August 22, 2005

Church Attendance and Voting Preference

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 3:54 pm

The latest BusinessWeek has a column by Robert Barro, one of their regular contributing economists, on the impact of church attendance on voting preference. There are several interesting points made here — its kind of a Freakonomics-type analysis getting to the causal factors behind the data. But before I get to the column, let me revisit a statement made by political analyst Bill Schneider right after the election.

Schneider said that the best question used to identify a person’s political convictions is how often they attend church. Churchgoers, of any religion, are more likely to vote Republican, he said.

The study referred to in the BW column confirms that Schneider’s statement is in fact true. Church attendance is the best indicator of voting preference. But for us statistics-challenged, Schneider gives the impression that regular church-goers almost always vote for Republicans, and non-church-goers almost always vote for Democrats. And the problem with this impression is that a church-going Christian on the fence may think that they should vote Republican because, well, all the other church-going Christians are voting Republican.

I’m not accusing Schneider of deliberately spinning the data, but the BW column shows that the impression that Christians always vote Republican is just not true:

The religiousness differential in favor of the GOP peaked in 1992 and 1996 at 17 and 14 percentage points, when Democratic candidate Bill Clinton appeared to be highly secular (but still won). In 2000, when the evangelical George W. Bush beat Al Gore, the effect was still a strong 12 percentage points. Full data for 2004 are not yet available, but the religion effect was likely larger than the one in 2000.

So let’s assume for argument’s sake that the differential for 2004 was 14 percentage points. If we ignore the third party voters, that means that 57% of regular church-goers voted for Bush, and 43% of regular church-goers voted for Kerry. So think about that. Over 4 out of 10 regular church-goers voted for Kerry. This gives a very different picture than Schneider’s sound bite.

In an evenly divided nation, a swing of 7% of voters in any demographic is huge, and hence Schneider’s statement about church attendance as the top predictor. But that still means that 43% (or thereabouts) of us didn’t vote for Bush! The Christian vote is hardly as unified or monolithic as many would have you believe. It is simply not the case that Christians speak with one voice on politics.

Any bets on how big that differential will be in 2006 and 2008?


  1. I think what this indicates is that progressive Christians have not been making our voices heard. Politicians often pander to the most vocal constituencies, which in recent years have been the religious right and the secular left. Things might be starting to change. The recent publication of Jim Wallis’ book God’s Politics has alerted the media to the fact that many of us don’t fit those two categories. Organizations like Make Poverty History and the ONE Campaign are talking about poverty as a moral issue.

    The time is ripe to open up the values dialog beyond the phony moralizing of the religious right. Poverty, lack of access to health care, racial and sexual discrimination — these are moral issues, not just social issues. If Democrats can make that connection, I think they can win the votes of a majority of churchgoers.

    Comment by Bruce — August 23, 2005 @ 9:02 am

  2. We are certainly more vocal and visible than before. Jim Wallis
    knows it better than anyone.

    Comment by wildwest — August 23, 2005 @ 11:52 am

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