As the prospect of Roe v. Wade being overturned looms large and the United States braces for another round of culture wars, I have been puzzling about why clashes over values seem to be more intense in this country than elsewhere, and why the competing camps seem more divided than before.
One key to this might be found in a 2020 Pew Research Center survey, showing that on many cultural issues, the American political divide was the widest among rich countries surveyed. Asked whether the country would be “better off in the future if it sticks to its traditions and way of life,” 65 percent on the right said “yes,” vs. just 6 percent on the left, a 59-point gap. That compares with a 19-point gap in tradition-bound France. Asked whether being Christian was a crucial aspect of being a citizen of the country, the gap in the United States was 23 points, compared to just seven points in Britain.
These attitudes were also fleshed out in a 2018 Pew study that asked people in 27 rich countries whether religion should play a larger role in their societies. In America, 71 percent of people who identified as conservative said “yes,” while just 29 percent of liberals agreed. That difference — 42 percentage points — was off the charts compared to the other countries. The gap was 17 points larger than those in the next-highest countries analyzed (Canada and Poland), and roughly four times the gap between right and left in Sweden and Germany. In Britain, 35 percent of conservatives said they wanted religion to play a larger role in their country, vs. 28 percent of liberals (a mere seven-point gap).
Why is the United States exceptionally polarized? It’s a tough question to answer. Many of the forces that seem to be at work — globalization, technological change, immigration — are happening in other Western societies as well. In fact, if you use the size of trade in a country’s economy as a measure, the United States is less globalized than many European countries. It’s not even special when it comes to immigration. Canada and Sweden have larger shares of foreign-born people in their societies than the United States. And technology is at work everywhere.
In his book “Religion’s Sudden Decline,” distinguished social scientist Ronald Inglehart offered an answer. Inglehart pointed out that the most striking cultural shift of our times is the decline in religiosity in most countries. When Inglehart and colleague Pippa Norris analyzed survey data on attitudes toward religion from 1981 to 2007, they found that most of the countries studied had become more religious. But between 2007 and 2020, the “overwhelming majority became less religious.”
The standout in the recent studies is the United States. For a long time, the United States was the outlier in showing that rich, advanced countries could still be religious. In recent years, though, it has been reversing course to dramatic effect. “Since 2007, the U.S. has been secularizing more rapidly than any other country for which we have data,” Inglehart noted, adding, “by one widely recognized criterion it now ranks as the 12th least religious country in the world.”
Inglehart said this process of secularization has many causes, mostly relating to the decline of group norms of mechanisms of control and the rise of individualism. But here’s the interesting part: As this broad shift is taking place in the United States, it is coinciding with increased polarization. The picture that emerges is of a country that is rapidly secularizing but at the same time seeing a strong backlash to that process. Big changes are leading to big reactions.
There are other factors at work. As always in the United States, race relations play an important role. This is one other area where the differences between left and right are much more marked than in other countries (as can also be seen in the 2020 Pew survey). All this highlights a new reality: You cannot really understand America anymore by looking at averages. It has become two countries. One is urban, more educated, multiracial, secular and largely left of center. The other is rural, less educated, religious, White and largely right of center.
Inglehart and scholar Christian Welzel have a cultural map that plots countries according to their responses to questions about values. As of 2020, the United States was something of an outlier in the Western world, closer to countries such as Uruguay and Vietnam than Sweden and Denmark. But if one were to divide the United States into two countries — one blue, one red — I suspect you would see that blue America would fit comfortably with Northern European Protestant countries, while red America’s cultural values would move it closer to Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.
For the country’s political future, the central question is now this: Can these two Americas find a way to live, work, cooperate with and tolerate one another? If not, the abortion battle may be the precursor to even larger struggles.