How Americans’ Politics Drives Their Religious Views
Republicans are now a lot more religious than Democrats, but they may not mean our religious views drive our politics. Instead, people may be choosing their religious or secular affiliations, communities, and beliefs on the basis of their partisanship. Michele Margolis finds that young adults tend to move away from religion, but only Republicans and Black Democrats come back when they start a family—leading to a big over-time decline in religion among White Democrats. But what is replacing religion for Democrats? David Campbell finds that an aversion to the religious right makes Democrats adopt secular identities and principles. Both say we should expect continued religious and political polarization, as secular and Democratic identities become more closely aligned.
Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, how politics is changing our religious views. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
Republicans are now a lot more religious than Democrats, but that may not mean our religious views drive our politics. Instead, people may be choosing their religious or secular affiliations, communities and beliefs on the basis of their partisanship. I talked to Michele Margolis of the University of Pennsylvania about her new University of Chicago Press book, From Politics to the Pews. She finds that young adults tend to move away from religion, but only Republicans and black Democrats come back when they start a family. Leading to a big over time decline in religion among white Democrats. But what is replacing religion for Democrats?
I also talked to David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame about his new American Journal of Political Science article, with Geoffrey Layman, John Green and Nathanael Sumaktoyo, “Putting Politics First.” They find that an aversion to the religious right, makes Democrats adopt secular identities and principles. Margolis reverses the traditional notion that religion affects politics.
Margolis: The single biggest takeaway is that your partisanship or your political outlooks can actually affect religious decisions that individuals make. So rather than thinking about religion affecting politics, how you view the political world and what party you align with can shape religious decisions and how active you want to be in a religious community and which community you want to be involved in.
Grossmann: And Campbell takes away the same message from his research.
Campbell: Contrary to the conventional wisdom (that it’s religion that drives people’s political views), we find evidence that the arrow also goes the other way. That people’s politics can drive their religious views and their religious identity. So much so that you can even find Americans pulling away from their own religious identity as a allergic reaction to the religious right. And we’re able to show that experimentally which we think is a pretty compelling way to make that case.
Grossmann: The conventional wisdom according to both is more of an assumption than a theory.
Campbell: Every time you utter a sentence along the lines of “the percentage of Catholics who voted for Donald Trump was x,” or “the percentage of Evangelical Protestants who voted for George W. Bush is x,” you are implicitly putting religion before the politics. We don’t usually flip those sentences around. We don’t usually suggest that voting for George W. Bush makes you an Evangelical Protestant; we think it goes the other way. And that’s certainly true. But we find is evidence that at least among some pockets of the population, it can go the other way. That’s especially true for people who are on the political left who are driven away from religion and into either the short-term form of secularism where they walk away from a religious identity. Or over, maybe we’ll call it the medium-term that can even be pushed into what we call “active secularism.” So they’re not just not religious, they’re actually actively secular. They think of themselves as secular. They act in a secular way. They think in a secular way.
Margolis: Right. So the conventional wisdom is that, as I just said, is that religion affects politics. Whether that’s your religious beliefs, whether it’s your levels of religiosity, how frequently you go to church. Whether it’s your religious affiliation, that those things drive your political attitudes, your political identification, and your vote choice. And so that’s sort of the conventional wisdom when we talk about the God gap where more religious people are Republicans and less religious people are Democrats. The assumption is that gap exists because religious people have become or are Republicans and less religious have become or are Democrats. As opposed to what I’m arguing which is that Republicans in fact are become more religious by virtue of being Republican and that Democrats are less religious by virtue of being Democrats.
Grossmann: Margolis says there’s good reason to think that parties should come first.
Margolis: Party identification is really strong and it’s very powerful. And we think a party identification as something that’s a driver of vote choice, but now we have this growing amount of literature that shows how important party ideas for how we evaluate things like the economy and elected officials, but also other people, whether we like someone or don’t like someone. Whether we want to be generous toward them or not. How we view political leaders. It all gets wrapped up how we evaluate the same external events, whether we think it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Our partisanship is this lens through which we the world, and we’re interpreting the world around us through politics or through these political lenses. And so in that sense, interpreting religion through this political lens is maybe not so surprising.
Grossmann: Today’s religious gap in partisanship was not pre-ordained. It developed after the 1960’s.
Margolis: It was only in the 60’s or early 70’s that there was basically no relationship between levels of religiosity that is how religious you are, how often you go to church, and these political variables. There were denominational differences right? Catholics used to be Democrats and Southern Protestants used to be Democrats and Northern Protestants were Republicans, but over time that gap has changed from being about denominations to being about religiosity. That religious people regardless of whether you are a Protestant, a Catholic, an undifferentiated Christian, the more you go to church, the more likely you are to a Republican. The less you go to church, the less likely you are.
And what we see over time is this relationship between religion and politics changing over time. Where as there wasn’t a religiosity gap whether you measured it by church attendance, whether it’s about religious non-identification. So when I say a religious none, I mean a n-o-n-e. A non-identifier, not a habitwearing nun. And also rates a biblical literalism, while those variables used to be uncorrelated with party ID, now they’ve become strongly correlated and specifically that Republicans are more likely to be more religious on any dimension than Democrats and that Democrats are becoming less religious over time.
Grossmann: The aggregate pattern shows Democrats losing faith and Republicans steady. But it’s Republican stability that stands out more across the secularizing world.
Margolis: There are other people who have been working in this kind of politics affecting religion and the emphasis has been on this rise of religious non-identification and this kind of lack of religiosity among Democrats. But we also know there’s evidence in other countries of a general secularization idea. That everyone in the country is becoming more secular. That is the U.S., we’ve actually been this unique nation that has an advanced Western democracy that we’re still a very devout country. And so while Republicans have not become more or less religious over time, I actually think it’s important to think about … We don’t want to take their stability as evidence of non-movement, right? This presents an opportunity of well, what would have happened without politics? Is it possible that Republicans would be less religious today if it weren’t for politics and religion being linked in the way that it is.
Grossmann: From Politics to the Pews draws on the usual life cycle of religiosity and partisanship. It turns out religion usually wanes just as we’re developing our partisan identities.
Margolis: The religious socialization literature comes largely out of the sociology of religion. The old, where they talk about religion and religiosity not being a stable identity right? It’s not this kind of static thing that never changes, which is how we as political scientists largely think about it. But instead, you can think about it as waxing and waning, let’s use that phrase, over time. So when you’re young, you have no agency, your parents choose whether you go to church, whether you go to Sunday school, you just kind of do what your parents do. Then upon reaching adolescence and young adulthood, a lot of people move away from religion and importantly, this isn’t a time when … I’m not saying everyone becomes an avowed atheist during this time. But it’s a time during which people are more likely to move themselves away from religion and distance themselves from the organized practices in which they were raised.
And there’s a lot of reasons for this. And a lot of it has nothing to do with hostility toward religion. Some of it has to do with asserting independence from your parents and some of it has to do with this, this is just a crazy time in your life where you may be leaving home to go to college. You may be leaving home and starting work, your social circles are changing, your communities ties from once you came are weakening as you’re kind of going off into the world. Your graduating high school and you’re either entering the workforce or some sort of higher education, or both.
And during this time, religion just gets pushed to the back burner. And there’s been some great sociology work noting that this is the time when religiosity decreases. So being a religious non-identifier increases. And we see this across religious faiths. So no one faith is immune from this, even if you were raised in a very devout religious community. This trend holds. So what we see is that people are just kind of on the outskirts of religion during this time.
But when people get married and have children, this represents a time where they have to start making decisions about whether or not to come back to religion. Because they start thinking about how they want to raise their children? It doesn’t mean that everyone comes back to religion at this point, although sociologists do note that it’s having school-aged children that religious participation peaks. And a lot of this has to do with wanting to give one’s child a religious upbringing. But, we also know that we’re not … We don’t practice religion in the same way as adults that raised us. That we pick and choose. Especially in America where we have so many options when it comes to religion. We’re going to pick and choose beliefs and practices and we’re going to find communities that fit our pre-existing needs and identities and outlooks.
And so it’s during this time that I make the argument that our political identities, which the political scientists know form in adolescence and young adulthood. That represents a time in which our politics can affect our religious decision making. That there’s this critical juncture when you’re making decisions, when your religious identity is still influx, but your political identity already exists. And once you’ve made that decision about religion, then we’re in a world where religion is more stable. It’s never completely stable, but your levels of religiosity do stabilize. And so politics affecting religion at a specific point in your life can have long standing consequences because the decisions you make at that time can follow you for many years to come. So that’s sort of a theoretical underpinning of when and why we might expect to see this reverse relationship occurring.
Grossmann: She finds a stark pattern: only Republican politics makes it easy for people to come back to religion.
Margolis: Some evidence that we see Democrats at a particular point in their life leaving religion, but what I also find evidence of is that at this time period, Republicans are more likely to return to religion than Democrats. So now we’re kind of seeing it on both fronts, so that religion can in fact push Democrats away and push Republicans toward religion. But in this case, we also see that it’s not just Democrats leaving religion, it’s that Republicans are saying, “I’m married, I have children. How do I want to raise my child? What kind of religions upbringing do I want to give him or her?” And they say, “Well, I’m a Republican” and they look around and they see Republicans are known as the party of religion, I’m going to go back to religion, or I feel no cognitive dissonance.
And so that makes it easier for them to return to the pews, whereas Democrats on the other hand might feel this tension, particularly white Democrats might feel this tension when they look around and see a political landscape that links conservative religion and conservative politics together and say, maybe this isn’t for me.
Grossmann: Margolis looks at three different measures that all show similar trends. Whether you go to church, whether you identify with a religion and whether you take the Bible literally.
Margolis: Using church attendance or religious service attendance is a key indicator in order to understand if this “God gap” or “Religiosity gap” that we see is American politics is being driven by church attendance affecting people’s political outlooks or whether political outlooks are actually affecting to what extent people go to church. So that’s the church attendance.
And then the second one that I do is religious non-identification. And I choose to go with non-identification rather than try to measure are you an Evangelical or are you not because that measurement is very tricky and highly problematic.
And what I really care about is your willingness to signal that yes, I’m part of a religious community. I’m part of a faith as opposed to saying, you know what? I’m not. I’m not into organization religion. I’m nothing.
In certain places in the book where I’m collecting my own data, I actually create a measure a little bit like partisanship where after saying okay yes, you say you’re a Christian, do you identify strongly or not strongly as a Christian? And then if you say you’re actually nothing, I ask if you feel if you feel closer to one religion or another. So it creates this kind of four-point scale that differentiates between strong and weak religious identifiers and then kind of pure non-identifiers and then these kind of leaning religious people. And so for me, part of this distinction is understanding people’s willingness to sign on and say yes, I’m part of this religious faith.
And then Biblical literalism I use whenever possible. I want to put a caveat around that, I don’t necessarily think politics directly affects people’s religious beliefs. I don’t think that being a Republican makes you more likely to be a biblical literalist, it’s possible. But I think what’s more likely going on is that politics is affecting the religious communities you join and how involved you are in those religious communities. And that in turn, might shape your religious beliefs.
Grossmann: But African-American Democrats do not fit the same tends because they are embedded in a very different set of relations between politics and religion.
Margolis: Black Protestants are the most religious group in the United States, whether you’re measuring it by frequency of prayer, frequency of church attendance, saying that religion is important to you. Black Protestants even more so than white Evangelicals are the most religious group in the United States. They are also the most loyal Democratic group in the United States and so that obviously everything that we’ve been talking about up until this point about the God gap and more religious people being Republicans, less religious people being Democrats, that doesn’t apply when African-Americans are both single-handedly the most religious and the most Democratic.
And so what I do show is that over time, they do engage in sort of this religious life cycle affect. They fall away from religion in young adulthood, but they actually return similarly and similar rates to white Republicans. So they don’t have this … They are returning in a way that white Democrats aren’t. And so I spend part of a chapter exploring why we think that’s the case. And it really builds on great literature in political science but also sociology and also just the religion literature that’s unique to the U.S. context, which is that churches in the U.S. are still incredibly racial segregated.
And that has really important implications because it means that most people who are African-American are going to churches with other African-Americans and people who are white are going to churches with people who are white. And so this dissonance that a white Democrat might feel in church whether it’s talking to other folks or hearing messages from the pews or watching things on the news that make it sound like Republicans are in fact the religious party and Democrats are the secular party. That doesn’t apply as much in African-American community and American Grace and David Campbell and Bob Putnam’s book, they show that the most religiously active churches are actually black Protestant churches. So it’s not white Evangelical churches that are getting up and doing all this mobilizing, it’s black churches. And it’s doing this mobilization on the left.
African-Americans when they think about religion and politics mixing together, they’re actually thinking about it mixing on the political left. They’re thinking about religion and politics on the left mixing, whereas white Americans, especially white Democrats are not. They’re thinking about religion and politics mixing on the political right and so that’s giving rise to why a white Democrat might feel uncomfortable going to church or might seek out a very specific kind of church. Whereas a black Democrat that dissonance isn’t there for them.
Grossmann: Margolis relies on a long term panel study that followed different generations as they aged.
Margolis: What’s great about panels is that rather than interviewing the different individuals over time, you’re interviewing the same individual at multiple points in time and so things that we think we might not be able to account for in a statistical model, that some people for instance might just be more religious than others, we can’t just control for this underlying level of religiosity, that’s kind of unobservable. We can get around that a little bit by looking at the same people over time. Because we’re comparing the same individual at the same points in time, and so as long as those underlying, unobservable variables don’t change and their relationship to other variables don’t change, we can have a better sense that the changes we see may actually be driven by politics or their actually driven by religion. As opposed to something that we can’t measure.
So they use parent socialization panels, this spectacular data set that’s incredibly special that interviewed an entire cohort of about 1500 respondents who were all the graduating class of 1965. They were all graduating from high school and then they were all re-interviewed when they were 25, which was in 1973. When they were 35, in 1980 and then again in 1997 when they were 50. And in addition to that one cohort, they also interviewed their parents. So we have kind of two generations over a long period of time.
So for my research project, that was excellent, because I could actually see as people were moving their lifecycle windows. So that between the ages of 18 and 25, we see levels of religiosity decline precipitously. But they actually go up between 1973 and 1982. This is the time when the people were married, their kids started going to school. That religiosity increased exactly like sociologists say and this is precisely when we see politics affecting religion.
And then we see this stability between 1982 and 1997, when they’re more stable. The limitations of these data is that it’s one single cohort. But it’s one group and so that’s why I try to use other panel data throughout the book that’s replicating these results showing that in different time periods and different generations, we’re seeing the same results. And we also see them in experiments, where in this case we don’t have the over time component, but we definitely are able to have some more control as a researcher that we can’t … I can’t necessarily explain everything that happens in a nine year period for 1500 people. I can account for that in kind of a experimental setting.
Grossmann: She finds that the effects are strongest when religion is politicized as in the 2004 election cycle.
Margolis: Experimentally, when religion and politics are linked, I find that among people who are have school aged children, married with school aged children, these people at this time, when they’re making religious decisions, even just mentioning the Republican party or the Democratic party without any context of religion and politics, Republicans report feeling closer to religion and Democrats systematically become less. They report feeling less close to religion. So we see this asymmetry where Republicans and Democrats are moving in an opposite direction.
And that result becomes even stronger, maybe not surprisingly, when the link is made explicitly. If you’re reading about the Republican party’s close relationship with organized religion and then I’m able to use panel data using the American national election study, which follows people in 2000, 2002 and 2004. And it shows while there isn’t much change in individual level movements of religiosity, between 2000 and 2002, there is a change between 02 and 04, which coincides with religion becoming a very saline issue for numerous reasons. Stuff with gay marriage. Stuff with abortion. Stuff with how the news was reporting on the parties being different. Religion for the first time, they were not only reporting that Republicans were the party of religion but they became much more likely to report that Democrats were also the party of non-religious or the secularists.
So all of these things together sort of changed the political, religious and media environment and it’s during that time that I also see again this movement in the short window between 2002 and 2004, especially where we see Democrats pulling away from religion in this two year period. Even though they weren’t moving away between say 2000 and 2002. That previous two year window. Once there was a shift in the political landscape, we see the God gap actually got larger between 02 and 04 and it had to do with Republicans and Democrats shifting their report of religiosity, not the people’s levels of reported religiosity or changing their party ID or vote choice.
Grossmann: But religion can also be politicized in other ways. Margolis is able to show that the socialization story also works for the 1960 election. When Catholic religiosity was tied to John F. Kennedy.
Margolis: I also have a chapter in my book about the 1960 election, which also uses panel data to see what happens when you have a Catholic candidate for the Democratic nomination and then as a Democratic nominee and there was a lot of pushback from Protestants. Protestant leaders. And what I want to do, is I want to test the life cycle theory in a different context. So, the bulk of the book focuses on how the life cycle theory, this idea that your religiosity waxes and wanes and your political identity can affect these religious decisions. It’s based on sort of explaining this religiosity gap in American politics.
But that theory can travel at other points in time. So if the political and religious landscape changes, we should be able to use this theoretical model to understand and predict changes of how politics might affect this. And so what I find is basically reverse … There was already evidence out there that more religious Catholics were more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate, mainly John Kennedy. And the reverse was the case for Protestants. So the more religious you were as a Protestant, the more likely you were to vote for Nixon. And so that the consensus was that religiosity affected within Protestants and Catholics, affected whether you were going to vote for Kennedy or Nixon.
And basically what I show is evidence of the reverse, which is that if you were a Republican in 1958 and you were a Catholic (there weren’t that many of them) you became less likely to attend church between 1958 and 1960. Conversely, if you were a Democratic Protestant, so you were someone who your candidate was the Catholic, but the Protestant community had a lot of concerns about a Catholic candidate, the Democratic Protestant became less likely to attend church between 1958 and 1960. So you’re actually seeing politics affecting religion.
The expectations are different because now we’re living in a world where it’s about Catholics versus Protestants, but the same idea of this life cycle theory that people who are married with school age children are making religious decisions, they are the ones who are going to be affected. It’s precisely what I see. Whereas the older generation, those with stable religious identifications and stable levels of religious activity, I didn’t see much movement.
Grossmann: Today the dominant religious political trend is Democratic secularization. And David Campbell set out to measure how it’s manifesting.
Campbell: The way social scientists have understood secularism is simply the absence of religion. So there’s a lot of attention, including from ourselves to the rise in religious in non-affiliation in the population which is huge. By some measures it’s up to 25 percent of Americans say they do not have a religious affiliation. And there’s similar ways of tracing who doesn’t attend religious services or who doesn’t believe in God. But all of those are measures of what people are not. So we describe them as being passively secular. And we draw a distinction between that kind of secularism, again defined by what you are not. With a different form that we call active secularism, defined by what you are.
What we mean by that is these are people who have actively embraced a secular worldview. They will use a secular identity like Atheist or Agnostic or Secular or Humanist to describe themselves. It means they say they get guidance from non-religious sources when they seek truth or guidance in their life. It means they endorse a set of what we call secular beliefs and the reason that those measures, none of them reference religion is that in the way we are thinking about this, you can actually be both religious and secular at the same time. Which might sound like an oxymoron, but it’s not. Because there are lots of people who are at least somewhat religiously active in America, but nonetheless, have this secular worldview. A lot of Jews fall into that category. A lot of mainline Protestants do, and even a fair number of Catholics do.
So we consider that to be one of our innovations is being able to think about religion and secularism as not all on one continuum, but two different ways of seeing the world that sometimes fit together.
Grossmann: Their article demonstrates in an experiment that Democratic secularization stems from a backlash to the religious right. By having them react to news stories about fictional congressional races only some of which involved religious conflict.
Campbell: Respondents would read this story about a congressional race. In some versions of that story, the candidates use a lot of religion. In some cases, both of them … Both the Democrat and the Republican use a lot of religious language and we have these photos of the candidates in religious settings. In others, it’s only one who’s using religion and the other is not. And of course in a control condition, there’s no mention of religion at all.
So what we’re testing is how people react to this news story that in some of the versions shows you, or maybe reminds you of how religion and partisan politics connect in the United States. We interviewed people at one point in time, this is a big online survey that we did. So we interviewed people at one point in time, asked them about their background, they’re standard demographic questions including their religious afflation. So they told us whether they had a religion and what it was, or they could say, “I have no religion.”
Then a week later, we contact them again. They were randomly assigned one of these stories to read. Again, some have a lot of religion, some don’t have any religion. Then we asked the background questions again, including the one we’re most interested in, do you have a religious affiliation? What we find is even with that very straight forward design where all people are being exposed to is one news story, we can induce a fairly high percentage of overall respondents and specifically Democrats who are exposed to a Republican who uses lots of religion and a Democrat who doesn’t.
They are the people who become more likely to say they have no religious affiliation. In other words, they changed. They go from being a something, to be a religious none simply by reading our story and the trigger seems to be a reminder of the religious right in particular that is, when a Republican uses religious language that the Democrats have the allergic reaction.
Grossmann: Using panel data from 2010 to 2012, they were also able to show real changes from politics to religion and vice versa, but concentrated among secularizing Democrats.
Campbell: The advantage of the panel study is that it enables us to see individual level change. And so that enables us to get another perspective on the causal question. Can we really say something causally above the relationship between religion, secularism and politics. So we can do it in an experimental setting, but what about in the wild? And in the wild, you can’t really do that cross sectionally, so by observing what happens to people even over a short period of time, we can get some causal leverage and I’d like to think we’ve been able to show that at least as much as you can with observational data.
We definitely find, and I want to be clear about this, over that period of time that religion, measured in the conventional way definitely affects people’s political perspectives. Whether you’re looking at their partisanship or their ideology or we have some measures of cultural attitudes. Same sex marriage and abortion. But we also find evidence going the other way. But going the other way, it is typically the active secularism that’s really driving things and that’s what we think is really the innovative part of that panel study. That the action is mostly in the active secularism, not in the passive secularism. Which suggests that it’s the active secularists who are really the more politically engaged and they’re the ones that are going sort of make the difference in the political arenas. We have these debates between religious folks and secular folks.
Grossmann: Over time, both parties are changing their religious views. But the big and active Democratic secularization is accelerating.
Campbell: It’s not just that the Liberals are becoming more secular, or the Democrats are becoming more secular, it’s also the case that conservatives and Republicans are becoming more religious. Now, there’s a ceiling affect. You can only become so religious, so lots of Republicans have already sort of topped out at the scale, which probably limits how much change you can observe. But you find it to some extent, which itself is sort of an interesting finding. But again, with our study, we see the introduction of these measures of secularism and particularly active secularism as sort of the main contribution that we’re making.
So it’s happening on both sides, but it’s the action on the secular side that’s sort of new and is more likely to change our politics, because we really haven’t had a secular left to counter the religious right. But perhaps we will in the not too distant future.
Grossmann: Although secularization is ongoing worldwide, it uniquely divides political division in the U.S.
Campbell: Every time the Pew Research Center comes out with another annual survey on the state of religion in America, I expect to see a plateau in the percentage of non-religious affiliates or religious nones. We haven’t hit that plateau yet. They keep rising.
Active secularism as my co-authors define it, little harder to trace over time because we only have data from 2010-2011 when we came up with the measures. But to the extent we have data, again this goes beyond what is in the article, but we have replicated our measures in 2017 and we do see an increase in our measures of active secularism. Which suggests that it’s rising as a share of the U.S. population. All of which suggests that we are heading toward, not just an evermore secular America, but an evermore secular America that is linked to our politics. The secularization you find in other countries, having it linked to the political landscape, that’s probably uniquely American.
Grossmann: Campbell says the trends demonstrate the poor trade-off the Christian right made by accentuating religion in politics.
Campbell: I think it actually demonstrates a tremendous irony in American politics. If you go back to the founding of the religious right in late 1970’s, early 1980’s, one of maybe the main rationale for the very existence of this movement was to reassert the role of religion in the public square in America. And instead what’s happened is that very movement has actually driven an increasing share of Americans out of religion. Which is I think is exactly the opposite of what they intended to do. But it does demonstrate the, at least unintended consequences and maybe you might even say, the dangers of mixing religion and partisan politics.
Grossmann: He thinks mixing politics and religion is usually bad. Though it’s not clear secular Democrats will lead us astray.
Campbell: I think that the mixture of any partisan politics and religion is bad for both religion and politics. I’m just ambivalent. I’ll say Agnostic on the question of whether or not the rise of active secularism is a normative problem in the United States. And I mean that sincerely. Because if we didn’t know as much as we now do about the actively secular population, you might be lead to believe that more secularism would mean weaker social ties in America. Weaker social capital, less civic engagement. And if we only focus on the passively secular people, that would be true.
But actively secular people, again this goes beyond what we show in the article, but in other work, we detail this. Actively secular people are actually pretty civically engaged. Especially when it comes to politics, they’re very politically engaged. So it doesn’t suggest that more secularism means a further decline in civic engagement, probably means that we will continue as a country to grapple with questions about church and state in the public square. But I don’t think that’s necessarily unhealthy because there are credible arguments to be made on the secular left about the role religion plays in public life and perhaps those questions should be revisited.
Grossmann: With further experimentation, he’s been able to show that Democratic candidates could be more forward about their secular values as long as they didn’t directly identify as an Atheist or a non-believer.
Campbell: We have done some other experiments in which we’ve tested how voters react to candidates who use secular language. And some experiments we don’t identify the partisanship of the candidates, we used a school board race that’s non partisan. In other versions of our experiments, we do identify the candidate as having a party, either a Democrat or a Republican. What we find is when a candidate describes himself as either an Atheist or someone who doesn’t believe in God, and those are two different treatments. We have one version where the candidate says I’m an Atheist another version where it doesn’t use the word Atheist, just says, I don’t believe in God. They get a pretty negative reaction from Republicans and somewhat negative reaction from Democrats. Nobody seems to like that language.
But frankly, we already kind of knew that. I think it’s pretty widely known that Atheists are a group that encounter some serious political opposition. What we were more interested in were the other versions of this experiment, where instead of using Atheist or I don’t believe in God, instead, the candidates it says things like, oh, I’m not particularly religious. Which happens to be exactly the phrasing that Bernie Sanders used when he was running in 2016. And in another case, the candidate says I do not currently identify with a religion. So we’re trying to capture the natural way that a lot of secular people describe their beliefs or their identity. And we find that those terms don’t trigger much of a negative reaction, even from Republicans who you think might be bothered by them. So, it demonstrates that there probably is some room on the secular left for candidates to be if you will, out with their secularism to a greater extent than most are.
Grossmann: The research from Campbell and Margolis is complementary. Marglois adds both partisan sides of the debate.
Margolis: There huge value added is their focusing on secularization and they also have this amazing scale that they created that measures secularization and kind of secular attitudes that I’ve now been using in some of my new research. And really showing that the linkage between religion and politics is kind of pushing Democrats out of religion and encouraging them to adopt more secular attitudes. And I think that’s really important and I think that completely corroborates and jives with everything that I’ve found in my research.
I think in my book, the other key takeaway is that it’s not just the Democrats are leaving religion, it’s that Republicans are coming back to it. And that Republicans feel more close to religion on account of their partisanship. So it’s not just a one-sided story where Republicans are floating along completely unaffected by the relationship between religion and politics and it’s the Democrats who are heading for the hills.
It’s that Republicans in fact might be less religious today if it weren’t for the fact that religion and politics were so closely aligned. And so that in some respects, that the God gap is actually being driven on two fronts. It’s not just because Democrats are kind of leading the way on this secularization and the increase religious non-identifiers in the U.S., it’s that Republicans are stemming that tie to a ceratin extent and are more religious on a count of their partisanship.
Grossmann: And Campbell adds overall Democratic secularization in addition to their socialization trends.
Campbell: I’m a huge fan of Michele’s work and I would say to anyone listening, maybe especially graduate students, to this podcast, Michele’s work is an example of how carefully thinking through the implications of the contemporary political period and what might have been happening in the past; I mean it’s just exemplary for that. Yet another example of why the Jennings and Niemi panel data beginning in 1965 and going all the way to the 1990’s, has just been this treasure trove of data. It’s hard to point to another study that has been as fruitful as that one. And Michele’s work is just yet another example of it.
You know, it’s interesting to note that while … Of course you know, Michele is correct to note that young adulthood is this is period of generally speaking, heightened secularism or at least lack of religious connection in most people’s lives and that’s been true for as long as we can tell. What seems to be different about the current period is just how far many young people have fallen from religion. Both at the individual level and if you just sort of looked at that group as a whole, so it’s unlikely that they’re going to be able to climb back to the same level of religious involvement that their parents or their grandparents generation did. Just because they’re starting at a much, much lower point.
Grossmann: Their work should help us understand Trump’s otherwise surprising success with Evangelicals. As Marglois notes, that’s now political identity encompassing his supporters.
Margolis: This question of who is a white Evangelical and why people call themselves a white Evangelical, is this just a political term? And I did get the sense that when talking to people and I’m now currently doing some research testing this, that there are a lot of people who say, “I might be a born-again, but I’m not an Evangelical.” And that term has political connotations and that people who are not supportive of Trump have sort of … We’ve seen high profile cases of people calling and saying that they are no longer Evangelicals, kind of in the New York Times and things like that.
But even among average people, they’re saying that brand has now been tainted and that they don’t think of themselves in that way. And so if we think that politics is driving whether or not you’re willing to identify yourself with this label, then it should come as no surprise that the people who are left, so the fact that 81 percent of white Evangelicals voted for Trump, which people found so surprising right? On the one hand it shouldn’t be surprising, these people are Republicans. But on the other hand, if the never Trumpers who might seem Evangelical to an outsider, if those people are actually choosing to not call themselves Evangelical anymore because that term has political connotations, then that’s going to create this really strong correlation that we see that being an Evangelical makes you vote for Trump.
But if making you vote for Trump encouraged you to be an Evangelical, or not voting for Trump encouraged you to say you’re not an Evangelical, we’re gonna result in having this really strong looking correlation that’s on the cover of every newspaper after the election, but it’s actually in part because politics is affecting whether people are willing to call themselves this term.
Grossmann: And Campbell adds that separating the active from the passive secular’s is also key to understanding Trump’s success.
Campbell: I think it does help eliminate 2016 in a couple of different ways. So let me sort of just break it down. First of all, the distinction between the passive and the active secularists, it’s really important to understand Trump’s support. The passive secular’s, these are again, people who don’t affiliate with religion, don’t believe in God, don’t go to church. They are largely civic dropouts. They’re also largely Trump supporters. Makes sense. These are people who are alienated and cut off from a lot of civic institutions in America. Religion being one of them. So that’s an important distinction. Actively secular people, they are heavy Clinton supporters and prior to the general election, they were heavy Sanders supporters. These are people who are on the Progressive left for the most part.
Now when it comes to Evangelical support for Trump, the only explanation I think that’s credible for why Trump has done so well among Evangelical Christians, is that Evangelical Christians put their politics ahead of their religion right? Nobody can with any credibility say that Donald Trump is this religious right kind of guy in the same way that George W. Bush was, or even Mike Pence is. But instead, they supported him because he took the right positions on their issues and turned it into a very transactional relationship. You know when George W. Bush was appealing Evangelicals, largely a matter of identity. You know, trust me, I’m one of you. Donald Trump doesn’t make that claim. He says vote for me and I’ll do the stuff you want me to do. I’ll put your guys on the Supreme Court, I’ll move the Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I’ll repeal the Johnson Amendment, etc., etc.
Grossmann: But from here, their research is headed in different directions. Margolis is focusing on white Evangelical Christians and how politics ties them together.
We may think of religion as an identity that can be influenced by politics, but we do know that religion is this amazingly powerful tool for mobilizing. And so if you have this type of doubly captive audience of religious people who are also Republicans, that’s an amazing way for the Republican party to reach their core constituency and not just one core constituency of being religious and not just the other core constituency of being Republican. It’s that they have these aligned attitudes.
And so a lot of my new research is actually looking at white Evangelical Christians and trying to understand what it means to be a white Evangelical in American politics today. How you hear messages. How you respond to the political world around you. Getting a better understanding of what went on in 2016. As I said, I was in Alabama for five weeks doing research interviews and participant observation and now I’m back here hoping to design better survey questions and some experiments to really measure and get at what we think is going in kind of white Christian America in 2018 and beyond.
Grossmann: Campbell sees secular Democrats as the next big rising trend. Eventually organizing in the mold of the religious right.
Campbell: Forty years ago, there was a small group of political scientists who wrote about this new movement that came to be called the Christian right. It focused on a group we now call Evangelicals. Didn’t have a name then. Some called them Fundamentalists. Sometimes they were just called Pentecostals or Baptists or whatever group they belonged to. But eventually, they because known as the religious right and we focused on Evangelicals who came to take that term to describe a large share of Americans.
I argue that we are at the same, or at least a similar point in history with the secular left. This is a large and growing number of people. They’re increasingly politicized. They don’t necessarily at this point in time, share a common identity. They’re likely to, especially if some politician out there, probably on the left, figures out a way to speak to them. To mobilize them, so that they coalesce into a political constituency in the same way that Evangelical Christians did.
Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. Political Research Digest is available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center and on iTunes. I’m your host, Matt Grossman. Thanks to Michele Margolis and David Campbell for joining me. And please check out the article and buy a copy of From Politics to the Pews. See you next time.