Women may give Obama less support

George Barna, the pre-eminent pollster in America when the topic is religion, is in the midst of releasing a landmark set of reports detailing trends in his surveys over the past 20 years. The most recent installment of the data focuses on the decline in religious participation by women. The commentary on these trends should raise alarm bells in Democratic Party circles, especially for those responsible for President Obama’s reelection, because the left depends on women as much as the church does. A catchy conclusion about the church — that “the women are tired and the men are bored” — might be prescient when it comes to the 2012 election.

An interesting social puzzle of the past few decades is that women are the foundation of both the church and the Democratic Party, the latter supposedly being the more secular of the two major parties. Consider that women make up about 52 percent of the electorate and that they are much more likely than men to vote for the Democratic Party. The 2008 exit polls estimated that 55 percent of women voted for Obama. In all House elections, the same exit polls found that 48 percent of women voted for the Democratic candidate. That’s seven points higher than the 41 percent of the vote that men gave House Democrats. As for the church, it has also been populated more by women. Even today, 44 percent of women attend church services during a typical week. By way of comparison, Barna’s latest data find that only 36 percent of men attend services weekly. 

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These trends in religious participation are the real story for Barna. His analysis notes that, “of the 14 religious factors studied, women have experienced statistically significant changes related to 10 of them … eight [representing] negative movement — that is, either less engagement in common religious behaviors or a shift in belief away from biblical teachings.” In addition to church attendance declining, Bible reading “has plummeted,” Sunday School involvement is “less common,” and women’s volunteer activity at churches is “sliding.” 

The explanations regarding these trends — suggested by Barna and others in Internet forums — reveal the relevance to the Democrats and Obama. One simple yet powerful justification is simply that women are too physically tired to maintain their church activities. Many more are working harder these days to slog through this recession and are simply too weary to handle all their other family responsibilities as well as a full slate of religious and church activities. I don’t know whether this is true or simply a cop-out that justifies backsliding behaviors. It surely explains some of the decline.

A more insidious explanation is being advanced by a few observers. They suggest, sociologically, that women’s greater involvement in church has been because the female gender is more relational, more apt to congregate with others in social institutions that enjoy widespread approval among their peer groups. This line of reasoning goes on to ask what would happen if Christianity’s halo is tarnished. An Internet poster asks, “What happens when the church is cast as a villain and orthodox beliefs are blamed as the source for villainous behaviors?” The asker suggests that women will pull away from church activities when this occurs.

If these suppositions regarding women in the church are true, the Democrats and Obama are in trouble. The volunteer engine that powered Obama’s grassroots efforts might sputter and stumble. Women will be too tired to swoon at rallies, much less to run the copy machine and trudge through the neighborhoods at night after work. Moreover, the ever-lower public approval ratings for Obama emanating from the polls will not make participation in the campaign a desirable relational activity. Better to do volunteer work at the school or women’s shelter.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.