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A Secularizing America Turns Left Politically
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2008 record      


According to a new narrative promoted by the media, public opinion in America has exhibited a dramatic and irreversible shift toward liberalism on a number of contentious social issues.

Some portray the recent Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, along with the American public's growing support for gay marriage, as a further extension of this narrative and definitive evidence of seismic cultural and social changes in the country.

Indeed, numerous surveys illustrate that support for same-sex marriage has nearly doubled over the past decade. Our own IBD/TIPP Poll has recorded this astonishing reversal: While only 29% of Americans supported same-sex marriage back in 2004, our most recent survey found that nearly 3-in-5 Americans (57%) express support for the institution.

Our latest poll also suggests that Americans are espousing more liberal viewpoints on a number of other pertinent social issues, including health care and climate change.

In July, a majority of Americans (55%) expressed belief in man-made climate change, while 51% of those surveyed agreed with President Obama that the threat posed by climate change is the most defining issue of this century. Regarding health care, exactly half of Americans say they support the Affordable Care Act, with 43% opposing.

But while these numbers seem to verify the narrative of an America rapidly moving left, a more detailed analysis of the data suggests that Protestant Christians, a large segment of the American public that tends to lean conservative, remain diametrically opposed to the shift.

In fact, Americans' changing views on social issues reflect the shift in religious demographics that the country has experienced over the past few years.

Our research shows the share of Americans who do not identify themselves with any religion is increasing. Those not claiming religious preference have grown from 14% in 2010 to 22% today. This growing "no religion" demographic provides high levels of support for liberal positions on issues such as climate change, same-sex marriage and health care.

For instance, 84% of respondents who do not identify with any religious group in our poll support gay marriage, while just over one-third of Protestants (34%) and 45% of all Christians share the same point of view.

Further, "nones" are likelier than any other religious group to view climate change as both a serious threat and primarily man-made.

Our survey shows that while nearly three-quarters, or 71%, of Americans not claiming any religious preference see the threat of climate change as the most defining issue of the century, 40% identifying themselves as Protestants and 42% of all Christians say the same thing.

Americans with no religious preference also have a more favorable view of Obama than the rest of the population. Though 45% of the general public view the president favorably, a little more than 3-in-5 Americans of no creed (61%) have a favorable view.

Meanwhile, Protestants and all Christians in general give the president lower favorability ratings than the national average, at 34% and 40%, respectively.

Thus, the rising share of Americans with no religious preference has played at least some role in the country's apparent ideological shift to the left in regard to certain social issues.

Meanwhile, most Protestants maintain a conservative vision, even more so than other Christian denominations, such as Roman Catholics. While the IBD/TIPP Poll illustrates that same-sex marriage, for instance, is opposed by a solid majority (59%) of Protestants, fully 67% of Catholics support the concept, 10 points higher than the overall rating of 57%.

The Affordable Care Act is another hot-button issue that reveals the growing ideological divide between Protestants and Catholics.

According to our survey, a majority of Catholics (53%) express support for the health care law, but the law is backed by just 41% of Protestants.

Additionally, the share of Catholics who maintain that climate change is occurring primarily due to human activity registered at 56%, nearly identical to the overall national average of 55%.

By contrast, 43% of Protestants believe in man-made climate change, with most assuming the phenomenon is the result of natural changes in temperatures.

The diverging views of Catholics and Protestants regarding key social issues of the day indicate that as Catholics tend to be more embracing of liberal positions, reflecting the ideological shift to the left in the general public as a whole, Protestants remain largely steadfast in their support of conservative principles.

This divide between Catholics and Protestants can be attributed to a number of patterns that the two religious groups have experienced over the years. A deeper insight into the demographic makeup of Protestants and Catholics provides perhaps the clearest explanation for the striking ideological differences between the two groups.

First, Catholics are likelier to consider themselves Democrats and ideologically liberal than Protestants. According to the IBD/TIPP poll, over one-third (35%) of Democrats say they're Roman Catholics, while 29% are Protestants.

On the other hand, 37% of Protestants identify themselves as Republicans vs. just over one-quarter (27%) of Catholics. As in the past, Catholics continue to support the party of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president.

Regional differences may be another factor in the ideological disparity between Catholics and Protestants. A higher percentage of Catholics than Protestants live in the Northeast, which is usually considered more ideologically liberal than other regions, such as the more conservative South, which is represented by 42% Protestants and 29% Catholics.

In addition, research has consistently revealed a strong correlation between church attendance and political ideology, with those attending service at least once a week tending to be more politically conservative than those who attend less frequently or not at all.

The varying frequency of church attendance among Catholics and Protestants offers a possible indicator of political leanings. A Gallup poll conducted in late 2014 revealed that while over half of Protestants (53%) attended church service at least once a week, the share of Catholics who attended at the same rate was 45%.

So while recent findings suggest that support for liberal policies appears to have gained significant momentum, our research also finds that a core segment of the American public, Christian Protestants, is still holding the fort.

Thus, America's supposed cultural shift to the left may not be so inevitable after all.

  • • Westervelt is an analyst at TechnoMetrica, IBD's polling partner.
  • • Mayur is the president of TechnoMetrica and directs the IBD/TIPP Poll.
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