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In Congress, Religion Drives Divide

Polarization of Political Parties Strengthened by Differences in Faith Affiliation

By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2004; Page B07

Members of Congress have become increasingly polarized over such issues as stem cell research, same-sex marriage and abortion, much like their constituents. But the division among policymakers is more pronounced and influenced by religious ideology, according to a study of congressional voting patterns over the last quarter-century.

That Congress mirrors public attitudes on the so-called culture wars came as no surprise to William D'Antonio, a professor at Catholic University who directed the study and has observed the interaction of religion and politics for 50 years.

Sociologists Steven Tuch, left, and William D'Antonio completed an extensive survey of congressional voting patterns over a 23-year period. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

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What did surprise him, D'Antonio said, was the degree to which religious affiliation helped create an ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats that virtually ensures a partisan split on most votes before lawmakers.

Antonio and Steven Tuch, a professor at George Washington University, focused their research on congressional votes related to abortion cast from 1979 to 2003. They checked the religious affiliation of members of Congress against votes, including those on federal funding of abortions and late-term procedures. They then correlated those results with votes on other issues, such as military spending, welfare and tax reform.

What they discovered were trends in voting patterns relating to religious affiliation that went beyond the broadly acknowledged impact of the evangelical Christianity in American politics, which began with the emergence of the Moral Majority in 1980.

The study looks at a period that begins with the 96th Congress and continues through the first half of the current session, the 108th. In 1979, the political parties had not solidified their positions on a woman's right to abortion, affirmed just six years earlier in Roe v. Wade.

Democrats were more likely to support abortion rights and Republicans, antiabortion measures. But members of Congress were more likely to vote on abortion issues based on personal convictions, religious or otherwise -- votes that often conflicted with others in their party.

Today, there appears to be few, if any, disputes within parties over abortion. That is not the case within the general population, where surveys show Americans are divided over abortion, but in nuanced ways.

About 25 percent of Americans support a woman's right to abortion under any circumstances, and about 20 percent oppose abortion for any reason, according to Gallup and other research organizations. Those in between approve of abortion if the woman's health is at risk, in cases of incest or rape, or if the fetus appears deformed.

But on Capitol Hill, ethical nuances have given way to the party line, with Democrats typically favoring access to abortion and Republicans generally rejecting it, according to D'Antonio and Tuch.

"The great middle is not represented," D'Antonio said, referring to the 55 percent of Americans who support a woman's right to choose depending on the circumstance.

So what does religion have to do with this polarization?

James Guth, who since 1995 has examined religious affiliation and voting patterns in the House of Representatives, says a "substantial increase" in the number of evangelical Protestants in Congress, most of them Republicans, has contributed to the moral climate of voting on abortion and other cultural issues.

Estimates on the number of evangelicals in Congress vary, from fewer than 10 percent in the 1970s to more than 25 percent today.

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