Polling religion's role in '04

Three common problems or shortcomings afflict many analyses of the role that religion played in the recent election.

The first problem stems from the lack of familiarity with religious faith and belief that is evident in some analyses. Many Democratic and secular electoral analysts haven’t darkened the door of a church in decades, so they are trying to understand the unfamiliar and not doing a very good job of it. Some have even suggested that Democrats embed participant-observer researchers in churches to try to understand what’s happening there. Good luck!Three common problems or shortcomings afflict many analyses of the role that religion played in the recent election.

The first problem stems from the lack of familiarity with religious faith and belief that is evident in some analyses. Many Democratic and secular electoral analysts haven’t darkened the door of a church in decades, so they are trying to understand the unfamiliar and not doing a very good job of it. Some have even suggested that Democrats embed participant-observer researchers in churches to try to understand what’s happening there. Good luck!

Understanding the role that religion plays in people’s lives is exceedingly complex. Just spend a few minutes with Frank Mead’s standard reference book, The Handbook of Denominations, to ponder the many flavors of faith and belief. You’ll see that things are not as cut-and-dried as some would have you believe. For example, when Democrats sneeringly indict Baptist voters as too conservative, they overlook the fact that a sizable number of Americans belong to the American Baptist denomination, which is generally not as conservative as Southern Baptists.

And you learn that there is much more than one word that divides members of the United Churches of Christ from the Churches of Christ. These two bodies are miles apart in theology and politics, though they would be lumped together by analysts who speak of the role of the white Protestant vote in 2004.

A second problem is that a secular agenda appears to drive some studies of religion’s role in politics. This seemed evident in an analysis offered up this week by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. Though Pew acknowledged that “highly religious voters” were important to the president’s election, its “overlooked” observation is that “Bush made relatively bigger gains among infrequent churchgoers than he did among the religiously observant.”

It’s hard to figure what norms motivated Pew to conjure up this analysis. Pew wasn’t using its own data. Instead, it chose to use the methodologically tainted National Election Pool (NEP) exit-poll data, comparing it with 2000 exit polls.

Perhaps it was simply a contrarian spirit that caused Pew to champion the irreligious Bush voter. But perhaps instead Pew was trying to warn Democrats that catering to Christians overlooks that there are still many unchurched voters for Democrats to harvest. Or was Pew telling Bush and Congress they shouldn’t tailor laws to suit the religious because so many non-churchgoers got them elected?

A third problem noted is the paucity of poll data that measure dimensions of religiosity with any sophistication. Here is where a post-election poll by noted church pollster George Barna is so invaluable. Barna knows religion like no other survey researcher in America. His post-election survey of 1,004 adults parses Americans into various shades of religious gray rather than the black-and-white stereotypes that less informed researchers utilize.

Barna used his survey data to build subcategories of religious voters, such as “born-again Christians,” “evangelicals,” “committed Christians,” “deeply spiritual” and those who have an “active faith,” among others. While the exit polls awkwardly lumped two of these categories into a single direct question, the more informed Barna took a different approach. He used multiple questions to define voters as “born-again Christians.” Barna sees “evangelicals” as a subset of born-again Christians who meet seven other criteria.

Barna estimated that although born-again Americans constitute only 38 percent of the population, they cast 53 percent of the votes and supported George Bush 62 percent to 38 percent. Barna said evangelicals are just 7 percent of the age-eligible electorate but cast 11 percent of the votes, choosing Bush by a 70-point margin.

Barna’s full analysis (available at www.barna.org) concludes that born-again Christians were a significant factor in President Bush’s reelection. His conclusion seems more informed than Pew’s.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.

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