Lost Common Ground

Without Religious Faith, Americans Fall for Divisive Politics

As if increasing polarization among the U.S. populace wasn’t enough of a problem, it now appears that even American marriages are becoming more polarized.

According to a recent post at The Hill, politically “mixed” marriages (either of Democrats and Republicans or, more commonly, a Democrat or a Republican married to an independent) are on the decline. While a mere four years ago, such marriages made up about 30% of all American unions, they now account for only 21%. Data for this trend going back any earlier are not available, but other surveys indicate that we have become more polarized in our families as well. A Gallup poll asked in 1958, “If you had a daughter of marriageable age, would you prefer she marry a Democrat or Republican, all other things being equal?” To this question, 18% of Americans said they preferred their daughter married a Democrat, 10% a Republican, and the majority didn’t have a preference. When the same question was asked again in 2016, 28% preferred their daughter marry a Democrat, and 27% a Republican—it was now the minority, not the majority, who didn’t have a preference.

What is going on here? Why do families suddenly have such strong preferences for how their members vote? On the one hand, such news reflects the fact that America is itself increasingly polarized, with more and more people aligning themselves at the extremes of the political spectrum and a dwindling number holding more moderate views. So the fact that such polarization is affecting how we form our very families is not a surprise. But it is also interesting that in a time when we as a culture do homage to the merits of open-mindedness and inclusion, we are in fact becoming more and more closed-minded in how we choose and operate within our most intimate relationships.

This trend may reflect the increasing gap in who marries whom (educated and wealthy marry others like themselves, while the working classes are finding marriage itself ever less attainable), as Charles Murray has pointed out. It may also reflect the continued radicalization of the Left and the Democratic Party. Not too long ago, for example, President Clinton pronounced that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” Now, leading Democratic candidates demand abortion up until the moment of birth (or beyond), for any reason—in opposition to many members of their own party, and in fact to the majority of the American people, who favor restricting abortion. The same is true for leading leftists’ view on transgenderism, or defunding the police, or any number of other social issues. In response to such increasingly radical sentiments, the right may seem wildly backward, out of touch, and stodgy—when in reality, its positions haven’t changed much in the past several decades. It is no wonder that there are fewer voters in the middle than ever before.

But another, corresponding phenomenon may be insightful here. American church attendance, which hovered around 70% or higher for the middle part of the last century, took a nose dive around the year 1999 and now stands at about 50%. In a mere 20 years, 20% of Americans stopped going to church. This is significant, because statistics also show that “identifying” with a particular religious affiliation doesn’t do you much good, when it comes to maintaining your marriage or rearing your children well. What makes an impact is church attendance, likely because it signifies a real commitment to a particular faith.

But what the drop in church attendance may also indicate is a spiritual and moral vacuum in the American psyche, one that some are trying to fill with political opinion. Man needs principles; he can’t help it. (As C.S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, even those who claim to disbelieve in a natural law will be quick to shout, “That’s not fair!”) When Americans turn from God, they still need to believe in something to give life meaning and purpose. Politicians, the media, academics, and others offer empty ideologies that sound meaningful but in fact are devoid of truth, and the American public, desperate for something real, grasps for it. In previous decades, a man or woman guided by faith had a standard with which to compare the latest fashionable ideology or political trend, but no longer. In former years, parents could examine their Christian beliefs, recognize that many positions on both sides of the political spectrum attempted to uphold those beliefs in various ways, and be accepting of their daughter marrying someone who supported an opposing political party. The means the two parties used may have been different, but their common aims were much more alike, because they were guided by a (somewhat) common faith. But now, in the absence of faith, parents instead hold to be “true” whatever their political party says and are horrified at the thought of their children marrying someone of an opposing viewpoint.

The media like to paint Christians and the religious as the bigoted, but in fact, it is faith and the values that accompany it that allow us to feel secure enough in what we know to be true to attempt to understand where others are coming from and try to meet them halfway. Take away religious faith, and you are left with a moral vacuum that will be filled—but with intolerant ideologies that drive Americans further apart, rather than common religious impulses that draw them together.

is the managing editor of The Natural Family, the quarterly publication of the International Organization for the Family.

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