For most of the 20th century, America’s Sunday morning divide between those who go to church regularly and those who do not has not been the politically significant factor that it has now become.
For decades, the important electoral division was along lines of religious faith: Catholics, for instance, once voted much more reliably Democratic than Protestants.
By contrast, the country didn’t split nearly as much along lines of religious practice. Surveys from the 1930s through the 1960s found that Americans who regularly attended church differed little from those who didn’t in their voting in presidential elections, according to a recent study by John C. Green of the University of Akron and Mark Silk of Trinity College in Connecticut.
Regular churchgoers first noticeably leaned toward the Republican presidential candidate in the culturally polarizing Richard Nixon-George McGovern contest in 1972. After shrinking in the 1980s, the gap has widened in the last three contests.
Among voters in every major Christian denomination, George W. Bush fared better in 2000 with those who attended services regularly than with those who did not, according to a post-election survey by Green and three colleagues. (The survey’s sampling group for Jewish voters was too small to determine if this trend applied.)
The study found Bush won nearly three-fifths of Catholics who attended church regularly, and lost nearly three-fifths of those who didn’t. It also showed that Democrat Al Gore dominated among secular voters, while Bush was backed by more than 80% of evangelical Protestants who regularly attended church.
In Gallup Polls over the last decade, slightly more than 40% of Americans have consistently reported that they attended religious services almost every week. Another 40% say they go rarely or never, with the remaining 15% or so turning up about once a month.
Social scientists say those results may slightly exaggerate actual attendance but capture the general parameters of a nation split between those who worship regularly and those who don’t.
Political analysts generally agree that the partisan gap between regular churchgoers and more secular voters owes less to the messages people receive in church than to the underlying differences between the churchgoers and the secularists.
Although the extent varies by denomination, regular churchgoers tend to hold more traditional religious beliefs and more conservative positions on social issues, said Tom Smith, director of the general social survey at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. In that sense, he said, attending church may be more a reflection than a cause of those views.
“It would be hard to tease out the cause-and-effect because they are both indicators of the same thing: This person is someone who is a holder of conventional and traditional values of which going to church is one,” Smith said. “And they reinforce each other.”
Most polls show the Sunday morning divide persisting into 2004. In a Times poll released last week, Bush led Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, by 10 percentage points among voters who attended church once a week or more. But the Massachusetts senator’s showing improved as the frequency of church attendance declined: He led by 22 percentage points among those who never go.
Such results suggest that the religious divide is taking its place next to the gender gap and the marriage gap (married couples vote Republican more than singles) as one of the enduring fissures in U.S. politics.