Who Are the American Religious?

I was looking at polling data for the religious. Just minor curiosity, on this Sunday morning.

Like the rest of the population, the overall US trend is toward progressivism and liberalism (I wonder what the trend is in other countries and across the world). One poll from Beliefnet was done in 2008.

Beliefnet Poll: Evangelicals Still Conservative, But Defy Issue Stereotypes

It’s probably a little out of date, as the results of demographic shifts are quickly changing and becoming more apparent. In the intervening years, progressives have increased among Evangelicals, although many others have left Evangelicalism. More broadly, religious progressives now outnumber religious conservatives.

Anyway, what interested me was the following section from the above link:

“In some ways, the survey reveals evangelicals to be quite conservative: 41-percent said they were Republican compared to 30-percent who were Democrats; 47-percent said they were conservative versus 14-percent who said they were liberal. Almost 80-percent said they attended church weekly or more than weekly and 84% said the Bible is the “inerrant word of God.”

“Generally speaking, however, evangelicals ranked traditionally progressive or Democratic causes as more important than traditionally conservative or Republican ones. Twenty three percent said their views had become less positive about Republicans, twice the number who said they’d soured on Democrats, though half of respondents said they had become less positive about both parties. Almost 60-percent said they favored a more progressive evangelical agenda focused more on protecting the environment, tackling HIV/AIDs, and alleviating poverty and less on abortion and homosexuality.”

That mirrors the same confusion of labeling confusion as found in the general population. This weird phenomenon creates problems in interpretation. It is rare to see the self-identification data clearly compared and contrasted with public opinion data.

Still, this is far from an unknown social reality, as far as it concerns academic researchers.

Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinities
by John T. Jost, Christopher M. Federico, & Jaime L. Napier

“Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”

It interested me to see this same type of thing in the religious polling. But it isn’t surprising. Confusion abounds, especially when it comes to politics on the left.

By the way, the following are links to some of the data on changes in the religious demographic(s), especially among the younger generations. I’ve seen much of this data over the years. There is a shift that has been happening for a long time. It’s nothing new, but it’s good to keep in mind.

Survey | Generations at Odds: The Millennial Generation and the Future of Gay and Lesbian Rights

Young Evangelicals in the 2012 Elections
by Sojourners

Are Millennials Killing Off the Religious Right?
by Amanda Marcotte

More than half of evangelicals oppose cutting government funds for poor, survey shows
by Electa Draper

Survey shows diversity in political opinion among mainline Protestant clergy
by Mary Frances Schjonberg

Evangelicals Are Changing Their Minds on Gay Marriage
And the Bible isn’t getting in their way.
by Jim Hinch

Young U.S. Catholics overwhelmingly accepting of homosexuality
by Michael Lipka

Millennial Christians Are More Socially Progressive Than You Might Expect, Shattering Some Conservative Stereotypes
by Emma Cueto

Why Pope Francis is Polling The World’s Catholics
by Jack Jenkins

If Vatican conservatives are so afraid of gay rights, young Catholics aren’t going to wait around
by Zach Stafford

Young Christians Are Fleeing Evangelicalism—And Here’s Why
by Eleanor J. Bader

Politico: Catholic Republicans Have a Pope Problem
by Courtney Coren

Poll: Americans Prefer Gay President To Evangelical Christian
by Alan

How evangelicals won a war and lost a generation
by CNN


19 thoughts on “Who Are the American Religious?

    • I have been meaning to dig through that data for a while now.

      I wrote blog posts about the previous Beyond Red Vs Blue surveys that Pew has done. It’s the best demographic and public opinion data around for the US population. I’ve come to some counter-intuitive insights by looking at that source.

      Let me do a quick breakdown.

      Of the adult population, Steadfast Conservatives are 12%, Business Conservatives are 10%, and Young Outsiders are 14%. Of registered voters, Steadfast Conservatives are 15%, Business conservatives are 12%, and Younger Outsiders are 15%. Of the very engaged, Steadfast Conservatives are 19%, Business Conservatives are 17%, and Young Outsiders are 11%.

      Here is the total numbers for these three conservative demographics. They are 36% of the adult population, 42% of the registered voters, and 47% of the very engaged. So, even though they are only about a third of the population, they likely have an outsized influence.

      Taken together, they are mostly non-Hispanic white married older males. They are mostly Southerners who are born in the US. And they are mostly highly religious Evangelicals.

      It’s a lot more mixed for the Young Outsiders, though. Demographically and ideologically, they are harder to pin down. Looking at all of the data, it’s obvious the Young Outsiders are a swing vote and a wild card. They disagree on many issues with Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives.

      So, really only the Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives form a clear alliance and voting bloc. Considering only those two demographics, they are 22% of the adult population, 27% of registered voters, and 36% of the very engaged. More importantly, these people really are the old white men that are a shrinking demographic. Most of them are already at retirement age or close to it.

      It’s hard to say how much influence they will have in the immediate future and how long they will be able to maintain that influence.

    • “It’s hard to say how much influence they will have in the immediate future and how long they will be able to maintain that influence.”

      The question is, will it be numbers or money that matters?

      Because if it is money, then the “business conservative” will be more and more influential as time goes on, especially with inequality rising.

      If it’s numbers then there is reason for hope.

    • “The question is, will it be numbers or money that matters?”

      I recently bought my father two books. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids.

      I thought they were a good balance, as they come from two different perspectives, although both are upper class white intellectuals from the Silent Generation and both grew up in small Midwestern towns. Basically, they are the same demographic as my father.

      I figured that these books would communicate some issues in a way that is accessible and of interest to my father. They are both imperfect books, but still they offer perspectives that are worth considering.

      My father has begun with Murray’s book. The author is a libertarian of the paleo-conservative variety. We were discussing it today. It’s seems like my dad has been drawn into it and I think that is a good thing. It’s causing him to see certain issues in a new light. Oddly, it maybe takes someone like Murray to explain class issues to those on the political right.

      One part of Murray’s analysis involves the focus on the elite of the elite among the knowledge/mind-workers of the creative class. These people have everything that social conservatives praise: high IQs and educations from the best universities, high rates of marriage and low rates of divorce, two parent homes and stay-at-home mothers, good family values in general and even high church attendance, plus tons of social capital. They are model citizens.

      The problem with these people is twofold. First, they are utterly disconnected from the rest of society. Second, they are a bunch of flaming liberals. Also, these people are immensely wealthy, powerful, and influential. They have connections and use those connections effectively. They are the shakers and movers of society right now, both in the economy and in government. These people aren’t wasting their lives in academia.

      Also, many of these new ruling elite are also new wealth. They are a relatively younger demographic, many having come out of the tech boom. They will quickly take place of the older generation of ruling elite that got its wealth from the old industries such as oil.

      Even so, don’t mistake these people for namby-pamby liberals. They may have a liberal paternalism about them, but the rest of the population in America might as well be living in a foreign country as far as they’re concerned. The lives of this ruling elite rarely if ever intersects with the lives of everyone else. They have their own communities, schools, churches, and on and on. They even stick to marrying among their own kind.

      This new ruling elite has more wealth than any previous ruling elite in this country. They easily could form a 21st century aristocracy.

      It amuses me, to the extent that this scares the political right shitless. But it doesn’t particularly give me hope. This new ruling elite has the luxury to be liberal because nothing can touch these people. It’s not out of principle or personal concern that they are liberal. It’s more of a lifestyle liberalism, a feel good political worldview. They don’t mind financially supporting the welfare state as long as it means they get to live their gated lifestyle of privilege.

      It does make one wonder.

  1. They should be more scared of what the rich will do economically rather than socially.

    As far as books go for the young, Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America, might be an interesting read for you.

    The other book I might recommend is the Servant Economy by Jeff Faux.

    • “They should be more scared of what the rich will do economically rather than socially.”

      I agree. The new rich are primarily socially liberal. As for economics, they are some combination of detached, indifferent, and self-interested.

      They aren’t fiscal conservatives, but their support of a welfare state is merely perfunctorial. They don’t actually care about solving the problems of poverty, unemployment, inequality, lack of mobility, etc. These people have so much money that they don’t mind throwing it at problems, just as long as they don’t have to personally worry about any of it or experience its reality.

      That said, others question how liberal the ruling elite are.


      “Murray is especially eager to chastise the top 5% because he is convinced that this class “tends to be liberal—right? There’s no getting around it Every way of answering this question produces a yes.”

      “In fact, most ways of answering the question produce the answer “no,” as Andrew Gelman has exhaustively and I think conclusively demonstrated.”

      As Gelman explains, the ruling elite in much of the country is far from liberal:


      “In poor states, rich people are much more likely than poor people to vote for the Republican presidential candidate, but in rich states (such as Connecticut), income has a very low correlation with vote preference.”

      That still leaves open to debate about the demographics within the ruling elite(s). I still suspect the younger new wealth upper class is far more liberal. The Business Conservatives in the South are not liberal, but they are also old. I wonder about the younger wealthy in the South.

      “As far as books go for the young, Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America, might be an interesting read for you.

      “The other book I might recommend is the Servant Economy by Jeff Faux.”

      Thanks for the book recommendations. I’ll check them out. I sent samples of both to my Kindle. The first one particularly would be of interest to me at the moment.

    • Like Coming Apart, Fire in the Ashes is coming from a centrist or even right-wing perspective, but is far more sympathetic to the plight of the poor who have been affected by the worst. It is a book about the implications of education and social class.

      Jeff Faux’s book, I have recommended before. I suspect that you will agree with it. Jeff is an older progressive economist, not unlike Robert Reich. It is a grim reading though, especially parts 2 and 3, but a realistic appraisal of America.

    • It’s the same reason Hussein had support. He maintained social order.

      Many Iraqis lived a decent life under Hussein. Certainly, far more lived a decent life before the US took him out of power by bombing the country to hell and having killed, maimed, and traumatized hundreds of thousands of people.

      The US government’s idea of nation building is truly demented. One could even call it sociopathic.

      It’s not hard to understand why many Iraqis might turn to a group like ISIS. It’s not as if they have many better options at this point.

    • No they do not have any other alternative choices. That is the sad part.

      I think that it also has shown how bad things must be under the US for the Iraqi people to have resorted to such extremes. That is something that the US mainstream media will not be discussing.

    • I basically agree with the article in its emphasis on anti-intellectualism. But I wonder what is the best way to frame, understand, and tackle this problem.

      Thinking of it as anti-intellectualism doesn’t capture the psychological complexity of it. I’ve often written about the phenomenon of knowing and not knowing, along with a variety of cognitive biases such as the smart idiot effect. I’ve been pondering all of this for a long while now. Anti-intellectualism, it seems to me, is an important and yet small piece of the puzzle.

      I’m also not sure what to think of fudamentalism. Is it more of a cause or more of an effect? What does fundamentalism represent? What is it an expression of or an indicator of?

      There is a book that I’m reminded of. It’s The Churching of America by Finke and Stark. The authors point out that the US didn’t begin as a particularly religious country. It wasn’t until the 1800s that rates of religiosity increased. The South in particular was a heathenish place. Fundamentalism was created in the South by New Englanders hoping to reform the South. Before that, Southerners were largely either Anglican or not particularly religious at all.

      So, considering American culture, we have to understand what made it this way, in order to understand how we might turn it in new directions. That is a tougher nut to crack.

    • I think that it is because of human nature.

      Authoritarianism is the issue here. The other book that might be of interest is the book, The True Believer.

    • I agree. The most fundamental issue probably is authoritarianism. I have looked at The True Believer before. I’ve read many books on authoritarianism. It’s one of my favorite topics. I know I’ve written about it in the past, but I guess it’s been a while since it’s been a major focus of my thoughts.

  2. They are going to bring their fundamentalist beliefs sadly enough, to their deathbeds.

    Such people are not going to be convinced on facts and evidence.

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