It was one of those symbolic questions that pollsters toss into the mix when probing fault lines inside political coalitions.
The Pew Research Center recently asked, as part of its “Beyond Red vs. Blue” political typology project, whether voters agreed or disagreed that it is “necessary to believe in God to be moral.”
Among the voters called “Solid Liberals,” one of three major Democratic Party camps, only 11 percent of those polled said “yes.” People in the emerging “next generation left” felt the same way, with only 7 percent affirming that statement.
However, things were radically different among the voters that Pew researchers labeled the “faith and family left.” In this crowd – the survey’s most racially and ethnically diverse camp – a stunning 91 percent of those polled saw a connection between morality and belief in God.
This division among progressives jumped into the news recently when the White House announced plans for an executive order banning discrimination by federal contractors against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and those identifying as transgender.
A coalition of religious leaders friendly to President Barack Obama, including the 2012 Obama campaign staffer in charge of outreach to faith groups, immediately pleaded for a religious exemption. Its letter focused on an Obama statement that “our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry” and help others.
“We could not agree with you more. Our identity as individuals is based first and foremost in our faith. ... The hiring policies of these organizations – Christians, Jewish, Muslim and others – extend from their religious beliefs and values: the same values that motivate them to serve their neighbors in the first place,” the letter said to Obama.
“While the nation has undergone incredible social and legal change over the last decade, we still live in a nation with different beliefs about sexuality. We must find a way to respect diversity of opinion on this issue in a way that respects the dignity of all parties to the best of our ability.”
This religious divide on the political left is not new, but these distinctions are “getting sharper,” said John C. Green of the University of Akron, a specialist in faith-and-politics research. However, faith and family left voters – whether they are African-American Protestants, Latino Catholics or white Evangelicals – still retain a positive, “populist” view of government, especially when it comes to helping others.
“They are pro-government and pro-safety net,” said Green. “But they are also pro-life, they are pro-religion, they are pro-family, they are pro-morality.
“There are a lot of things that unite people in the Democratic coalition right now, but there is a values divide there. On one side are people who are very modern and their values are highly individualistic. On the other side are these people who have an older set of values based on community and tradition and, yes, on religion.”
• Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.