The enduring points of division seem to be legal abortion and gay marriage – issues unimaginable a generation ago, when compromise characterized politics. "If someone is a Republican or Democrat because of the abortion issue, they tend to interpret a whole range of issues through that lens," says John Green, a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio.
This year, the arena of reproductive issues and health care in general has spilled out into a battle over religious liberties. And though it roughly follows party lines, for some the issue crosses partisan boundaries.
More than anything else, the degree of "religiosity" now seems to divide voters, says Professor Green. People who are very religiously observant – those who go to worship services, read theScriptures, pray – tend to be Republicans. Secular people, along with black Protestants, nonpracticing Jews, and some practicing Catholics, tend to be Democrats. As Hertzke puts it, "Even if you ask about something as simple as grace before meals, you can tell if a person is likely to vote Republican."
Of course, some voters defy categorization, and the campaigns will battle fiercely for them.
Birth control: division or distraction?
Ironically, it's not the red-hot issues of abortion or gay marriage that are clashing with people's rights to practice their own beliefs, but birth control – a big yawn for most Americans. Even for many practicing Catholics, birth control has long been a nonissue, according to the Rev. William Byron, a professor in Philadelphia at both Saint Joseph's University and Villanova University's Center for the Study of Church Management. Studies show birth control isn't often mentioned in confession – suggesting many do not consider it sinful – and is not a reason people give for not going to mass. But even if they're not conflicted by the issue of birth control, Catholics have plenty of interest in Obama's mandate purely on a religious liberties basis.