UF study recasts political ‘God gap’ theory with details of a religious left
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Christians who value communal forms of worship over doctrine have emerged as a politically liberal alternative to the religious right, a new University of Florida study finds.
The research has broad political implications in that it contradicts the so-called “God gap” theory that white religious Christians are conservative and more likely to vote Republican, said UF researcher Kenneth Wald. He and political scientists from two other universities presented the results to the American Political Science Association in September.
“We are able to uncover considerable evidence of a religious left among Christians, and the big news is that it matters electorally,” Wald said. “Having a strong communitarian view of faith is associated with voting for Democratic candidates. Because of favorable political circumstances, we’re in an age where we’re likely to see a flowering of the religious left.”
The religious left is likely to become more visible and influential with Barack Obama as president and the Democrats controlling Congress, Wald said. It was Obama’s experience as a Chicago community organizer that led him to discover the power of religion to change society, and he has taken steps to broaden the focus of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from religious right organizations to include a broader array of religious communities, he said.
“I have no doubt that broadly speaking the religious left feels welcome in Washington in ways they haven’t been since the Clinton administration,” he said.
American commentators, scholars and the public have assumed Republicans are more religious because studies have gauged devotion by such traditional measures as daily prayer, Scripture reading and regular church attendance, Wald said. Such individual acts of piety are important to evangelical Protestants, who tend to vote Republican, he said.
“We sensed there was a style of religious attachment that is less individualistic and more focused on the social and communal aspects of people’s lives,” Wald said. “This orientation is much more based on who one’s friends and family are and how involved one is with the life of the religious community.”
The researchers first proposed broadening the scope of questions about religious practices in the 2006 American National Election Studies Pilot Study survey of 675 people, and the ANES later incorporated them into its regular 2008 presidential election year survey of 2,100. Respondents who scored high on these newly included communal measures of religiosity were much more likely to vote for Democratic candidates for both Congress in 2006 and president in 2008, he said.
These Christians tend to place a high value on sacramental beliefs, social rituals, respecting the authority of church leaders and being active members of a religious community, Wald said. They generally believe that God reaches people through baptisms, the consecration of bread and wine at communion and other forms of collective worship, he said.
Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, such as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, some Lutherans and members of the United Church of Christ, are more likely than evangelical Protestants to fit into this category, he said.
“In Protestant evangelical Christianity you commit to a doctrine, which is an act of individual will,” Wald said. “The idea is that every believer can read the Bible and have a relationship with God without the need for an intermediary.”
When asked whether “avoiding sin” or “helping others” was more important to being a good Christian, evangelical Protestants surveyed were more likely than mainline Protestants or Catholics to answer “avoiding sin,” Wald said. For Roman Catholics, about two-thirds selected “helping others” over “avoiding sin,” he said.
“Unlike evangelicals, the people who relate to the communal aspects don’t stand out on abortion and same-sex marriage,” he said. “What they really tend to care about are economic issues like unemployment and fair wages that have an immediate effect on human suffering.”
Wald did the study with Stephen Mockabee at the University of Cincinnati and David Leege at the University of Notre Dame.
“Our results suggest that religion may be even more important to electoral behavior,” Wald said. “When citizens mobilize on behalf of political causes, they shouldn’t give up on the churches and just assume that ‘more religious’ means ‘more conservative.’”
Georgetown University government professor Clyde Wilcox praised the study, saying the findings help “recast the entire discussion over the ‘God gap’ into one in which different religious world views and styles are mobilized into politics in different ways.”