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In medio stat virtus ...

Tobin Grant is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and our resident religion-and-data blogger at Religion News Service. He came up with this cool new graphic of the political positions of 44 religious communities and churches, or rather the positions of their members as based on a major Pew survey.

If you are looking for the circle that represents Catholics, check out that large one in the center. With precious few other groups around it. Yes, I say that with pride, because I tend to gravitate to the center (though we all like to flatter ourselves, I suspect, that we are the center even if we are on the fringe). But since the center is not holding these days, it's a point of pride, and perhaps virtue, that Catholics are standing there. And it seems to me to reflect a Catholic common good sensibility.

On the other hand, in politics the middle of the road is reserved for roadkill. And this bullseye doesn't really indicate the ugly polarization within the church. But still ...

PS: Apoligies for the ham-handed graphics posting. I'll never figure out this blog's back end. In any case, click on thumbnail of the graphic to see it at full size.

About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.



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I'd think that, if the content of magisterial teaching (as opposed to the accumulated opinions of Catholics) could be measured, that circle would be considerably more in the upper-left corner.

It appears, too, that the second-biggest circle is the "nothing in particulars".  It shades slightly in the direction of "more government" and emphatically in the direction of "less involvement protecting morality".  Observers have noted the importance of that demographic to the Obama coalition in 2008 and 2012.  Its position on these axes seems roughly congruent with the administration's philosophy on a range of issues.

Jim P, at the risk of being risque', size doesn't actually matter in this graphic. It just indicates the relative populations of these various communities.

I would beg to differ re where the magisterium would fall, if taken by itself. Especially under Pope Francis, the centrality of social justice doctrine and the solidarity principle would seem to make the magisterium a decent overlay with Catholic public opinion.

I think it's also interesting that there is some overlap between Catholcis and Cons/Orthodox Jews, which makes sense to me. I tend to see the Catholic Church as often having more in common with Judaism than Protestantism.

Sorry, one more quick take: in the lower-right (southeast) quadrant are congregated some of the larger denominations that comprise the so-called "Protestant Mainline".  Their position there indicates that they want less help protecting morality, but also less government.  

The less-help-protecting-morality part aligns with my perception, but not the smaller-government part: I think of those denominations as being bastions of liberal Christianity.  But apparently their liberalism is primarily on moral matters, much more so than on policies that call for government involvement/assistance.  

I'm surprised.  But on the other hand, I've heard it suggested that the Catholic social teaching tradition doesn't really have a vigorous counterpart in Protestantism.  Perhaps this exhibit is evidence of that.

(But on the third hand, some of the 'mainline' churches/parishes in my community are involved with helping the poor.  These findings are sort of a headscratcher.)


David G re: size - right, I gleaned that; it's of interest that the yellow circle is so large.

And I'd argue that, if we use USCCB policy positions as a proxy for the application of magisterial teaching to political policy, the Catholic circle would be a good deal farther toward the bigger government/more services end of the spectrum.  

I guess I'm thinking about this through the lens of entitlement spending and programs that help the poor.  My perception is that the bishops are stronger on those than Catholics as a whole, and I think the exhibit illustrates that.

I had the same reaction as did Jim P to the "mainline" Protestants scoring so far toward small government.  (I am 65-year-old UCC from the Congregational lineage).  Two thoughts: 1) We might need to see the questions in order to understand the scoring.  2) The scoring might be bimodal, with the pastors and  fraction of "activists" scoring much more toward Big Government, but a significant portion of the congregants, in the privacy of theinr homes aswering ain internet query, voting their economic class.  And of course, the demographics are tat the Mainline churches are distinctly aging, and therefore (statistically) leaning more conservative poltically

Marilynne Robinson's marvellous Gilead may be helpful in this.   The protagonist, nearly the only voice we hear, is a Congregational minister, ca. 1956 (born in1880).  He is certainly a good man, as is his best friend, the town's retired Presbyterian  minister.  Consider their reactions to Negroes (as they say), and Ames' few discussions of contemporary politics.  And of course the Reform tradition of Protestantism is oriented to a personal, not primarily a communal relationship to God.

Jim Pauwels,

I'd guess it is the effect of Mainline Protestant churches being the historical homes of the economic and social elite. 


In medio stat dissensio.

I think it is a mistake to infer from the central position of the Catholic circle that Catholics take a moderate position on the questions surveyed. Perhaps they do, but the survey does not show that.

According to Professor Grant's article, participants were asked 

whether they wanted: "a smaller government providing fewer services" or "a bigger government providing more services"


which statement comes closest to their beliefs: "The government should do more to protect morality in society" or "I worry the government is too involved in this issue"?

Each question allows for only two choices. There is no room for moderation or nuance. The circle is in the center because half of Catholic respondents say one thing and half say the opposite, unlike adherents of denominations closer to the edges of the chart, who are in substantial agreement.

To learn what people really believe, it would be necessary to ask about specific policies and programs, which would probably show that almost every person surveyed supports "more" for some things and "less" for others. And that would require a really, really big chart.

I agree with John Prior. The chart shows a divided or a fence-sitting Church.  I don't see much virtue in what it depicts.  

And doesn't it seem like the middle has moved pretty right in recent years/? Seems like what used to be considered centrist views are now considered liberal. I dont know what the center is any more.

Irene - that is funny, because it seems to me that the middle has been moving left :-).

Perhaps we can say that the middle has moved right on the more/less government continuum, and moved left on the more/less help protecting morality continuum?

I agree with John Prior. I can't think of an intelligent yes-or-no answer for myself to those questions. They defy even the "as a rule" hedge one usually has to use in surveys. I also agree with Irene. ISTM -- although I am not sure I could prove it -- that the first question is biassed toward the right but accurately  reflects the way the question probably would be asked by most people today,

After further review, I think I can at least make intelligible why I think the question of "smaller" vs. "bigger" government itself leans right. We had our biggest government ever from 1942-1945, but no one then was paying attention to its size. I mean, we could have had a smaller government if we had skipped the draft and simply fought Germany, Japan and Italy with the Marine Corps. Or privatized the war by contracting it out to Remington and the Pullman Co. No one suggested that.

The question even today isn't really size. Size is a euphemism for more or less expensive or more or less intrusive. But that euphemism is not one the left side would normally chose. One could ask, Do you prefer a smaller government that does not  inspect food, arrest and prosecute counterfeiters, maintain national parks and administer Social Security? Or would you prefer to have a government that does all those things? That is how the left might phrase the question.

The right has spent great effort teaching that the issue is big (bad) vs. small (good), and the question, as asked, treats that teaching as normative. That the left even tries to answer it shows how brain dead the leff has become.

It is not clear to me that the questions asked in this survey have any well-defined meaning. And if they do not, then the answers tell us very little.

Take the "protecting morality" question. One person may say, "Marijuana can be harmful for some people, so allowing unrestricted use of it is immoral, and the government should prevent that."  Another person says, "Marijuana can have benign effects for some people, and it is generally less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, which are legal products. Needlessly limiting people's freedom to choose is itself immoral, and government should not do that." Whose morality should the government do more to protect?

On the "smaller/bigger government and fewer/more services" question, one person may wish to cut childhood nutrition programs and spend the savings on armored personnel carriers for small-town police forces, and another may wish to do the opposite. Both people are both for and against both choices presented to them in this survey.

We humans can't be sorted so easily.


One problem with this: the American center is actually far to the right in the global Catholic world.

One problem with this: the American center is actually far to the right in the global Catholic world.

I don't know how we would know where the global Catholic world would land on the exhibit.  My assumption would be that the global Catholic world is far to the left of center on the morality axis.


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