My point about this Picture

Concerning this graph:

Maybe I shouldn't get concerned when people misunderstood what I am trying to say in this blog. Maybe that is a inevitable fact of life, in blogging. Some people did not understand my preaching either.

My point was not that the picture is somehow wrong in what it portrays. Pew Research does really good work and I assume that they know how to present their information accurately and responsibly. I assume that they know better than anyone else what people in "the pews" of these religions think about the political issues of the day. After all, they have real data, and the rest of us have our subjective impressions.

My concern is about the political and historical analysis implicit in the structure of the graph. The very way that the data is organized assumes rightwing frames that are false and inaccurate.

Determining each axis of this graph is a matter of historical and political analysis, the kind of which we never see in all the blather than makes up political journalism today. What is happening today is connected to longer narratives in history and if you don't connect them, then the present is mystifying and the past irrelevant. You can't see what it happening before your eyes. And if you survey people to determine their attitudes toward the largest issues, when you lack a clear definition of those issues, then the data you get is going to be not as useful. 

It is simply not true that the major political issue in the United States is a controversy about the size of government and the level of services that it might provide. Ask yourself if you have ever heard a leftwing demonstration chanting: "What Do We Want? Big Government. When Do We Want It? Now!" What does the Left want? A whole host of things, some of which require state action, some of which don't. Posing this issue as a controversy over the size of government is a conservative frame. Likewise, the right wants a more powerful government in many ways, and would like to prevent the state from action on other goals. It's not about the size of government; its about whether the government can be an instrument for changing the power arrangements extant. The business about the size of government is conservative slogan masquerading as a foundational political theory. 

Likewise, the vertical frame is a conservative frame. Protecting morality, even protecting traditional morality is a conservative frame. The most important social change in the last 50 years has been the dismantling of some of the elements of patriarchy. All sorts of moral issues are being reconsidered now that women's voices are present: reproductive justice, LGBTQ issues, marriage. It is historical and political malpractice to define those issues as being traditional morality vs. anti-traditional morality. You know it's a false dichotomy when one side cannot even be named except as a negative of the good. Why not label the top "Good" and the bottom "Evil"?

My point is not to rename the two axes, while assuming that all of the denominations remain in the same place. My point is that we need to analyze the true political and moral conflicts, historically and sociologically. I suspect if you started from a more accurate understanding of the real divisions in the country, and if you designed questions that exposed what people think about them and analyzed that data, some of these denominations might change position. (And that doesn't solve the problem of representing the range of opinion within each denomination.)

Why does this matter? People look to religious leadership for an understanding of current life from the largest possible perspective. As soon as we talk about anything beyond the inevitability of death, we are engaging in social, historical and political analysis. Religious leaders may be the only group left of whom it is expected that we won't simply advocate for our own interests, but actually concern ourselves with the common good and the moral dimension. So when we do not push ourselves toward the truest understanding, we are not doing our job.


  1. Anonymous10:35 PM

    I'm confused. I just read the comments on the blog, and while I don't agree with all of them, I don't understand how they represent misinterpretations

  2. I agree with you, but I still think it's interesting to see, within this conservative frame, who our nearest "neighbors" are. It's interesting that within this framework we're a full quadrant away from the UCC, and the only Christian church in our quadrant is Progressive Baptist.

    What are the axes for a graph that you would propose? Would it make sense to frame one where one was government focused on protection from outside threats vs. government focused on social support for Americans and the other axis was morality focused on individual responsibility vs. societal responsibility? That latter one in particular doesn't really capture the way to frame the differences in morality focus from left to right, so I'm still struggling with how to frame the spectrum.

  3. Elisabeth Booth-Barton10:13 AM

    Tom, with the vision problems I have, I was not able to see the graph well enough to follow your and others' analyses. Is there a place where the graph can be seen with larger print and greater color/background contrast?

  4. Elizabeth: the original article is here on the Religious News Service Site. There is also a link to the author. They may be able to help.


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