Hey, news consumers: Does anyone remember that "Nones on the Rise" study from the Pew Research Center?
Of course you do. It was in all the newspapers, over and over. It even soaked into network and cable television news -- where stories about religion is rare.
The big news, of course, was the rapid rise in "Nones" -- the "religiously unaffiliated" -- in the American population, especially among the young. Does this sound familiar? One-fifth of all Americans -- a third of those under 30 -- are "Nones," to one degree or another.
Traditional forms of religious faith were holding their own, while lots of vaguely religious people in the mushy middle were being more candid about their lack of ties to organized religion. More than 70 percent of "Nones" called themselves "nothing in particular," as opposed to being either atheists or agnostics.
When the study came out, a key researcher -- John C. Green of the University of Akron -- said it was crucial to note the issues that united these semi-believers, as well as atheists, agnostics and faithful religious liberals, into a growing voter block on the cultural left. My "On Religion" column ended with this:
The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters. ... The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.
"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green. ... "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."
These sharp divisions are also being seen INSIDE the major political parties. If you want to see that process at work, check out the fascinating New York Times report that ran the other day under this headline: "As Primaries Begin, Divided Voters Weigh What It Means to Be a Democrat." It isn't hard to spot the religion "ghost" in this blunt overture:
PALOS HILLS, Ill. -- When Representative Daniel Lipinski, a conservative-leaning Democrat and scion of Chicago’s political machine, agreed to one joint appearance last month with his liberal primary challenger, the divide in the Democratic Party was evident in the audience that showed up.
Mr. Lipinski’s outnumbered supporters were the diminished lunch-pail Democrats that once dominated his Southside district. Those of his rival, Marie Newman, came from the party’s ascendant coalition -- young progressives and women like Elizabeth Layden, a Patagonia-clad teacher who explained her opposition to Mr. Lipinski in blunt terms.
“Because he’s a dinosaur, ’cause he’s a phony, ’cause he’s a Republican who claims to be a Democrat,” said Ms. Layden, 49, who has been making phone calls and knocking on doors to help unseat Mr. Lipinski, a seven-term House member, in the primary race this month. “Hello, women’s rights, and hello, my reproductive rights. Get out of my uterus.”
Now, there's an interesting phrase -- "lunch-pail Democrats." Might that be code for labor-union people, most of them blue-collar Catholics?
On the other side, what does "a Patagonia-clad teacher" mean? Later in the report there is this:
... What animates her campaign are matters of identity that are galvanizing Democrats in the Trump era well beyond Chicago. Her headquarters, not far from the elder Lipinski’s old clubhouse, is filled with signs trumpeting “Intersectional Feminism” and L.G.B.T.Q. rights. ...
Speaking to her supporters, Ms. Newman invoked her transgender daughter. Over a diner lunch, where her Mercedes stuck out in the parking lot, she said a victory over Mr. Lipinski this month would echo across the country.
The Times report does, eventually, dig into the religious ties in the Lipinski camp. However, I would like to pause and ask: If Newman's campaign is fueled by moral and cultural issues, what is her religious or nonreligious point of view? Why isn't that information relevant?
The key, as Democrats strive to take the U.S. House of Representatives, is whether there is room in the party for the wrong kind of diversity, when it comes to issues linked to centuries of religious doctrine and faith. Who is backing the efforts to shove Lipinski out of the party?
That would be Naral Pro-Choice America and the Human Rights Campaign, according to the Times. Check out this amazing thesis statement:
... The backlash to President Trump’s divisive politics has also fueled a demand by the party’s progressive wing for ideological purity and more diverse representation, a tension that could reshape what it means to be a Democrat.
In other words: We had to burn the village in order to save it.
Like I said, the Times team eventually -- way down in the story -- spots one side of the religious element in this campaign and names it, using a label that some GetReligion readers would say hints at anti-Catholicism. You see, Lipinski represents a "heavily Polish and Irish district in Chicago" and:
... There are still elements of the fish-fry-Friday voters, the Catholic demographic that political veterans here still call “white ethnics.”
Wearing a Notre Dame hat and standing apart from the attendees at the candidate forum was Jack Nevin, an Illinois Department of Transportation employee who as a child attended the same parish as the Lipinski family and now lives in suburban Lemont.
“I’m a pro-life guy, born and raised Catholic,” said Mr. Nevin, by way of explaining why he was backing the incumbent. “Win or lose, he’s standing up for his beliefs.”
Now, was Green -- that scholar from Akron -- right when he said that these kinds of fights were going to become more common among Democrats (the mirror image of decades of GOP tension over social issues)?
Well, check out this recent post from our own Bobby Ross, Jr. The headline: "Texas ghosts: Rural Democrats in Lone Star State don't like Trump, but what issues do matter to them?" Want to guess what issues we're dealing with here?
Or click over to my think piece from this past weekend: "Your weekend think piece: Billy Graham, Jeffrey Bell, Michael Gerson and 'Starbucks' politics."
Writing in The Washington Post, #NeverTrump Republican Gerson even notes that the purity wars inside the Democratic Party are actually helping the more radical elements in the GOP. Journalists may as, "Really"?
The Democrats’ solidification as a pro-choice party is, in the end, a function of the ideological polarization of both parties. At one point, the GOP and the Democratic Party both had liberal and conservative wings. Now they generally each flap wildly with one. The geographic sorting of the parties also figures heavily. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who learned to win elections in relatively conservative border states, wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare.” With the effective collapse of the Democratic Party in such places, fewer rising Democratic officials gain office through moderation on cultural issues. ...
This trend also narrows the ideological range of American politics. The absence of a pro-life option in the Democratic Party leaves some compassionate and reform conservatives utterly homeless as they wait on the recovery of GOP sanity. And it leaves no place for many Catholics wishing to be consistently faithful to their church’s social teaching -- pro-life and pro-poor, against euthanasia and against the dehumanization of migrants.
Reporters may want to think about this gut-punch, from Gerson:
It is not a small thing that neither party cares to accommodate the social agenda of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.
The Times team spotted half of the religion equation in that Illinois primary war.
I suggest that they give Green a ring and let him explain the other half. It's all there in the Pew team's famous "Nones" report.