Saturday, March 13, 2010

Faith Doesn't Necessarily Determine Political Affiliation.

From Politics Daily, an article about what people believe and how they vote, by Jeffrey Weiss. Check out a couple of interesting points regarding abortion, self-identification, and a new study published at SSRC.

Here's a clip but I recommend you read the whole thing:

Wouldn't you figure that a rainmaker who believes in his power would want to create rain when it's dry? But what people believe, what they say they believe, and how they act are often only loosely linked. As Chaves points out:
"Among respondents to the General Social Survey, conservative Protestants are no less likely than other Protestants to have been divorced, to have seen an X-rated movie in the last year, or to be sexually active even if they aren't married."
When it comes to religion and politics, he offers an example that is too often forgotten: Blacks and whites in America who espouse similar theological positions tend to take very different political positions. So how does their faith explain their behaviors?

Tiptoe carefully into any such speculation, Chaves says. The ways that people behave don't make nearly as much sense as we'd like to think they do. He says:
"Almost every claim of the form, 'People act in a certain way because they are in a particular religion or because they attend religious services or because they hold this or that religious belief,' commits the religious congruence fallacy."
Careful scholar that he is, Chaves offers a counterbalance:
"I want to be clear about something I am not saying. I am not saying that religious congruence is impossible. I am saying that it is rare, and much conventional practice does not appreciate how rare it is."
And yet, scholars and pundits chew up lots of electrons using the tenets and dogmas of religion to explain how people behave. People who go to church a lot tend to vote GOP. Theology driven? Terrorists in the name of Islam attack a town. The Quran tells them so? Pastors fail to live up to the moral code that they preach. Shocking hypocrisy?

Experts and regular folks seem to expect that people will tend to act consistently with the religion they belong to or claim to believe in. Not so much, Chaves told me this week.

"This is the single most important misunderstanding of religion out there in the popular culture," he said. "Religion is fundamentally situational rather than characterological."

Translation: Where you are and who you're with generally has a lot more to do with how you act than where you pray or what you pray. And correlation is not causation.

So sure, there's a statistical link between church attendance and GOP voting. But what's the cause of that link? Don't assume, Chaves said.

"Always and everywhere, religious congruence is rare rather than common," he said.

There are examples where people act consistently with their religious teachings, Chaves said. But they are generally found in a culture where it's difficult to separate the secular from the sacred. Orthodox Jewish communities, or Amish communities, for instance. But even in those situations, plenty of members act in contradiction to their highly reinforced religious moral codes.

One example in modern political culture that Chaves said could show cause and effect: How moral or religious opposition to abortion seems to drive some voting patterns. The long, hard process of internalization has taken place so that people can draw upon that view even in the voting booth, he said.

By coincidence, another paper in this month's SSSR journal examined a phenomenon of the sort that Chaves is talking about. The paper is titled "Belonging Without Belonging: Utilizing Evangelical Self-Identification to Analyze Political Attitudes and Preferences, " by Andrew Lewis of American University and Dana Huyser de Bernardo of the University of Massachusetts.

The paper looks at polling data where Christians were asked what denomination they belonged to, whether they considered themselves to be evangelical, and where they stood on several points of theology. And then they were asked for their positions on abortion policy, same-sex marriage laws, and party identification.

The quick bottom line: "Religious tradition is a good predictor of political attitudes while self-identification is a good predictor of party identification."

Translation: People who belong to denominations that scholars consider evangelical tend to take conservative political positions more than people who self-identify as evangelical but don't belong to those denominations. But people who self-identify as evangelical but don't belong to evangelical denominations are more likely to be Republicans than people who say they belong to evangelical denominations but don't self-identify as evangelical.

Which is a modestly interesting result. The paper is filled with the sorts of symbols that only a statistician can love. When I asked Chaves about it, he said that the basic analysis and results looked pretty good to him.

But he raised an eyebrow at some of the explanations that the researchers used to explain their results. Here's one paragraph Chaves noted:
"Our models also show the importance of including evangelical self-identification into analyses seeking to explain the impact of religious affiliation on political preferences. In particular, the results show that different types of evangelical belonging influence political outcomes in different ways."
Which is to say that religion and religious identification create political outcomes and preferences. That, Chaves told me, is farther than he'd be willing to go.

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Blogger Jeffrey Weiss said...

Thanks for the link!

Jeffrey Weiss
Politics Daily

March 13, 2010 at 2:52 PM  
Blogger Ann Neumann said...

My pleasure. Thanks for coming by.

March 13, 2010 at 3:08 PM  

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