Religion in the Wisconsin Recall Election

Paul Harvey

In "Wisconsin: A Political Scientist Surveys the Recall Election," Christopher Chapp, from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, provides an elegant historical survey of the interaction of religion and politics in Wisconsin, from the deep influence of University of Wisconsin professors in the history of the Social Gospel, to McCarthyism, and onward to the present-day divisions over Governor Walker's actions on collective bargaining. (Now that the contest has been decided, under a flood of money that portends what we can expect through the summer and fall, I'm hoping for a little update on the post).

And while we're on the subject, don't forget Janine Giordano Drake's amazing post "A Theological Crisis at the Heart of State Budget Crises," from last year.

A little excerpt from the Chapp essay below the fold.

Here's a little taste from Chapp's post in Religion and Politics:

From progressive reforms of the early twentieth century to recent changes in collective bargaining rights, Wisconsin is a state that has long considered itself a laboratory of democracy. Religion has nearly always played an important role in policy change (and policy opposition). Complex cross-cutting alliances have enabled religious interests to mobilize behind policies on both the political Left and Right, which speaks to the religious diversity of the state itself. According to the 2007 Pew Religious LandscapeSurvey, Wisconsin’s Christian population is almost evenly divided among America’s major Christian denominations. Catholics, who make up 29 percent of the state, are slightly more populous in Wisconsin than in the nation at-large. Twenty-four percent of Wisconsinites identify as evangelicals, 23 percent belong to mainline Protestant traditions, and 16 percent are unaffiliated. The state is roughly divided into thirds among residents who regularly attend church, attend sometimes, and those who do not attend at all.

This religious variation has given rise to a decidedly mixed collective political outlook. In the definitive study of Wisconsin electoral behavior, political scientist Robert Booth Fowler locates the origins of the Wisconsin electorate’s political sensibilities in ethno-religious affiliations that have deep historical roots. (Protestant Dutch communities, for instance, have been reliably Republican since the 1860s, and many Polish Catholic communities have voted Democratic for generations.) These divisions persist to this day within a political culture that is far from monolithic. The Pew survey reveals a state highly divided on issues of abortion, gay rights, and the role religious institutions should play in government and public affairs.
Perhaps this diversity of opinion should not be surprising. Wisconsin, after all, sent both Victor Berger and Joseph McCarthy to Washington. Berger was the nation’s first Socialist member of Congress, and his relatively secular social democratic vision makes for a stark contrast with the anti-Communist crusading of Joseph McCarthy, whose hyperbolic rhetoric promoted a vision of a Christian state in direct opposition to “godless communism.”


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