Traditionally, the split between Roman Catholics and Protestants in America has been not much different from the historical struggle between the two groups in Europe. There are substantial differences in theology. Christ, according to the Catholic narrative, is the Son of God, and therefore divine. He was born to Mary, whom the Church has turned almost into a goddess, although they insist she is not "worshiped" but merely "venerated." (The distinction is lost on most non-catholic observers.) Many other theological differences exist as well.
The differences between the Catholic Church and the various Protestant denominations today lie much less in doctrine, however, than in political organization and cultural ideology. Where there is doctrinal difference, it is less over the nature of God, sin and salvation and more over who has the authority to speak for God and interpret God's will.
The Protestant reformer Martin Luther was motivated by the corruption among the church hierarchy, especially at the top, to push for a rethinking of Church authority and their claim that they served as intermediaries between us and God. Luther settled on a “priesthood of all believers” and laid emphasis on direct and individual personal communication with God. The importance to history of this point cannot be underestimated, because it led to the focus in Western Civilization on the individual, and helped foster the human rights notions of the Enlightenment tradition. The point illustrates nicely how religion can influence culture. Today, when culture is returning the favor and influencing religion, secular people have no trouble, generally, with Protestants who leave it up to the individual to decide good from bad, right from wrong. They have a lot more problem with the Churches who claim authority to dictate an individual’s beliefs.
The Roman Catholic (RC) Church insists it has the authority to speak for God. Pope Pius IX presided over a Vatican Council in 1869-70 in which the doctrine of infallibility was promulgated. This doctrine asserts that one enters heaven through the (Roman) Catholic church only, that only the pope can determine doctrine, and that the pope's decisions are absolute and binding on all believers.
The two views, the RC view and the view of Martin Luther, couldn't be farther apart. There are lots of other Protestant groups, and lots of other differences, but this one will do to illustrate how it came to be that Protestants and Catholics remained polarized within the world of Christianity.
Recently, in America and elsewhere (but I think especially in America) something interesting has happened to this polarization. When John F. Kennedy became president in 1960, he was the first Catholic president the U.S. had ever had. Many Protestants worried the U.S. would now be "governed by Rome." Many Catholics voted for him strictly because of his religion; many Protestants voted against him for the same reason.
In the 2004 election, once again we had a Catholic candidate in John Kerry. Only this time, a majority of Catholics voted against him and for a man who was not only a Protestant, but a "born again" Protestant -- one who believes just as firmly that one has to be "born again" to enter heaven (and that leaves out Catholics) as traditional Catholics believe one has to be Catholic to enter heaven. The question is how could so many Catholics (I believe the figures were 55%) vote against a Catholic and for a Protestant.
The answer lies in throwing out our assumptions that Catholics will only vote for Catholics, and Protestants for Protestants, obviously. And here is where it gets interesting. Within the RC Church there has always been a split between people (let's call them 'traditionalists') who believe in strict adherence to church authority and doctrine and people (let's call them 'progressives') who believe there is truth in the church, but it is not always clearly manifested in everything the authorities claim, because they are obviously beset with human limitations.
Within Protestant denominations, too, there is a split between so-called 'fundamentalists' (the terminology is problematic, but for the sake of simplicity, let's use that term) on the one hand, who believe in the absolute authority of Scriptures (the Old and New Testaments of the Bible) in the same way RC traditionalists insist on obedience to the authority of the RC Church hierarchy.
With RCs and Protestants dividing less over issues that troubled Europeans historically and more over present day political ideologies, specifically the line between absolutism and liberalism, things now look like this:
Roman Catholics I:
The “traditionalists,” followers of the spirit of Vatican I and the doctrine of infallibility. All the popes except John XXIII; Cardinal Ratzinger and the “Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith” (formerly known as “The Inquisition”)
Roman Catholics II:
The “progressives,” non-authoritarian, liberal-minded, followers of John XXIII and the spirit of Vatican II; ecumenicalists; theologians like Hans Küng; liberation theologists
authoritarian, absolutists, “fundamentalists,” those who insist on a strict literal interpretation of the Scriptures, including an Old Testament view of God as Vengeful
The “progressives,” non-authoritarian, liberal-minded mainstream churches with a diversity of interpretations of the meaning of the Gospel, but stressing the New Testament and the Beatitudes as representative of Christ; ecumenicalists
If you take a look at the two groups in depth, you realize very quickly that there is a resemblance among the absolutists across the religious divide, and a similar resemblance among the progressives. What are we to call this division? It is clearly a question of attitudes, values and beliefs. In other words, it is a manifestation of culture.
For that reason, let me add another dimension to the mix and call it the cultural values dimension. And then add the three issues the political right has used to rally its conservative forces, both Protestant and Catholic: abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research. Note how neatly this has joined Protestant I group with the Catholic I group, and given them Bush as a “values” leader. And notice too that Kerry has "values" (even if the right has attempted to co-opt that word pretty much for themselves) which reflect Protestant II and Catholic II people, as well as the large majority of secularists.
The presence of the modern secularists (i.e., the non-religious) in the picture creates a three-way split, with Religion I people standing at the hard right, the Secularists at the hard left, and the Religion II in between, sharing faith with their co-religionists, and cultural ideology with the secularists.
If you accept this division, you have a tentative answer to the question, “How could so many Catholics vote for Bush, even though their church dictates that only Catholics are “saved,” and that Kerry was “one of their own”? The answer is that they voted their “cultural” and not their “religious” values. Counting the “Catholics” and “Protestants” who voted for Bush and those who voted for Kerry will not reveal the real categories hiding behind those surface religious groupings and not present us with very interesting information. If, on the other hand, we devise ways to identify whether they see themselves in what I have called the “authoritarian” column or the “progressive” column, we will have much more usual information because it will bring us up to date and help us live with the fact that religion no longer calls the shots. For all the hoopla about religion in America, we're fighting not a religious war but a culture war.
80% of American Roman Catholics admit to using birth control, even though the Church forbids it, and even though going against the Church’s teachings supposedly puts one’s soul at risk. Many have had abortions, but continue to say confession and take communion in the mass. Many have been divorced, despite the Church’s absolute condemnation of divorce. The reason the percentage of “freethinkers” within the church is this high may be attributed to the fact that so many Catholics see themselves in the “progressive” column. They have pretty much taken on the cultural values of their Protestant liberal progressive fellow citizens.
It is being asserted that those who claim to be representing “true American family values” (i.e., the so-called “religious right”) voted against Kerry and for Bush because of their stand on abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research. While this may be an oversimplification, there is probably considerable truth to the claim the trend is in that direction.
If religion and culture are seen in this light, then we should stop talking about the “religious right” and identify that group in terms of its cultural values of strict adherence to an absolutist way of thinking. We should see the “culture wars” polarization in America not so much in terms of religious vs. secular, north vs. south, urban vs. rural, or even urban vs. exurban – although these shorthand labels for the division often seem to make sense – but as a division between authoritarian (usually called ‘conservative’) and progressive (usually referred to as ‘liberal.”) mindsets.
It would be foolish to suggest that the differences between Bush and Kerry and their supporters come down to nothing more than a division between absolutists and free-thinkers. Obviously there are major differences in economic policy, in approach to foreign policy, in ideological differences over the role of America in the world which go way beyond these issues I have limited discussion to the place where religion and culture intersect. But I would suggest that each time religion is brought out to explain how America votes and how America is to be compared with Europe and the rest of the world, that we not lose sight of the fact that much that is understood under the rubric of religion might be better understood under the rubric of culture.