In the U.S. culture wars, who speaks for God?

Published 7:44 am Monday, October 5, 2009

In the combative world of cable news, America’s culture wars are often characterized as pitched battles between ardent religionists on one side and diehard secularists on the other.

Real life, of course, is far more complex. Jim Pouillon, the anti-abortion protester murdered in Michigan earlier this month, was indeed a man of faith. But so apparently was Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas abortion provider gunned down in his church last spring.

In fact, on every hot-button issue facing the nation from abortion to health care, Americans of religious faith are among the most outspoken, engaged voices on all sides of the debate.

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Who are these religious activists — and how do they see the world? This week we got some answers from a survey conducted by the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in partnership with Public Religion Research. The study is the first to compare conservative and progressive religious activists.

On the right, activists are almost exclusively Christian, with 54 percent identifying themselves as evangelical Protestant, 35 percent Roman Catholic, and 9 percent mainline Protestant. On the left, 44 percent identify as mainline Protestant, 17 percent Roman Catholic, 10 percent evangelical Protestant, 12 percent interfaith, mixed faith, or Unitarian, and 6 percent Jewish, with 8 percent reporting no formal religious affiliation or formerly affiliated. A few refused to specify.

The Religious Left no less than the Religious Right is shaped by a faith commitment to following the word of God. Of course, culture warriors on each side hear God saying very different things.

Contrary to recent news stories speculating about a shift in evangelical priorities from abortion and same-sex marriage to such issues as poverty and the environment, the survey shows that a strong majority of conservative religious activists, including evangelicals, continue to identify abortion (85 percent) and same-sex marriage (65 percent) as their most important issues.

In sharp contrast, liberal activists put poverty (74 percent), health care (67 percent) and the environment (56 percent) at the top of their list with social issues such as abortion and gay marriage at the bottom.

Not surprisingly, the positions on these issues are mirror images of one another. Ninety-five percent of conservative religious activists say either that abortion should be illegal in all cases (60 percent) or most (35 percent), while 80 percent of liberal religious activists say abortion should be legal in all (26 percent) or most (54 percent) cases.

On same-sex marriage, 82 percent of conservatives oppose both same-sex marriage and civil unions for gay and lesbian people. But most liberals (59 percent) support same-sex marriage, and another third support civil unions.

People of faith on the left and right also differ about the role of government in addressing social welfare. For example, 72 percent of liberal activists want the federal government to do more to reduce poverty and hunger even if it means raising taxes on the middle class. Only 1 in 10 conservative activists agrees.

Although activists on all sides appear to support the right of Americans to bring their religious or nonreligious convictions into the public square, they deeply disagree about the relationship of government and religion. The survey reports 81 percent of liberal religious activists say the U.S. “should maintain a strict separation of church and state,” a position held by only 21 percent of conservatives. Was America founded as a Christian nation? Nearly all activists on the right say “yes,” while only 37 percent on the left do.

Given the fervor on both sides, it is remarkable that our wars of words so rarely spark acts of violence. Yet the deaths of Pouillon and Tiller — and the shooting of security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns at the Holocaust Museum — are tragic reminders that on the fringes, culture wars can be dangerous.

For the vast majority of religious activists, however, the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment are the tools of choice for advancing their causes peacefully in the public arena. On any given day in Washington, D.C. — from the anti-abortion rally on the right to the gay-rights march on the left — freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition are all fully employed to argue for one vision of America over another.

Thanks to the First Amendment, any American is free to speak for God. But thanks also to the First Amendment, no American is free to use the engine of government to impose one version of God’s word on us all.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: E-mail: