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Atlantic Monthly highlights moral divide in faith communities

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–There is a growing divide in the faith community, and it is not necessarily between faith traditions. It often cuts right through them, contends the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land in an article in the January-February 2005 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

Author Hanna Rosin writes that Land gave the “kind of interview a quarterback gives in the locker room” after a big win, in which the team’s leader seeks to deflect the credit for the victory to his offensive line, his receivers, and so on.

While saying the white evangelical vote was the “driving engine” of Bush’s re-election victory, Land noted Americans of many different faiths who hold to traditional moral values provided the margin for Bush to prevail over his challenger, Democratic Sen. John Kerry.

“You’d be shocked,” Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told the magazine, “at the number of Catholics who voted for this president. You’d be shocked at the number of Orthodox Jews, even observant Jews. This was a victory for all people of traditional moral values.”

It’s not happenstance that Land cites “moral values” and adds the descriptor “traditional.” He knows there is a significant portion of the American population who take religion very seriously. And those who believe in traditional cultural and conservative religious values believe right and wrong exist and that there is a good and an evil, Land has said before.

It is this shared affinity for these “traditional moral values” that brings Americans from very different religious backgrounds together in support of one political candidate over another, he tells The Atlantic Monthly. This shared perspective also brings citizens from disparate traditions to the same side on several social issues, most notably abortion and homosexuality, Land insists in the article, titled “Beyond Belief.”

It is what prompts Land to tell the magazine that when it comes to values, it could be said he has more in common with many in the Catholic faith than he does with Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, two men who previously have identified themselves as Southern Baptists.

Stressing that he has deep theological differences with the Roman Catholic faith, he explains there are common causes on which people of different faith traditions can agree and work together.

The real religious divide isn’t between the churched and the unchurched, the article trumpets, but it is between two groups of people who believe — they simply believe differently when it comes to many moral issues. And as Land points out, polling data from the 2004 presidential contest reveals significant distinctions between voters who are members of the same denomination.

“There’s a fault line running through American religions. And that fault line is running not between denominations but through them,” Land said. The disagreements are so fundamental that it is now rare for a mainline denomination to hold an annual meeting and not have some sign of the division in members’ positions on moral or social issues in the news the next day, the article noted.

Yet it is not only mainline denominations that are undergoing a transformation; evangelicals are not a monolith either.

A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that half the evangelicals surveyed in 2004 called themselves “centrist” or “modernist,” the magazine reported. A segment within these non-traditional groups has been called “freestyle evangelicals.” These individuals are typically morally conservative but moderate in their politics, placing greater primacy on environmental and education issues than is normally the case with evangelicals, particularly those tabbed as “traditionalists” who are eager to preserve “traditional beliefs and practices.”

The Atlantic Monthly article contends the “divide between traditionalists and modernists [both evangelical] is likely to widen in the coming years.” But religious traditionalists from many different faith traditions appear to be “gelling into a united force,” despite their theological differences, the magazine continued.

Political operatives in the Bush White House saw the “emerging religious split” and took advantage of it, the article said. During his first four years in office, Bush reached out to faith groups not known for supporting a Republican candidate and enjoyed increased support from the groups’ members on Election Day 2004.

The article references efforts by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver to encourage Catholics to address the abortion issue at the ballot box.

“We’ve tried one approach for thirty years — to be against abortion but measured and contextualized, but it hasn’t rooted out abortion,” Chaput told Rosin. The archbishop was one of several Catholic officials who took issue with presidential candidate John Kerry, a Catholic and pro-choice, taking communion.

In an article on his diocese Web site, Chaput faulted Catholics who take communion while “they ignore or deny the teachings of His Church,” including the Catholic Church’s position on abortion. In an Oct. 18, 2000, column found on the Priests for Life Web site, Chaput wrote, “Many American Catholics no longer connect their political choices with their religious faith in any consistent way.”

But what does the future hold? The Atlantic Monthly article says that while conservatives — of all religious stripes — appear to be better mobilized than other interest groups, the “burden of high expectations” may be their undoing. If President Bush doesn’t hold tight to his promised agenda, the voters who embrace “traditional moral values” may drop out of the political process by 2008, the magazine says.

“It’s not hard to imagine that perhaps six months, or a year, or three years down the road, religious traditionalists will face frustration and a sense of betrayal by the political system, with which they are now engaging so enthusiastically,” the article contends. This is a fact borne out by history, it suggests, citing the late 1980s disappearance of the “Moral Majority” when its proponents found it overly difficult to effect social change primarily through Washington, D.C.

    About the Author

  • Dwayne Hastings