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Ground Level: Here and elsewhere, people of faith lean Republican

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Rev. Emily Goldthwaite Fries leads worship.
Rev. Emily Goldthwaite Fries leads worship inside of Mayflower United Church of Christ in Minneapolis on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2017. The church identifies as a liberal congregation.
Evan Frost | MPR News

If Minnesota were a dinner party, religion and politics would make the seating arrangements difficult.

The recent Ground Level survey conducted by MPR News and the APM Research Lab asked 1,654 Minnesotans about their faith practice and their politics. The finding was clear and massive: Though there are religious and nonreligious people in both major parties, the more often a Minnesotan attends worship, the more likely he or she is to be a Republican. Those who attend worship less frequently or not at all, in contrast, are much more likely to be Democrats.

That split between religious Republicans (as measured by attendance at a place of worship) and more secular Democrats tends to make divisive social issues — say, gay marriage or abortion — seem all the more intractable. As members of a congregation reinforce and absorb each other's points of view, those who feel differently tend to pull away.

Minnesota's attendance at services
Minnesota's attendance at services
David Montgomery | MPR News

Among Minnesota Republicans, 65 percent said they attend worship services monthly or more, compared to just 31 percent of Democrats. Only 35 percent of Republicans say they never or rarely attend services, versus 68 percent of Minnesota Democrats.

This is no Minnesota quirk, but a trend seen across the nation.

Attendance by political affiliation
Minnesota's attendance at services
David Montgomery | MPR News

"The same basic patterns hold everywhere," said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron who has studied the intersection of religion and politics for decades. "In Minnesota or South Carolina or California, you'll find that ... regular church-attending folks are more Republican, and the non-observant are more Democratic."

National surveys back this up. In the 2016 election, people with no religious affiliation voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump by a 68-26 margin — "similar to what we've seen in similar elections," said Greg Smith, an associate research director at the Pew Research Center.

This was not always the case. For most of U.S. history, the faithful were spread more evenly among different political persuasions. Catholics tended to be overwhelmingly Democratic, for example, while the Episcopal Church was jokingly referred to as the "Republican Party at prayer."

That's still happening: Majorities of evangelical Protestants and Mormons lean toward the GOP, while followers of non-Christian faiths are strongly Democratic. Catholics and mainline Protestants are divided.

But as more and more people identify with no religion in particular, how often they pray has become as important as how they pray in predicting their politics.

How this happened

Parishioners greet each other at the beginning of service
Mayflower United Church of Christ congregants greet each other during the service on Dec. 11, 2017. The church has about 400 attending on any given Sunday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

At the root of this new religious divide is the same trend behind many divisions in society: Americans' recent tendency to "sort" themselves into groups of people who look, act and believe the same.

For religion, the process can happen two ways. A Minnesotan who spends a lot of time with members of a religious community might find he or she "absorbs the values and tendencies of their congregation," Green said.

On the other hand, Green said, someone in the congregation who has different political values might "start feeling very uncomfortable" and leave, either for a different congregation or for no congregation at all.

Social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage can be among the most potent, religious leaders on both sides of the aisle suggested, capable of bringing people who share the same positions together in a congregation and pushing dissenters away. That's happened in mainline Protestant denominations such as the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians, which have fractured into liberal and conservative branches over issues such as gay clergy.

Volunteers slide food donations into the basement.
Volunteers pass food donations down a human chain after they are slid down a ramp into the basement of Jericho Road Ministries, a division of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis on Dec. 15, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The result of this sorting is that many devout Christians moved into the Republican Party — and many less devout away from the GOP.

"The Republican Party generally lines up with ... what the scriptures teach," said Jeff Evans, pastor of Christ Church Twin Cities in Excelsior and a liaison with the Minnesota Family Council, a conservative Christian activist group. He noted that evangelical Christians have helped align the GOP with their values by turning out to defeat "Republicans [who] go in a different direction than what they believe."

How faith can spur politics

For religious Minnesotans, faith can be a powerful spur to participate in politics — even though it may spur them in very different directions.

"There are different ways that our faith manifests," said Rep. Liz Olson, a Duluth Democrat and a Lutheran with a seminary degree.

For Olson, that's a belief in social justice and helping the poor. Phyllis Kahn, a Democrat who represented Minneapolis in the Legislature for 44 years, said her Jewish congregation is similar, with groups active on issues of immigration and climate change.

Others, such as Republican Sen. Dan Hall, a former pastor and chaplain from Burnsville, say their faith spurs them to defend human life by opposing abortion, to fight for traditional views of marriage and sexuality and to protect religious freedom.

Volunteers and community members pass food along human chain
Bethlehem Baptist Church's largest congregations are in Mounds View and Lakeville, with one Minneapolis location, but their Bethlehem Urban Initiatives' mission is to bring their message to the inner city.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Lawmakers in both parties said that a shared faith doesn't necessarily help them find common ground on divisive policies. At most, it helps lawmakers forge personal connections about shared cultural backgrounds. Olson said that often a divide over a "foundational" issue such as homosexuality or abortion "really hides the common ground about what it means to be a Christian."

Other observers say politicians draw much less on faith to shape policy than they used to. 

"They make decisions based on their personal beliefs and not their faiths," said Albert Gallmon Jr., pastor at the predominantly black Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis and a former chaplain for the Minnesota Senate. "I'm seeing faith taking a back seat to issues of politics, issues of policy in our country."

Alyssa Ehni, president of the Minnesota Atheists, said her group's membership probably has "more of a liberal lean," though she noted that there are a number of libertarian atheists, too. Ehni attributed this liberal lean in part to a reaction against "the religious right," particularly over issues related to sexuality.

Moving past the divide

What are Minnesotans to do when faith combines with politics to polarize the state?

Some try to keep faith and religion separate. 

Mayflower choir members wait before service.
Members of the Mayflower United Church of Christ choir wait in the lobby of the church before service begins.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"Our mission is to focus on things that bring people together, and to find common ground and common values," said Rabbi David Greene of the Chabad-Lubavitch center in Rochester. "So we avoid, therefore, politics. Politics is by its nature divisive."

But that's not often possible — a dilemma that David Clark, a professor of theology at Bethel Seminary in Arden Hills, often deals with.

"The question is, how do you engage in a society that has obvious respect for a pluralistic variety of options, and yet you are a person of conviction?" Clark said.

His answer begins with offering to listen, to first understand "the specific motivations and convictions of an individual." Only after doing that, Clark teaches, should students "be more explicit about your faith convictions."

But that advice is for one-on-one interactions. Things are different for a politician speaking to the public.

Both liberal and conservative lawmakers said they try to explain their faith-based positions in ways that everyone can understand.

Rep. Olson said she's "really conscious about not wanting to make [my faith] be a barrier for people in my district to be able to talk to me and reach out to me."

That's something Ehni, with the Minnesota Atheists, said she appreciates. She still feels religion and politics are "very intertwined" in American public life, despite the stated efforts of some politicians to translate their faith into more universal terms.

Parishioners sing from a hymnal at Mayflower church.
Parishioners sing from a hymnal during service at Mayflower United Church of Christ.
Evan Frost | MPR News

But Fred Hinz, a public policy advocate for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in Minnesota, said it might be more divisive for people to not be up front about what's really motivating them.

"It is not the sign of a healthy culture or healthy society where we have this radical division between private and public as though our faith and deeply held beliefs are to be relegated to the private," Hinz said. "We certainly don't have to be caustic about it, we need to be respectful, but encourage everyone to give voice to their most deeply held motivations. That will in turn drive a much more respectful conversation than I think we've had in recent years."

Sen. Michelle Benson, a Catholic Republican from Ham Lake, said it's always nice "to sit in church and think, 'I've got this, the priest is right in line with my thinking.'" But she said it's more important to pay attention to religious sentiment that conflicts with her political instincts.

"Going into places where you're uncomfortable," Benson said, "is really important for our development as human beings."

Learn more

Read the full survey and detailed analysis by the APM Research Lab.

The APM Research Lab contributed to this report.

Editor's note (Dec. 18, 2017): This story has been updated to clarify the frequency that Minnesota Democrats and Republicans say they attend worship services. (Dec. 19, 2017) A caption in an earlier version was unclear on Mayflower's relationship with affordable housing next door. The fuzzy sentence has been removed.