Spare the religiosity, it is political ideology that matters

(Cross-posted from Think it Through)

A good rule to follow when interpreting election results and voter sentiments is to ignore explanations that rely on references to religion or God.  I was reminded of this rule this week when I read Mark Mellman's column in The Hill.

Mark's column, "Revisiting the G-d gap," argues that religiosity is dividing Democratic and Republican voters, and he concludes:  "If Democrats truly want to win religious voters, they must adopt a new vocabulary and a different perspective, without betraying the values that define us."

I counter that it will be futile for Democrats to devise a strategy specifically to win religious voters because when religiosity shows up as meaningful in crosstabs of surveys, it is most often an artifact of political ideology rather than the core driver of political attitudes.

It is true that the highly religious are more likely to vote for Republicans because they are more strongly conservative in their political outlook.  But the correlation between their religiosity and their vote is more often the result of their conservatism, not the other way around.

In our surveys at BRS, we continue to study the relationship between ideology and religiosity, and consistently we find that ideology is dominant.  For example, in a pre-election national survey of Catholic voters in the summer of 2008 (for Catholics for Choice), BRS found that if you consider both church attendance and political ideology at the same time, ideology is more of an indicator of a person's position on topics such as gay marriage and the teaching of abstinence only in sex education classes.

In the 2008 survey, 74% of liberals who attend church regularly supported legalizing gay marriage, while only 23% of conservatives who attended church less often supported legalization.  In the same survey, 76% of liberal Catholics who attend church regularly opposed "requiring public high school sex education programs to only teach about abstinence as the way to prevent pregnancy and disease," while 51% of conservatives who attend church less often opposed the abstinence only programs.
The mistake of ascribing one characteristic as a driver of attitudes when it is really something else is easy to make, as many journalists found out during President Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky scandal.  National surveys indicated that women were much more likely than men to be sympathetic to Clinton's side of the arguments when the Congress was considering impeachment.  Commentators concluded that women were more tolerant of Clinton's marital infidelity than were American males.  Not so.  The higher level of Clinton support among women reflected the fact that more women than men are Democrats and party identification was the strongest predictor of where a person would land on the whole Clinton-Lewinsky issue.

Some in the media continued to misunderstand the difference between religion and political beliefs in the elections of 2000 and 2004.  When Republican strategist Karl Rove targeted churches for Republican votes, it was not so much because he knew that being religious meant you would vote for Bush as much as he knew that the churches were places where he could find heaping numbers of conservatives.

There is no question that being liberal coincides with going to church less often, or that conservatives are more church-going, but one should not confuse this correlation with causation.  Comparing ideology to religiosity usually will reveal that ideology is dominant.

As the more liberal, less church-going younger cohorts morph into middle age and make up a greater proportion of the electorate, maybe we will be spared continued commentary admonishing Democrats to learn how to talk in church.

John Russonello is a partner with Belden Russonello & Stewart:Public Opinion Research and Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. He writes the blog "Think it Through."

Tags: Ideology, religion (all tags)

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