Sunday, July 13, 2008

How Does the "Big Sort" Sort Catholics?

I have been writing about Bill Bishop's The Big Sort this week. Today our Centre College study group had the pleasure of meeting with Bishop, who was in Kentucky for a book signing.

One of the terms that Bishop uses to talk about the lifestyle divide that helps produce politically segregated neighborhoods is between "public Protestantism" and "private Protestantism." These are based on a distinction Martin Marty made between the way mainline Protestant churches in this country have lived their faith, and the approach taken by evangelical, fundamentalist, and pentecostal churches. In surveys, those who view their faith as the basis for stewardship of the public realm tend to vote Democratic and live near other Democrats. Those who, by contrast, view faith as primarily about personal belief and morals tended to vote and live Republican. The former views don't actually entail liberal theology, and the latter don't entail conservative theology, but the correlations are pretty high.

I wondered how Catholics fared on these measures of public and private Protestantism. Bishop reported that Catholics with conservative theological views and an emphasis of their personal faith and morals tended to vote Republican, while liberal, socially oriented Catholics tended to vote Democratic. This is completely in line with Bishop's other findings.

What is odd is that Catholic social teaching is as traditional, papal, and "mainline" as "public Protestantism" is. Protestantism is more individually oriented than Catholicism is pretty much across the theological board. Bishop's sources were not, I think, refined enough to ask Catholic-specific questions that would let us tease out the nuance of how Catholics who are theologically traditional and publicly oriented vote. That is a good start for the next study.

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