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Progressive Revival

Given the divisive role religion played in the 2004 election, many progressives have been waiting for a resumption of the culture wars in this election season.  Yet despite the addition of Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket, (a Pentecostal governor who strongly opposes abortion rights), there is little evidence that the social issues which played such a prominent role four years ago will dominate the 2008 election. Neither the new ruling today by the Connecticut Supreme Court striking down a law prohibiting gay and lesbian couples from getting married, nor the battle in California over a ballot initiative to repeal the current law that guarantees gay and lesbian couples marriage rights seem likely to reignite the culture wars nationwide.

The newly released “Faith and American Politics Survey,” sponsored by Faith in Public Life and conducted by my firm, Public Religion Research, offers some key insights into this changing American religious landscape. Like other recent surveys, we found that religious Americans, like all Americans in this election, care much more about the economy, gas prices, and health care than they do about abortion or same-sex marriage. In fact, 83% of Americans say the economy will be a very important factor in their vote in November, compared to just 28% who say that same-sex marriage will be very important. Even among white evangelicals, the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage do not rank in the top five most important issues for the election.

Perhaps more importantly, we found that younger Americans of faith (18-34) are not their parents’ culture war generation. On issues from gay and lesbian rights to the role of government at home and the role of America around the world, young Americans are bridging the divides they have inherited from the previous generation and are ushering in an era where the common good trumps ideological orthodoxy.

Young Adults and Same-sex Marriage
The issue of same-sex marriage, which was so divisive in 2004, provides a good window into the shifting terrain. Among the general population and all young adults, the issue of same-sex marriage ranked dead last out of ten issues as a very important issue in the upcoming election.

Generational differences in support for same-sex marriage are striking.  Forty-six percent of young adults support the right of gay couples to marry, 17 points higher than the general population (29%). And, unlike the older generation, more than twice as many young adults support marriage as civil unions (46% to 22%).

Support for same-sex marriage among young adults is also increasing dramatically. Between 2006 and 2008 the number of young adults who supported same-sex marriage increased from 37% to 46%, a nine-point gain in two years. Moreover, the gap between young adults and the general population nearly doubled during the same time period, increasing from 9 points in 2006 to 17 points in 2008.

Young Catholics
Younger Catholics are nearly as supportive of same-sex marriage as young adults overall, with 44% agreeing that gay couples should be able to marry and 23% supporting civil unions. Among all Catholics, less than a third (30%) support same-sex marriage. Younger Catholics also support abortion rights, with six-in-ten saying that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 54% of all Catholics.  

There is also clear evidence that young Catholics are committed to a broad political agenda. Younger Catholics are also less likely than older Catholics and even other young adults to see abortion and same-sex marriage as very important voting issues. Six-in-ten (61%) of young Catholics do not see abortion as a very important voting issue, and seven-in-ten do not see same-sex marriage as a very important voting issue. Neither older nor younger Catholics are single-issue voters on abortion, with more than seven-in-ten (71%) agreeing that they would vote for a candidate who disagreed with them on abortion.

Young White Evangelicals
While young white evangelicals remain as strongly Republican and opposed to abortion rights as white evangelicals in the general population, there are important signs that they too are not simply marching to the beat of the previous generation. Among young adults, a majority of every religious group supports either same-sex marriage or civil unions, and young white evangelicals are no exception. Fifty-two percent (24% marriage, 28% civil unions) of younger evangelicals support some legal recognition of gay couples’ relationships, compared to only 34% (9% marriage, 25% civil unions) of older evangelicals.

Like young Catholics, young white evangelicals’ voting agenda is much broader than abortion and same-sex marriage. Fully two-thirds of younger evangelicals say they would still vote for a candidate even if the candidate disagreed with them on the issue of abortion. Younger evangelicals rank a number of other issues, such as economic issues, terrorism, and Iraq higher than abortion, and nearly equal numbers say that health care is a very important voting issue as say abortion (58% compared to 62%).

Stepping Back: The New Public Face of Religion
These survey results echoed the themes I heard from the nearly one hundred religious leaders I interviewed for my new book, Progressive & Religious: How Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist Leaders are Moving Beyond the Culture Wars and Transforming American Public Life. Religious leaders from across the country talked about the shifts they are sensing and fostering within their religious communities to bring their faith to bear on a broad range of issues, such as economic justice, access to health care, poverty, and the environment. These leaders are paving the way for a new era of religious engagement in public life.

This research is beginning to show a new face of religion in American public life that is a refreshing contrast from the divisiveness that has dominated our politics for the last few decades. These new leaders and the new generation are recovering the much older and deeper meaning of our word for religion, the Latin root of which means “to bind together.” In our troubled times, when the country faces such stark challenges at home and abroad, these shifts are indeed a cause for hope.

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