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The thesis of the book, bluntly, is that the basic human religious needs and the basic religious functions have not changed very notably since the ice age,” writes Andrew M. Greeley. The changes that have occurred “make religious questions more critical rather than less critical in the contemporary world....There is no reason to think that enthusiastic religious commitment is any more unfashionable today than it was among neolithic men.”

Those words would seem to echo the prevailing view about the growing role of religion in American society and around the world. But they are not from Greeley’s important new work with Michael Hout on conservative Christians. They appeared in Greeley’s Unsecular Man, a book published in 1972-a time when such thoughts were highly controversial. Thirty-four years ago, Greeley challenged the reigning belief that we were all happily headed down the road of secularization.

The gleefully combative Greeley could not resist opening Unsecular Man this way: “Let us be clear from the beginning: this is a volume of dissent. It rejects the conventional wisdom about the contemporary situation.”

Fr. Greeley is a national treasure and a gift to his church because of his stubborn adherence to three overlapping notions that feed his frequent dissents. He believes that arguments should proceed from a careful analysis of the available data. He believes that religious people are worthy of respect and understanding, not scorn. And he believes that elites of various kinds (in politics, in the church, in business, in the culture and, especially, in academia) often get things wrong.

The Truth about Conservative Christians is in this icon-smashing tradition. It is also another case in Greeley’s long sociological career of writing books with gifted co-authors who share his knowledge and passion for the subject at hand.

Greeley and Hout begin their book in characteristic fashion. Of conservative Christians, they write: “Insiders and outsiders alike misrepresent, misperceive, and stereotype this large and diverse segment of American culture.” They conclude on the same note. In their final paragraphs, they write: “In our experience most of those who stereotype the conservative Christians do not know any of them.”

One of the reasons this book does not match most analyses of conservative Christians is that Greeley and Hout recognize what many other students of the subject don’t: a large number of theologically conservative Christians are African Americans, the nation’s most loyally Democratic group. Arguing that conservative Christianity is allied with conservative politics makes sense, they write, “only if you want to exclude Afro-American Christians from the ranks of the religiously conservative.” They continue: “But that is a groundless exclusion. Their ‘Evangelical’ credentials are as good as anyone else’s, in some cases marginally better.” Indeed.

Republicans have tried for years-most recently in the 2004 election with the issue of gay marriage-to use culturally conservative themes to shift African-American allegiances away from the Dem¬ocrats. With the possible (though significant) exception of African Americans in Ohio, this effort largely failed. Even in the case of Ohio, the Republican share of the black vote still reached only 16 percent. (The Republicans made much more progress in 2004 among socially conservative Latinos, particularly Latino Protestants.)

This is a book full of fun facts. For example, as you might expect, conservative Protestants are less likely to drink alcohol than Mainline Protestants-50 percent versus 79 percent. They also might fit your stereotype in liking country music more than most, and in being more likely to own guns. And the data show that conservative Protestants are “conspicuously patriotic.” Greeley and Hout write: “Their members are prominent in the military and at public events that have a patriotic flavor. They express more pride, especially in the military, than other Americans do.”

These are politically significant findings. They suggest that by emphasizing patriotic themes in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush and the Republicans could strengthen their ties with conservative Protestants without necessarily doing anything concrete on behalf of the issues on the socially conservative agenda dear to this constituency. It is one of the reasons why the president and Karl Rove have chosen to try to keep terrorism at the fore as November’s elections approach.

Yet conservative Protestants were marginally more likely to watch PBS news programs daily than other Americans-with the exception of those who say they have no religion, who watched at about the same rate. “If one finds the temptation irresistible to picture all ‘Jesus people’ as religious fanatics,” Greeley and Hout write, “one should picture a fifth of them glued to PBS stations every evening.”

Perhaps because they are skeptical of neoconservative efforts to create a political alliance between conservative Catholics and conservative Evangelicals, Greeley and Hout pour cold water on the idea. The two groups are “too estranged for alliance,” with anti-Catholic stereotypes persisting too strongly among too many Protestants. “The Reformation casts a long shadow,” they write, “and in its darkest recesses bad feelings lurk.”

Greeley and Hout are right that a significant cultural and theological distance endures between Evangelicals and Catholics. But recent elections have suggested that religious differences between faith traditions are now far less significant than ideological differences within them. Conservative Catholics, Protestants, and Jews tend to vote together, and so do liberal Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. (American Muslims have shown a great tendency to swing, with large shifts in a Democratic direction occurring between 2000 and 2004.) The Reformation may still matter more than we realize, but it did happen a long time ago.

And while the book is helpful in pointing out that conservative Christians are not purists on abortion (they are wary of banning abortion in cases involving rape or incest and where a mother’s health is endangered), the antiabortion alliance between significant numbers of Catholics and Evangelicals has had a real political effect.

Interestingly, the authors report that conservatives were “more likely to admit infidelity in the course of a marriage than were Mainline Protestants.” On this point, they choose to depart from the data to make a moral point. “We wondered in passing why the leaders of the conservative denominations, so eager to denounce threats to the institution of the family, seem disinclined to criticize these relations (about which they claim to be ignorant), which are either fornication or adultery by their own moral standards,” they write. “Homosexuals, it would seem, threaten the family but not infidelity or living in sin.” Greeley and Hout are right to call our attention to this moral inconsistency. One could imagine conservative Christians replying that they did forcefully denounce infidelity in at least one case, that of Bill Clinton.

Because Greeley and Hout believe that conservative Christians should not be seen as some exotic, extremist group, they believe they are open to persuasion in politics. Indeed, they rightly point to the strengthening of the class divide in voting, suggesting that religious and moral issues are not all that matter. They argue, again I think correctly, that the most vociferous conservative activists among Christians have created “illusions” of political unity that do not match the diversity of the constituency they claim to lead.

Some of the most useful research supporting this view has come from John Green of the University of Akron and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (a group with which I have a long affiliation). Greene’s survey on the 2004 election found that white Evangelicals accounted for 26.3 percent of the population. But of these, only 12.6 percent were what Green called “traditionalists” who, in their voting behavior, really are a core part of the Republican base.

The rest are either what Green calls “centrists” (10.8 percent) or “modernists” (2.9 percent). The centrists lean Republican, but by a modest margin, and the modernists lean Democratic. Mainline Protestants, in the meantime, are emerging as a major swing group in politics. As Catholics have become less Democratic than they once were, Mainliners have become less Republican.

All this suggests that a significant share of the white Christian community, including Evangelicals, is willing to hear alternative arguments to those offered by the Right. Greeley and Hout believe the best arguments for Democrats are about economics. “Get economic justice right,” they argue, “and the conservative Christians held back by economic injustice will back you.”

For those who find themselves somewhere on the left side of politics, this is a hopeful view. And it’s certainly true that Democrats cannot win if they are not persuasive on the issues of social justice, economic insecurity, and the shift of risk away from corporations and government onto individuals.

But the very complexity of the human beings Greeley and Hout describe suggests that this economic appeal will not be successful unless it is part of a larger moral message. Conservative Christians-and Americans generally-worry about their paychecks but also about whether they can spend enough time with their families. They care about the economic opportunities their children will have and also about the values their children will inherit. They care about their own economic interests but also seek nurturing communities that are about more than money.

Creating a practical moral politics is not the explicit goal of the authors. Rather, by reminding us that conservative Christians are more interesting and more complicated than many think, Greeley and Hout have once again turned conventional wisdom on its head. In doing so, this book gives liberals a scolding and offers them some hope.

Published in the 2006-10-20 issue: 
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E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing writer for Commonweal. His most recent book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country (Macmillan, 2020).

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