The role of religion in this year’s presidential race has been the subject of considerable discussion. Given that sixty percent of those who say they attend church once a week voted Republican in the last election, conventional wisdom has it that churchgoers will support President Bush.

But, as Bill Bishop of the Austin American-Statesman writes in his latest installment of a series examining voting patterns (registration required), “the great divide in American religious life is not merely between those who go to church and those who do not.”

Regardless of denomination, churches have increasingly attracted new members by appealing to cultural and political similarities. The result is that congregations have become some of the most politically homogenous social institutions in America.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in the late 1950s that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” King was referring to race. Today, the segregation is political.

As he has with other articles in this series called the “Great Divide,” Bishop analyzes voting trends from the last 14 presidential elections and concludes that Americans live in communities that have grown more politically like-minded. “[P]erhaps most strongly, that sorting is taking place in church,” he writes.

What’s lost in this polarization of the American populace is the give-and-take, the exchange of ideas that allows voters to weigh all sides of an issue before stepping into the voting booth. As Bishop has previously reported, whole neighborhoods today share identical views. The candidates they elect must reflect that ideology to stay in office. Politics become intensely partisan and compromise nearly impossible.

Bishop and the American-Statesman once again have gone beyond the superficial reporting that dominates much of the political coverage, and given readers a fresh but substantive view of how decisions will be made come November.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.