Stalking the anti-fundamentalist voter

Any Top 10 list of slogans for abortion-rights signs would include "Curb your dogma" and "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament."

At the recent March for Women's Lives, one nurse weighed the tensions between Sen. John Kerry and the Vatican and proclaimed: "I'm a Catholic, I take Communion ... and I'm Pro-Choice." She could have added: "And I vote."

George W. Bush will receive few votes from these voters. They're not fond of Pope John Paul II, Jerry Falwell and other conservative religious leaders, either.

Political scientists Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce call them "anti-fundamentalist voters" and their rise has been a crucial -- yet untold -- story in U.S. politics. Many are true secularists, such as atheists, agnostics and those who answer "none" when asked to pick a faith. Others think of themselves as progressive believers. The tie that binds is their disgust for Christian conservatives.

"This trend represents a big change, because 40 or 50 years ago all the divisive religious issues in American politics rotated around the Catholics. People argued about money for Catholic schools or whether the Vatican was trying to control American politics," said Bolce, who, with De Maio, teaches at Baruch College in the City University of New York.

"That remains a concern for some people. But today, they worry about all those fundamentalists and evangelicals. That's where the real animus is."

In fact, Bolce and De Maio argue that historians must dig back to the bitter pre-Great Depression battles rooted in ethnic and religious prejudices -- battles about immigration, public education, prohibition and "blue laws" -- to find a time when voting patterns were influenced to the same degree by antipathy toward a specific religious group.

Prior to the rise of Bill Clinton, "anti-fundamentalist" voters were evenly divided between the major parties. Now they're more than twice as likely to be Democrats, forming a power bloc with secularists that the researchers believe has become as powerful as the labor vote.

Bolce, an Episcopalian, and De Maio, a Roman Catholic, have focused much of their work on the "thermometer scale" used in the 2000 American National Election Study and those that preceded it. Low temperatures indicate distrust or hatred while high numbers show trust and respect. Thus, "anti-fundamentalist voters" are those who gave fundamentalists a rating of 25 degrees or colder. By contrast, the rating "strong liberals" gave to "strong conservatives" was a moderate 47 degrees.

Yet 89 percent of white delegates to the 1992 Democratic National Convention qualified as "anti-fundamentalist voters," along with 57 percent of Jewish voters, 51 percent of "moral liberals," 48 percent of school-prayer opponents, 44 percent of secularists and 31 percent of "pro-choice" voters. In 1992, 53 percent of those white Democratic delegates gave Christian fundamentalists a thermometer rating of zero.

"Anti-fundamentalist voter" patterns are not seen among black voters, noted De Maio. Researchers are now paying closer attention to trends among Hispanics.

What about the prejudices of the fundamentalists? Their average thermometer rating toward Catholics was a friendly 62 degrees, toward blacks 66 degrees and Jews 68 degrees.

To no one's surprise, the "anti-fundamentalist voter" trend is linked to the emergence of energized fundamentalist voters in post-Woodstock American life.

"The subculture of the evangelicals was a pretty safe place to live until the 1960s," said De Maio. "Then everything started changing. They have been fighting a rear-guard operation ever since. Once they mobilized, there was this huge counter-mobilization on the left -- which only built on the counter-cultural trends that affected the Democratic Party so much in the 1970s."

It's hard to learn about this political reality in elite media.

Between 1990 and 2000, Bolce and De Maio found that the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post published 929 stories about the political clout of conservative Christians and 59 about that of secularists. Only 18 stories addressed the religious disconnect between the major parties. They searched abstracts at the Vanderbilt University television news archive for similar stories in 2003 and 2004 and found zero.

"What we have found is a prejudice that is not taboo in our educational, political and media elites," said Bolce. "Anti-fundamentalist attitudes are sanctioned at the highest levels of American life."