conservative frame and the respondent’s position on the liberal frame, we get a measure of individual-level polarization on abortion that ranges from +3 (as polarized as possible on the conservative side of the issue) to -3 (as polarized as possible on the liberal side of the issue). The advantage of this approach is that, unlike the typical questions used on standard surveys, it can distinguish between those who believe that only their view is valid (indicated by sympathizing “a lot” with their position and “not at all” with the opposing position, leading to a score of -3 or +3 on our difference measure) and those who believe that multiple perspectives are valid (these individuals would likely have scores closer to 0 on the difference measure).

As an initial test of our question wording, we fielded these questions to a sample (N=1,146) from Dynata’s online opt-in panel in February 2020. We included our question about abortion as well as similar questions for nine other issues: same-sex marriage, teaching Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution in public schools, displaying the Ten Commandments on public property, anti-transgender “bathroom bills,” social welfare programs, the environment, immigration, healthcare, and the size of the military.

An important goal of our research was to study the effects of religious identities on issue polarization, controlling for rival explanations like party identification and other demographic identities. Therefore, the core of our analysis was a series of ten statistical models (one for each issue), which allow us to estimate the effect of religious tradition and religious commitment on polarization while holding a variety of likely covariates (including party, ideology, and a host of demographics) constant. For this post, we’ll focus on a few key figures from the article that visualize the “controlled” effects of religious tradition and religious commitment once other factors are accounted for.

We found that religious tradition has a sizeable impact on issue polarization for cultural issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and the separation of church and state. For example, the model predicts that, holding all else constant, an evangelical Protestant would score +0.9, compared to -1.07 for an otherwise identical person who was religiously unaffiliated (labeled “None” in the figure). In other words, holding other factors constant, the total difference between evangelicals and the unaffiliated was 1.56 points on our 7-point scale. In contrast, once we account for covariates, religion had a relatively weak impact on issue polarization among non-cultural issues like social welfare programs and immigration. Interestingly, as we note in the manuscript, religious tradition did seem to be pushing the unaffiliated toward more liberal positions on military size compared to religious identifiers. One possible explanation is that religious tradition is capturing some degree of “messianic militarism” or Christian nationalism on this question.

FIGURE 1. Religious Tradition’s Impact on Issue Polarization (with controls). Error bars represent 85% confidence intervals. Source: Weighted 2020 Dynata data. First published (in greyscale) in J.J. Castle & K.K. Stepp, 2021, “Partisanship, Religion, and Issue Polarization: A Reassessment,” forthcoming in Political Behavior, by Springer Nature.

Given the emergence of religious commitment as a separate source of religious identity, it should come as little surprise that we also found that religious commitment influenced issue polarization on cultural issues. Figure 2 was created by swapping hypothetical values of religious tradition and religious commitment (either minimum or maximum) into the model (holding respondents at their actual values on all other variables), and then predicting levels of polarization on each of the cultural issues in our dataset. Our analysis indicates that the average evangelical with the lowest possible religious commitment would score -1.27 on the abortion polarization measure, compared to +1.21 for an otherwise identical evangelical with the highest possible religious commitment. Thus, on abortion, the total effect of moving from minimum to maximum commitment was about 2.5 points on our seven-point scale. While the effects are somewhat inconsistent, overall the pattern is that we see sizeable religious commitment-based differences on most of these cultural issues.

FIGURE 2. Religious Commitment’s Impact on Cultural Issue Polarization (with controls). Blue diamonds represent the predicted probabilities for those with minimum religious commitment, red circles represent the predicted probabilities for those with maximum religious commitment. Error bars represent 85% confidence intervals. Source: Weighted 2020 Dynata data. First published (in greyscale) in J.J. Castle & K.K. Stepp, 2021, “Partisanship, Religion, and Issue Polarization: A Reassessment,” forthcoming in Political Behavior, by Springer Nature.

In contrast, when it comes to other sorts of issues, the overall trend was that religious commitment had substantively small and not-statistically-significant effects once other factors were controlled for. Instead, as we explore in the full paper, it seems as though other social identities, like partisanship, are more responsible for attitudes on non-cultural issues. 

FIGURE 3. Religious Commitment’s Impact on Non-Cultural Issue Polarization (with controls). Blue diamonds represent the predicted probabilities for those with minimum religious commitment, red circles represent the predicted probabilities for those with maximum religious commitment. Error bars represent 85% confidence intervals. Source: Weighted 2020 Dynata data. First published (in greyscale) in J.J. Castle & K.K. Stepp, 2021, “Partisanship, Religion, and Issue Polarization: A Reassessment,” forthcoming in Political Behavior, by Springer Nature.

In short, with improved measures of issue polarization, our recent and upcoming research finds substantial evidence that religious identities are leading to polarization on cultural issues like abortion, LGBTQA+ rights, and the extent of separation of church and state. With evangelicals and the religiously unaffiliated together making up about one-half of the population, the political environment is ripe for additional religious conflict for the foreseeable future. Given the underlying patterns of religious identities in American politics, we think the recent wave of “culture wars” cases before the Court is likely to continue.

Jeremiah J. Castle is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and teaches courses including American government, research methods, campaigns and voting behavior, and the American presidency. Castle’s book Rock of Ages: Subcultural Religious Identity and Public Opinion Among Young Evangelicals was published by Temple University Press, and his research has appeared in Political Behavior, Political Research Quarterly, American Politics Research, The Social Science Journal, and a variety of other journals.

Kyla K. Stepp is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Central Michigan University, and teaches courses including American government, political behavior, constitutional law, and judicial process. Her research has been published in Political Behavior, The Social Science Journal, Sage Research Methods Cases, and The Journal of Political Science Education. Dr. Stepp is also the founding advisor to Central Michigan’s Mock Trial Association.

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