Editor’s note: We’re delighted to welcome Joshua Wu as he starts a new series using data snapshots of evangelicals to frame conversations about the intersection of faith with our public social and political lives. Stay tuned for more soon.
During this election season, hardly a day goes by without candidates citing Bible verses, touting their religious beliefs, and jostling to be America’s pastor-in-chief. Regardless if public religious fervor reflects a genuine personal faith, it is undeniable that candidates strategically and intentionally test the elasticity and compatibility of biblical doctrine with their political agendas to try and gain the support of evangelical voters.
But who is the “evangelical voter”? Do evangelicals have unique political attitudes and preferences? And are evangelicals homogenous enough to be grouped as a coherent voting bloc?
Using data from the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS), a biennial representative survey of Americans’ attitudes and behaviors, I challenge two myths about evangelicals. First, I show that evangelicals do not have unique political attitudes, but are all but indistinguishable from non-evangelicals when factoring for shared demographic and religious characteristics. Second, I challenge the myth that evangelicals have homogenous political preferences. Instead, I find evangelicals of different social and cultural backgrounds hold varying political attitudes.
A first myth about evangelicals is that they hold unique political attitudes. At first glance, this myth has strong evidential grounds. For example, 73% of evangelicals believe it is important for Americans to also be Christians compared to only 34% of non-evangelicals. Similarly, while 66% of evangelicals oppose gay marriage, 67% of non-evangelicals support gay marriage.
However, these unadjusted differences do not account for baseline demographic and social differences between evangelicals and non-evangelicals. Evangelicals are older, more likely to be women, less white, and more likely to be from the South than non-evangelicals. Comparing attitudes without accounting for demographic differences cannot reveal if political attitudes are attributed to respondents’ born-again experience or simply predicted by social and cultural predispositions.
To do so, I use a propensity score matching algorithm to pair evangelicals with a non-evangelical most similar to them in their social demographic and religious profiles. (For more details about this and all of the analyses below, please refer to my annotated statistical appendix here). The results summarized in the table below reveals evangelicals are indistinguishable from non-evangelicals with similar socioeconomic, cultural, and religious characteristics along some of the political debates salient in this election cycle.
|Table 1: Evangelicals indistinguishable from non-evangelicals with similar backgrounds|
|Unadjusted differences||Adjusted differences|
|Identify as Republican||16%||-2%|
|Important Americans are Christians||39%||3%|
|Oppose illegal immigration||6%||13%|
|Support gay marriage||-33%||-4%|
|Voted in 2012 election||8%||8%|
|Note: All unadjusted differences between evangelicals and non-evangelicals (in bold) are statistically significant (at p<.05 level). By contrast, all adjusted differences are indistinguishable from zero and not statistically significant (at p<.05 level).|
For example, while it appears evangelicals are 16% more likely to identify as Republicans, the adjusted difference is not statistically significant. Similarly, while it seems evangelicals are more likely to believe being a Christian is intrinsic to being an American, the adjusted difference is not statistically significant. This is not to say that evangelicals should be Republicans or more strongly agree that God and country are inseparable. But the evidence does challenge the popular misconception that evangelicals do fall into these categories; instead, on many political issues of the day, evangelicals appear no different than non-evangelicals.
A second myth about evangelicals is that they hold homogenous political preferences. Combined with their sizeable numbers, evangelicals are portrayed as a key political bloc or constituency politicians need on their side. However, that overlooks the significant differences in political attitudes among evangelicals. For example, compared to younger millennial and Generation X evangelicals, older baby boomer evangelicals are more likely to agree Americans must also be Christians (82% versus 66%), support stronger measures to exclude immigrants living in the country illegally (75% versus 57%), are less likely to support gay marriage (24% to 42%), and are more likely to vote given previous voting history (84% to 68%).
Political attitudes also differ between more educated and less educated evangelicals. College educated evangelicals are more likely to identify as a Republican (54% to 43%), less likely to agree Americans must also be Christians (64% to 85%), and more likely to vote given previous voting history (83% to 65%). By contrast, variation in religious beliefs and practices among evangelicals do not consistently predict differences in political attitudes.
These empirical snapshots challenge the myth of evangelical exceptionalism. They show that evangelicals are virtually indistinguishable from non-evangelicals with similar social, cultural, and religious profiles. Moreover, the same generational and socioeconomic divides that shape political preferences of non-evangelicals also produce differences in political attitudes between evangelicals.
There are legitimate reasons and justifications that can and should motivate differences and perhaps even disagreement in how evangelical precepts translate to social and political priorities. But if evangelicals are not distinct from our neighbors, socio-economic peers, or cultural circles, can we really conclude that our faith shapes our social and political worldviews? Or have we, in an effort to avoid controversy or discomfort, allowed our faith to be disconnected if not entirely dismembered from our social and political worldviews?
In his 1947 treatise The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Carl Henry urged evangelicals to work out the social and political implications of their faith and acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Savior. His thoughtful critique and forceful imperative remains relevant today.
If, as the evidence suggests, our social and political worldviews are not that unique from non-evangelicals, how articulate and effective can we be as witnesses that reflect the transformative effects of our personal relationship with Christ in all aspects of our lives? And how can we (re)balance being in the world and not of the world so that our worldviews do not fragment along the same cultural and socio-economic divides as non-evangelicals?
These are no quick or easy responses to these questions. But the challenge and importance of formulating answers should draw us more humbly before our God. It should move us to prayerfully meditate and reflect on how (if) our faith is shaping (or not) our social and political worldviews. And it should motivate a gracious engagement within and across our faith communities to determine how evangelical commitments such as common grace should be articulated in our engagement with the social and political world outside our church walls.
If we have not yet begun, this election season is a good time as any to start.
Joshua Su-Ya Wu is a husband, father, pastor’s kid, and social scientist seeking to faithfully reflect Christ in all aspects of his life. He has a doctorate in Political Science from The Ohio State University, works in analytics and data science, and writes about data analytics at Reasonable Research and the intersection of faith and culture at Stuff I Didn’t Learn in Church. He currently lives in Rochester New York with his wife and two kids, and can be reached on Linkedin or on Facebook