Religion is often depicted in the news media as a politically divisive force, with two sides roughly paralleling the broader political divide: On one side are cultural conservatives who ground their political values in religious beliefs; and on the other side are secular liberals, who have opted out of debates that center on religion-based values. The truth, however is far different: close to 90 percent of Americans today self-identify as religious, while only 22 percent belong to traditionalist sects. Yet in the cultural war depicted by news media as existing across religious lines, centrist and progressive voices are marginalized or absent altogether.
But it seems perfectly obvious why there might be this disconnect when you zoom in on specific issues. Someone’s view on tax policy or immigration might very well be informed by their religious beliefs—doubtless many people’s are. We don’t usually see ministers opining on these topics, however, because these aren’t fundamentally debates that exist because of religion, or which it’s necessary to discuss in explicitly religious terms to get at the core of the issue. Contrast the cultural battles on which conservative religious voices are prominent. The case for gay marriage, say, can be stated in perfectly secular terms, invoking general principles of equality and tolerance, and a religious person who supports gay marriage is as likely to use this sort of language as to recur to scripture. But the other side is different. Yes, people make secular arguments here too, but we all understand that there is not broad popular opposition to gay marriage because lots of folks have read Stan Kurtz’s torturing of statistics out of Scandinavia and been empirically convinced of the social harms it might bring. If that side of that debate is not stated in religious terms, you’ve just missed what’s actually motivating popular support there. It’s a bit fuzzier with abortion, but I think most people would not be disposed to regard a first-trimester fetus with no nervous system to speak of as morally equivalent to an adult human being unless they believed there was some crucial common feature—say, an intangible soul—shared by these apparently rather dissimilar entities. Someone on the other side of the debate might or might not share a belief in a soul, but it would not tend to be the key point on which their view turns.
It’s also pretty predictable why this would tend to be the case. To be religiously liberal (as opposed to traditionalist) is, roughly, to be more willing to use ordinary reasoning to determine how scripture ought to be interpreted. But the more that’s the case, the more likely it is that one will be able to construct an independent, secular argument for the position one reaches by reading scripture this way. So it will tend to be conservatives who hold positions that are exclusively defensible—or at any rate, exclusively explicable as persuasive to a significant chunk of the polity—in religious terms. Voicing both sides of a controversy, then, will disproportionately tend to requiregiving a platform to a religious figure on the conservative side. Now, Media Matters is still probably correct that it’s unfortunate if a side effect of this is to make the conservative view seem equivalent to “the religious view.” But it’s also easy to see why this happens, and is likely to persist.