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Church Attendance, Values and Politics

Susan Page had a front-page article in today's USA Today on "Churchgoing Closely Tied to Voting Patterns". The article contains much useful data about religiosity and voting, including information on how the "attendance gap"--those who frequently attend church vote Republican at substantially higher rates than those who don't--has evolved over time. (Unfortunately, a nice chart with these data is only available in the paper's print edition).

That gap was almost non-existent in 1968, grew to 10 points in 1972, declined to 4-7 points in the '80s and then emerged in full force in '92 and beyond: 17 points in 1992, 19 points in 1996 and 20 points in 2000.

Why was this? John Green of the University of Akron is quoted in the article giving the standard explanation:

Once social issues came to the forefront abortion, gay rights, women's rights it generated differences based on religious attendance. More observant people tend to have more traditional morality, and they moved in a more conservative direction because of those issues.

There's a lot of truth to this, but the other side of the equation is important too: less observant people tend to have less traditional morality--prizing tolerance, diversity and women's rights--and have moved in a liberal direction. Thus, though they may not attend church every week, they're voting their values just as much as the folks who do. The USA Today story gives this aspect of the attendance gap short shrift.

The article also implicitly poses this attendance gap as a big problem for the Democrats. In reality, given what we know of trends in social values and church attendance (see my May 27 post), it makes more sense to see it as a Republican problem. Over time, the ranks of those with less traditional morality and less frequent church attendance will continue to grow and, so, therefore, will the ranks of Democratic-leaning values voters.

These are changes that Democrats should welcome and build on. Which means it's high time Democrats started contesting the idea that the only folks who take values--including religious values--seriously are those that attend church every week. That's neither logically nor empirically true and certainly runs counter to what the Democratic party stands for. Instead, we should defend diversity in attendance practices just as we defend diversity in other areas. After all, most Americans believe the key aspect of religion is not how often you attend church but rather how you practice the values your religion teaches. Sounds like an idea Democrats should embrace and promote, rather than worrying unduly about the attendance gap.


As a Southern liberal Quaker who attends services every Sunday, one thing that I think progressives and liberals need to stop doing is conceding religion and spiritual beliefs as something that is the sole dominion of social and religious conservatives and Republicans.

Frankly, if you read what Jesus had to say about how to live your life and how to treat the rest of mankind, he sounds more like a liberal Democrat . . . one might even say that he sounds like a Socialist! Being a political liberal doesn't mean you have to reject religion or religious beliefs, nor does having religious/spiritual beliefs mean that you have to marry yourself to the Religious Right of the Republican Party. It's OK to shout out "I am a very religious person, as well a Liberal and a Democrat."

African-Americans constitute the highest church-going ethnic group in America, and they tend to be very traditional on many "family" issues.

If the Democratic Party drifts further away from positions that can be supported by traditional Christian believers, they (we) can expect to lose large portions of not only African-American "faithful", but Hispanic as well.

That's the game the Right is playing...divide and conquer. Only George W. Bush & Co.'s incompetence/arrogance is keeping Democrats in play this year.

I'm a liberal midwestern Lutheran, and I totally agree with Mr. Stewart's post above. Not all religious, churchgoing people are "conservative" Republicans. In fact, one could persuasively argue that they aren't particularly "religious," either, unless "religion" is redefined to mean simple tribalism or clannishness.

I'd like to see some correlations re behavior of those who attend religious services regularly. What one believes is not nearly as interesting as how one behaves.

Agree with the folks above. As a totally secular person, I nevertheless recognize that I share values and beliefs with many religious people.

I think Democrats will do best by encouraging like-minded Christians to take visible leadership positions, and building common cause. That MLK guy was a pretty good ally.

I agree with all of the comments above about not ceding religious morality and language to the Right. In a shameless plug for my own site, I have written a satire piece on what it would have been like if some Biblical characters used the same excuses as W.'s administration does. Take a look at http://www.thegoatherder.com/thegoatherder/id9.html

I think the reasons for this change may go beyond simple demographic shifts. Living in the South, I have met several people who have stopped attending church because their congregation - and by extension, their pastor - had become increasingly intolerant and conservative.

Whether by accident or design, their churches became steadily more focused on issues like abortion, gay rights and support for politicians who agreed with conservative principles on these issues. They left because they were uncomfortable in that environment and did not attend a more liberal church because that also wasn't an environment they felt comfortable in.

I've long thought that the undoing of the Republican Party will come from its tying its fate to fundamentalist religion in particular.

The problem with fundamentalism from a political point of view is that, pretty much by definition, it can't change when the social environment changes. In fundamentalist religion, homosexuality is an eternal evil, as is abortion, as is sex out of wedlock. If society takes up a different point of view, well, literally, to hell with society. Insofar as fundamentalists have real sway over the Republican Party, it will be unable to seek a middle ground that will track the moving center of American politics.

Either the fundamentalists will split off from the GOP, or they will marginalize the party. Either way, the Republican Party appears to headed for doom.

I agree with Ray's comments as well. The author and syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. has been preaching this message avidly for years now.

Our family attends religious services about 3 or 4 times a year. Our kids go to religious school. I would not identify myself as "religious".

I feel a strong bond among many people (of both my own and other religions) who self-identify as "religious" who share a world view and social and moral values similar to mine. In fact, I find they often exhibit an ethical and spiritual groundedness and steadfastness that appeals to me. I rarely feel such a bond among people who self-identify as "secularists" or who belong to my own religion whose world view comes across to me as being oblivious to the problems of people not part of their own immediate circle or network, or who don't have much of a longer-term "stewardship" perspective on things.

In other words, for me, it isn't about religion. It's about world view, and commitments and actions flowing from world view, which are obviously affected on the individual level by "secular" and "religious" influences. If this is what some people mean by "secular humanism" then I would strongly disagree that this is a perspective that is hostile to religion.

There was a time when churchgoers were reliable Democratic voters. The mistake was to use churchgoers as a threat to get out the vote among non-churchgoers. It's a mistake the Democrats have made with other groups too.

This phenomenon partly exists because the Republicans are master rhetoricians and they have hijacked the idea of "family values" as if the Democratic Party are a people void of values.

I agree with people here - and Democrats should make a strong effort to take back all Christians, or most of them.

This would be helped by an honest and constant debate about two issues: abortion (why pro-choice isn't pro-abortion and why pro-life covers more than abortions, for example a clean environment) and homsexuality (why the state shouldn't decide this issue, it's up to the churches, local communities and the people and God) - once these two issues are solved few Christians will find anything of worth in the Republican party.
We liberals should just keep hammering on this - USA needs a Christian left, like there is in Europe.

And let's not forget:
GWB's lies, corruption, fearmongering and war on all the poor has nothing (NOTHING) to do with Jesus Christ or Christian values.

I believe John Kerry is striking the appropriate chord here, quoting from the Book of James to ask what good is a man's faith if his deeds are nil. (I don't know the exact quote, I'm Jewish.)

I haven't seen any posts from a conservative viewpoint, so I will throw in my $.02. The Democrats have NO chance at taking back the Christian vote as long as they hold their current stance on abortion. There are other issues that Christians may disagree with the Democrats, but abortion is probably the biggest.

This does not mean all Christians vote for Republicans every time or that they think GWB is the greatest president ever. Many Christian (and conservative) voters feel that Bush has, at times, chosen to score political points rather than hold a conservative position (His recent campaigning for Arlen Specter is a good example.) Because of this, some (many?) Christians may choose to sit this election out.

I think that Democrats who take a pro-life position stand a much better chance of getting elected (at least in the Midwest where I live). So many Christian are one-issue voters that they would overlook disagreements on the other issues.

Just my thoughts. I enjoy reading this blog and the other posts.

As a number of commenters above mentioned, there are plenty of churchgoing Democrats. Two good websites for activist liberal Christians are The Gutless Pacifist and The Villgage Gate. As a Bapticostal registered Republican, they both get my goat and tweak my conscience in equal measure.

I'll disagree with S Robinson above; I'm not sure if the conserverative vote is purely an abortion vote. Abortion seems to be an accurate marker on people's stand on homosexuality, on school vouchers, on extramarital sex and other moral issues. You're not going to see too many pro-lifers in favor of same-sex marriage or handing out condoms in schools.

Ruy-if you're counting on declining church attendence to get you to a Democratic majority, it might be a long wait. It may well continue to decline, but with a more conservative Gen Y getting into their parenting years, it's more likely to spike back up.

The Washington Post recently profiled two ordinary families, one "conservative" and the other "liberal". When they asked the conservative father to talk about liberals one sunday afternoon, he said something like "We pratice christian values. Where do they get their moral guidance?"

Since the Reagan campaign in 1980, I've heard so many "conservatives" over and over again describe "liberals" (I just hate those labels), that is, us, as people who practice relativistic morality with no absolute good or bad, and as haters of christianity. The antipathy of churchgoing christrians to a very large degree derives from their view of "liberals" as people *without* moral values. Which is curious, since progressives, ever since Teddy Roosevelt talked about "malefactors of great wealth", have excoriated the Wall Street wing of the Republican party as acting like their moral compass was souless Social Darwinism, that is, survival of the fittest. During the Reagan administration, this philosophy was even touted as the true and moral guide for a successful capitalist society.

This vision of "liberals" as being *against* moral values is so pervasive and compelling to "conservatives" that they are, I find, likely to accuse you of lying or hypocracy if you take a stand on an issue based on a moral judgement. That's how bad it is.

"So many Christian are one-issue voters that they would overlook disagreements on the other issues."

And if you're right this is a big tragedy. These people would vote for Hitler if he was just "pro-life".. I hope and pray that it isn't so.

Anyway George W Bush is NOT pro-life. He has rolled back environmental protection and helped filling the air and water with polluters (which KILL people), and he has started a war for the profit of his oil buddies and a petty personal revenge issue.
He has cut the social security which leaves thousands of people to die in the cold.

If "pro-life" is a label with any meaning it must include more than simply abortion. Otherwise it's a simply propaganda - to get people to vote against their own economic interests (Bush serves 1% of the population).

By the way my hopes are that terrorism will make religious fundamentalism (and conservatism) less popular. One day people are gonna wake up and realise that their muslim counterpart is Bin laden or the Iraqi priest maffia. The conservatives are worst - in every country of this world. It's the conservative that fights with weapons over their so called beliefs, while liberals try to preach tolerance, equality and compassion (like Jesus). Anyway, that's how I see it.

The Christians are probably tired of being treated like the enemy. See all the other constituencies that get this position from the Democrats: Naderites, gun owners, southerners. These people were once important elements of the Democratic party. How do they get brought back in?

For one, Kerry should stop running attack ads against Nader. Imagine in general how to bring those people back into the Democratic party, and there is your answer on how to get the Christians back. You don't have to do everything they say. But as everybody says here, on key economic issues these people could be with us -- they simply have to know that the Democrats are listening to them.

In my post, "pro-life" meant anti-abortion. It had nothing to do with the environment or war. So in this context, Bush IS pro-life. Notice his stance on stem cell research and partial-birth abortion?

Also, your comments about Hitler were irrevelant and unnecessary); his views on eugenics would have made him pro-abortion anyway. There are many people who vote based on abortion; the numbers are probably equal for pro-life and pro-choice. I seem to recall someone saying they would "do a Monica" on Bill Clinton simply because he protected a woman's right to choose. Is this the type of thing you "hope and pray that it isn't so"?

Finally, I'm not sure where you're going with your comment that Bush serves 1% of the population. Could you elaborate?

SR> First of all, thanks for being honest and open to people with different opinions, I highly appreciate it. It's very seldom these days unfortunately..

I think pro-life has got to include more than abortion issues. Of course this is more of a normative statement than an empirical (what people actuallt believe) - to make sense of the "pro-life" standpoint. Otherwise it's self-contradictory - to be pro-life in certain aspects but not in others without a criteria to rule out these other apects.
Another way to argue would be to deny that a fetus is a human person. I'm not sure what to say about this - it's a very complicated issue.

My comment on Hitler was a bit harsh, I agree. But one issue-voters makes me upset, whether they are pro-life or pro-choice.

I mean that economically the policies of Bush, and Republicans in general, serve the richest 1% in this country. By paying lip service ("compassionate conservatism" anyone?) to justice and fairness, and by pushing wedge issues they can rule - against the economical (perhaps not ideological) interest of the vast vast majority of Americans.

I agree with you that open debate on these blogs is sometimes difficult. I have been on convervative sites where I think people "lurk in waiting" for some unsuspecting liberal to be pounced upon. I realize my views will not jibe with the majority of readers on this site, but I hope we can conduct a civil conversation.

About your latest; thanks for the clarifications. I think you might need to come up with another term because society has pretty much determined that "pro-life" addresses abortion. Example: "pro-life" rarely (if ever) refers to death penalty opponents, although by your definition it would certainly qualify.

I don't know if anything can be done about one-issue voters. If you are truly passionate about something (not just abortion, it can be guns, the environment, job outsourcing, welfare, etc.), you can blindly follow a candidate that shares your views on your pet issue. Since there are no perfect candidates (by that I mean the one that shares your views on EVERY issue), you have to find the one that you either have the most in common with or shares your passion for your most strongly held belief.

While I don't agree with you that Bush serves the richest 1% (again, thanks for the clarification), I confess that I don't get the whole "compassionate conservatism" thing myself. It seems like an excuse to spend more money - which, as you know, we conservatives are not so eager to do! ;-)

It's time to enjoy the weekend. I don't know where you are posting from, but here in Ohio the weather is great!

Many of the interpretations of these data baffle me.

How can somebody who regularly goes to church three or four times a month (but less than "every week") be considered "less observant?" I was raised in the church, read the Bible regularly, pray daily, serve as a church officer, go to church with my wife and kids more often than not, teach Sunday school with some frequency, give 5% of my income to the church. In the standard analysis of this data, I'm considered "less observant" than somebody who just shows up once a week. That's just shallow analysis, illuminating exactly nothing.

The relatively small number of people (about 18%?) who attend services more than once a week and who never attend (about 18%?) have very strong partisan tendencies. The large majority who attend every week (or so) do not have such stong tendencies.

Admittedly, that's not a headline grabber like "Republicans Are Godly. Democrats Are Godless." But at least it's honest.

Something I have not heard anyone say about this:

It's a matter of authoritarianism! People who go to church every week tend to place total faith in institutions and in "things as they are." From my Christian perspective they are idolaters. Try to find anything about church attendance in the four Gospels! Zilch. (It was Paul of course who promoted churches.) Jesus said "Call no man your father upon earth" and even said his followers should not call themselves teachers, "for ye be brethren." Those who attend church every week, however, are putting some organization or pastor ahead of God, in my view.

They are "authoritarian" in that sense, putting human beings in a hierarchy above the freedom of God, and that seems to be a Republican quality. One does not have to think, one just supports those in power.

That is my take on all this. Those who really love Jesus and understand what he taught may attend church less frequently.

an interesting parallell can be drawn to shia- and sunnimuslisms. the conservatives (shia) are making bombs and burning books while the liberals (sunnis) try to uphold peace and tolerance.

An activist friend in school in the 60s, who worked for the poor and powerless was sometimes asked if he was a communist and his great reply was, "No, I'm a Catholic."

That's sort of what I was saying in "It's the Christianity, Stupid" (on my avedon blogspot page). Because going to church isn't what it's all about - it's about what's in your heart and how you live, and you take that with you wherever you go, every day of the week.

I enjoyed the responces to this article and now I want to make a comment. I was raised in the church, and profess to be a born again christian, and a Democrat. However I was taught by those in my past that there is no room or place in the church for any thing political. It is the reason our founders adopted the seperation issue in our constitution.

I would like to share with you the following from Carles VaNHorn:
"There are two key words "choice" and "control". God's design for humankind is for free will, and with freedom of choice. Liberal choices is by God's design. Man's design is to control humankind with man-made laws, the consertive way. A Christian is controlled only by the Word of God. Once liberal churches embrace political agenda for any reason, they are questioning the integerity of God and are questioning their faith that His Word is entirely true. " Isen't this very evident in many organized churches today?

"Forget the political issues in our churches. . . they should be a godly institution, not an excessive tax institution as the result of man made laws. Always be proud to be a LIBERAL. We are by God's design and we live by his word."

I am a Southern liberal Episcopalian and a regular churchgoer, sometimes twice a week. Try as I might, I can't find much in the message of Christ that supports Republican policies. There may be one or possibly two Bible verses that you can construe by squinting hard to be anti-gay or anti-desperate-mothers-with-unwanted-pregnancies. But in every book, every chapter, over and over, there's a thunderous, overwhelming, message of environmental stewardship and social responsiblity to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the children. Comparatively, the Judeo-Christian tradition has little to say about the issues that Republicans have latched onto as representing "religious values." No, Ruy, the answer is NOT for people to increasingly abandon religion in order to hold more socially responsible views. The answer is for liberal people to rediscover the essential messages of Jewish and Christian faith (I can't really speak for other faith traditions, tho I'm sure the same is true. The impulse of humanity towards the Divine is universal, and universally concerned with peace and compassion) and TAKE BACK the message of a moral society from the posers who care more for their tax breaks than for others. Christianity was, in its origins, a radical social movement. Jesus urged his followers to abandon the rigid letter of Jewish law and live in its spirit, to embrace marginalized and foreign people, to shun material wealth as a distraction from the spiritual riches all around us. Above all, to be generous. We follow the only religious figure to have been executed by an oppressive state for his message, which we have forgotten was a politically radical one for his era. One who memorably said that it is easier for a camel to pass thru the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven. Why let Republicans co-opt this magnificent example of what a God-filled life looks like?
The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg is a wonderful book for those who have been duped (partly by the simplistic take in the media) into thinking that you can't be liberal and "really" Christian. Sojourners (www.sojo.net) is a wonderful online and print publication. Lots of good stuff in the archive about voting one's values.
What I'd like to see is an upwelling of relief and joy on the part of oppressed and marginalized people when they realize that tax cuts for the wealthy, war, and poisoned rivers aren't on the WWJD list. It can happen. My church is growing: we need to add more pews. We are passionately "pro-life" in the larger sense that one of the comments above referred to: pro-environment, pro-peace, pro-inclusion and diversity, pro-compassion, pro-justice ... and that is what draws people to us. It would be a mistake for the Democratic party to abandon the field of relgious values to people who only use them as a smokescreen for their real motives of personal greed.
By the way, someone asked about people's actions as opposed to their church attendance. I recently read that Oklahoma has the highest church attendance rate in the nation. Oklahoma also has the highest divorce rate. It's not where you park your butt on Sunday: it's whether the message is transformative or not. In terms of helping people to live a life of compassion and service, I don't think right wing churches are very helpful at all. My housekeeper recently left a Baptist church she helped to found because the new preacher told her that, as a woman, she wasn't fit to teach Sunday School. Some church experiences feature a half-educated, small-minded egomaniac ranting about gay people or some other right-wing hobby horse, or roaring about judgment and damnation. (It's interesting that the idea of Hell is almost entirely absent from the Bible.) On the other hand, church can be meditative, inspiring, humbling, and "religious" in the true meaning of that word, which comes from a Greek word meaning "to bind us back to the original source."
No one will ever convince me that Jesus favors a crushing, oppresive, corrupt right-wing state. I hope more Democrats will start going to church, and talking about it. Liberals tend to be shy about their faith: we can't afford that any more. Someone has to start asking, "No, REALLY: What would Jesus do?"