The American religious landscape has changed dramatically in recent decades, because of immigration, generational shifts, and the departure of young people from the faith of their childhood–or from organized religion altogether. As a result, the constituent groups making up the two major political parties have also evolved, though the sub-groups that comprise the parties are not entirely at home with their coalition partners. The 2012 American Values Survey shows, for example, that although White evangelical Protestants are, for the most part, reliable Republican voters, they are more centrist on economic issues than many of their Republican counterparts. In fact, a plurality (49 percent) favor increasing the tax rate on top earners, while 60 percent of Republicans oppose that proposal. Similarly, black Protestants are stalwart Democrats, yet they part from the party platform on many social issues, such as gay marriage. Only 39 percent of black Protestants support same-sex marriage, compared to 64 percent of Democrats as a whole.
The survey also confirms that polarization on economic and social issues persists, with wide gaps between Republicans and Democrats and between conservatives and liberals on a battery of social and economic issues. One important cohort remains a critical swing group, however–Catholics. White Catholics are about equally as likely to identify as Democrats (29 percent) than they are to identify as Repub¬licans (31 percent), while a plurality (38 percent) identify as politically independent. The survey sheds light on a debate among American Catholics over the public priorities of the Church. When asked if the Church’s public witness should concentrate primarily on abortion or on social justice and the obligation to help the poor, Catholics – including white Catholics and those who regularly attend Mass – strongly favor giving priority to the Church’s social justice tradition, even if it means focusing less on abortion and right to life issues.