Liberal or conservative?
Religious outlook
can blur the answer

Amanda Lockwood is an elementary school teacher who believes, like her parents, that it’s better to blaze your own trail and eschew labels of any kind.

Her husband, David, is like-minded. That isn’t to say that neither of them has strong opinions or never takes sides. They do.

The difference, perhaps, between the Lockwoods and the rest of society is they don’t allow labels, religious or otherwise, to define them, to put them in a box as a married couple or as individuals.

Amanda Lockwood, for instance, grew up in a liberal, Jewish family who had a Christmas tree every year and enjoyed hunting for Easter eggs. And while the Decatur woman votes mostly Democratic, she considers herself more progressive than anything. David, 51, doesn’t ascribe to any one party, preferring people over party.

Political conservative and Baptist minister Herman Cain and his wife, Gloria, both believe party labels, in particular, divide us. The only label the McDonough couple, both 70, are completely comfortable with, they said, is Christian.

Their experience along with the Lockwoods’, experts say, is further proof that the vast majority of us are conflicted about political and social issues and those who say they are conservative are the most conflicted of all.

Why the ideological puzzle?

Americans who call themselves conservative outnumber those who call themselves liberals, and yet a majority of Americans like the Lockwoods take a decidedly liberal position on most policy issues. In addition, traditional values, some rooted in religious commitments, lead a good many Americans to adopt the conservative label even when their views about public policy appear to be liberal.

A recent study by Patrick Tucker and Steven S. Smith at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and Chris Claassen at the University of Glasgow on “Ideological Labels in America” bears this out.

“We find that higher levels of religious observance tend to be associated with a misinterpretation of ideological labels, resulting in what appears to be a greater ideologically polarized public,” said Tucker, a graduate fellow in political science. “More precisely, the more religious an individual is, the more likely she is to identify a seemingly liberal policy attitude as conservative.”

Although many religious people hold liberal policy preferences on economic issues such as taxes and education spending, Tucker said, they tend to call these liberal stances conservative.

When asked, for instance, whether “federal personal income taxes for individuals with incomes higher than $250,000 should be increased,” 58 percent of respondents who attend religious services at least weekly said yes. Those individuals were also significantly more likely to call this position conservative than those who attended less frequently.

Similarly, roughly 71 percent of those attending services weekly disagreed with the statement “federal spending for education should be reduced.” The more religiously observant were more likely to call disagreeing with this conservative statement “conservative,” Tucker said.

“One of the reasons for this disconnect is rooted in Americans’ inattentiveness to politics and attentiveness to religion,” he said. “Many faiths employ conservative symbols that are distinct from the political arena. As a result, the average churchgoer, who probably doesn’t follow politics all that much, may consider herself a conservative through her faith, even though she is quite liberal on a number of issues. Thus, America ends up having more people calling themselves conservative and believing they hold conservative positions than really do.”

Cain has been voting Republican since the 1970s and describes himself as an ABC or American Black Conservative. He also was a Republican candidate in the 2012 presidential race and is currently a syndicated talk show host on News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB. (WSB and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution are both part of Cox Media Group.)

“I believe in less government, less taxes and more individual responsibility,” he said. “I’m a Christian first and conservative politically and ideologically.”

Gloria Cain said she has voted Democratic from the time she registered to vote at age 18 but in recent years has been leaning more toward Republican candidates.

“I focus first and foremost on being Christian and try not to look at labels politically,” she said. “I look at people, what they stand for and if their principles align with mine.”

Amanda Lockwood, 46, was raised Jewish in intown Atlanta, but didn’t really know many other Jews as a child because much of Atlanta’s Jewish population lived in the suburbs.

“My Southern Jewish family had a Christmas tree every year at my Nana’s house and hunted for Easter eggs each spring,” she said. “I had a bat mitzvah, but can’t remember it having a lot of meaning for me, other than lots of gifts and a party.”

And though, as an adult, she feels very strong ties to Jewish history and culture, her religious beliefs are not necessarily traditional.

“For me, the idea of ‘God’ is all about the relationship humans have with each other and with the Earth as a whole,” she said. “I don’t personify God. In some people’s minds, that would probably make me atheist.”

David Lockwood grew up in the confines of a Presbyterian family, but attended church only about five times a year. He most definitely does not subscribe to any religious beliefs.

And, though he was cool with a Jewish wedding and raising their kids Jewish, he has no intentions of converting.

“Because we have never been ones to follow tradition, I think it’s been a bit surprising to our family and friends that we have raised our two kids Jewish. We found a great synagogue with a strong focus on social justice, which was important to me,” Amanda said. “I wanted them to have the ties with the Jewish community that I never felt, and to have the opportunity to explore what being Jewish means historically and to them personally.”

Depending on how you look at it, the Lockwoods’ lack of traditional “religious” ties could be a good thing.

When it comes to politics at least, religion tends to divide, not unite us, said David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of the book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.”

It used to be, Campbell said, Americans were divided by their religious tradition — Catholic vs. Protestant, for example — while today they are divided by their level of religious devotion.

“As is well known, among whites, frequency of religious attendance is a powerful predictor of a voter’s party preference — churchgoers being heavily Republican,” he said. “The story is different for African-Americans, however. Blacks are highly religious and vote heavily Democratic.”

But Campbell said he wouldn’t use the word “segregated” to describe the state of inter-religious relations in America. To the contrary, he said, like the Lockwoods, most Americans have neighbors, friends, family members and even spouses of a different religion.

“This is in sharp contrast to earlier periods, when Americans truly were segregated — physically — by religion. Witness the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods that used to exist in many American cities,” he said. “Up until roughly the 1970s, interfaith marriage was rare. Today, more marriages are interfaith than same-faith. It is simply a myth that Americans have segregated themselves by religion. Rather, Americans have a remarkably high level of religious tolerance, which is both a cause and consequence of the inter-religious mixing that permeates American society.”

That isn’t to say that all religious groups are viewed with equal favor, he said. Muslims, for example, are viewed less favorably than other groups.

Relative to labels, Tucker’s study two years ago revealed three major findings:

  1. While the majority of Americans’ policy mood may shift in a conservative direction in any given year, the balance of opinion favors the liberal side on a wide range of policy questions. At the same time, more Americans consider themselves conservative than consider themselves liberal.

  2. The framing of political discourse by elites and media influences how Americans characterize their ideology and policy preferences. Elite framing often promotes the term “conservative” while “liberal” is used with much less frequency and has long had a more negative connotation.

  3. Some Americans associate the conservative label with traditional values, including religious values, patriotism and temperance, which leads them to choose conservative as the label best fitting their own identity. For them, the conservative label is preferred to the liberal label, although many of them choose liberal positions on most policy issues.

Amanda Lockwood describes herself as a liberal, who’s worried about today’s political tone.

“I vote according to the issues I believe in, which is often a straight Democratic ticket. I consider myself progressive, somebody who wants to work for change and wants to improve the lives of all Americans, including those who have been historically oppressed,” she said. “I believe everybody should have equal rights and protection under the law regardless of race, religion, sexuality, gender, or social standing.”

David said he’s socially liberal, too, but more fiscally conservative.

“I believe in a smaller government,” he said. “I’m part of the class of people that nobody is fighting over in Washington — the middle. The left doesn’t care about me and the right doesn’t care about me, so I will fight for myself and I’m fine with that. I don’t feel like I need a lot of government involvement in my life.”


Sunday may be the prominent day of worship in Atlanta, but that’s changing as a growing number of other religions establish congregations in our global city. This is an occasional series that examines how religion impacts life in Atlanta.

Part one is a photo essay that examines the changing religious landscape of metro Atlanta.
Part two takes a look at one church building in Clarkston that houses seven different religious organizations

► Atlanta’s growing number of atheists
► Churches struggle to reach "nones," the expanding category of people unaffiliated with any religion