Debunking the Religion Myth


Ed: In this post I’m using the term religious almost exclusively to refer to Christians, mostly because the data I’m using did the same thing. My apologies. Also, there’s a lot of graphs and numbers. You’ve been warned.

Common parlance places religious Americans overwhelmingly in the Republican camp. Survey data, though, tells a much more nuanced story.

Party Identification by Religious Group

Here’s a chart from Pew measuring religious belief as a function of partisan identification over the last 15 years:

As you can see, White Mainline Protestants and White Catholics are just about equally likely to be Republicans or Democrats. The variation comes from the White Evangelical Protestants, who, unsurprisingly, are overwhelmingly Republican, and those with no religion, who identify overwhelmingly as independents or Democrats.

(I was a bit confused at the “white” modifier, at first, until I looked a little deeper into their classification system. “White” doesn’t refer to the people surveyed, but to the type of church. In this case, all the Protestant or Catholic churches excluding traditionally black ones. Historically black churches surveyed are 78% Democratic, and 6 and 10% independent and Republican, respectively. Even after including other denominations, including the overwhelmingly Republican Mormons, the black church vote tips things a tad further in the Democratic column. Just something to keep in mind moving forward.)

Two things to take away from this graph:

1. The number of people who ID as independents is up universally among those who are religious (as they are nationwide), mostly at the expense of the Republican Party. This shift is the most stark among Evangelicals, where GOP-identifiers dipped from 50 percent of respondents in 2000 to only 42 percent in 2009 (-8). Independents saw a slightly higher rise from 23 percent of respondents to 33 percent (+10).

2. The number of Catholics and non-evangelical Protestants who ID as Democrats has stayed relatively steady over the 15-year span. That’s worth noting because it means that aggregate number of Democratic identifiers has nothing to do with Obama v. Bush. If we saw an increase, we could assume that Catholics and Protestants actually used to be less Democratic than they are now. This would largely conform to common assumption: Bush was elected twice, largely through the support of religious Americans, but as his popularity went south, so too did a lot of his religious base. In fact, only half of those things happened. He won with a lot of support from evangelicals, but not the “average” religious American. As approval ratings plummeted, a lot of Republicans did become independents, but there wasn’t a jump, at least from religious Americans, in Democratic identifiers.

Party Idenfitication by Religiosity

There are different measures for religiosity, most of which involve time spent at church to some degree. Pew’s does not, which I take some issue with, but the way they measure it seems reasonable enough for the purpose of this exercise. Basically, they take people’s responses to three questions: Is prayer an important part of your daily life? Will we all be called before God at Judgment Day to answer for our sins? Do you ever doubt the existence of God?

If a person answers yes to all three questions, they are considered to have high levels of religiosity … or in this case, religious traditionalism.

The next chart details differences in Party ID, based on those who are “religious traditionalists” or not. Pew uses this term interchangeably with religiosity, which again I disagree with, but since they do it, I’ll do it, too.

Here, when including historically black churches, Republicans have a 75 to 68 percent edge (+7%) in religiosity, meaning that 3/4 of Republicans answered yes to all three faith questions. Excluding non-white churches, Republicans take a commanding lead, with a spread of 74 to 57 (+17%).

A few things of note:

1. Historically black churches have very high levels of religiosity. Pew measured African American respondents at 91 percent vs. only 65 percent for all non-hispanic whites. This accounts for much of the difference between the two graphs.

2. Republicans, apparently, have higher overall levels of religiosity than Democrats, seemingly confirming something that I’m saying is a myth.

Removing the Extremes

If we remove the extremes, though, a different picture would emerge. Remember from the first chart that evangelicals are overwhelming Republican, and those with no religion are overwhelmingly independents and Democrats. Well, we can safely presume evangelicals to have very high levels of religiosity, and many of those with no religion to have a religiosity of roughly zero (there will obviously be exceptions to this — Agnostics, for instance, or those who believe in God but not organized religion).

For the sake of argument, let’s also exclude the extreme that helps the Democrats’ religiosity, historically black church-goers. Should we expect non-evangelical Protestant and Catholic Republicans to be more religious, on average, than their Democratic counterparts? Because if not, knowing that the number of Protestant/Catholic Republicans is roughly equal to the number of Protestant/Catholic Democrats, there probably isn’t much to the Republican-Christian stereotype.

Well, unfortunately Pew doesn’t have that data readily available. But they do have something else that seems to corroborate what I’m arguing, even if it doesn’t prove it unequivocally.

For some reason, they only included church attendance (the typical measure of religiosity) for Catholics. But, as you can see, in 2002-03, Republicans only had a slight edge among those who attend church regularly. That’s nothing to base a 1000-word post on, but certainly a deviation from the expected.

What has gone unaddressed are the differences in turnout. This obviously favors Republicans over Democrats, because what are thought of as the religious right do turnout in high numbers, while the Democratic equivalent, blacks, do not.

Regardless, among what we think of as the typical American church-goer, there doesn’t appear much evidence to suggest that Republicans are the party of choice the more religious you are.

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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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