Did Religion Matter in the Election? (Part I)

This past week the Brookings Institute released its study on the role of religion in the recent elections titled “The Old and New Politics of Faith: Religion and the 2010 Election” (read summary or full report). From their data, authors E.J. Dionne and William A. Galston concluded that: 

the evidence of the 2010 election is that it has not—up to now, at least—fundamentally altered the cultural and religious contours of American political life. Religion and issues related to recent cultural conflicts, notably abortion and same-sex marriage, played a very limited role in the Republicans’ electoral victory….To see issues related to religious or cultural issues as central to the 2010 outcome is, we believe, a mistake.

I have tremendous respect both for the Brookings Institute and the authors of the study, Dionne and Galtson. I read the full report with care because, as is often the case, the quantitative study just doesn’t match up with that I see in the field. I am well versed in the strengths and weaknesses of quantitative (survey) and qualitative (field-based) research, and am not suggesting that field-based studies are generalizable. I am, however, suggesting that the two methods should produce results that are complementary or that there should be an explanation when they do not.  

I’ve been engaged in focused field research among conservative Christians and more recently among tea partiers. In just the past two years I’ve attended numerous conferences in different parts of the country, from those sponsored by self-identified Christian Reconstructionist groups to others sponsored by home school organizations where most people haven’t even heard of Christian Reconstructionists (the number of people in attendance has ranged from 300 to 3000).

I see religion everywhere; even in places that are ostensibly secular, just beneath the surface is a God and Country patriotism that is rooted in conservative American Protestantism and which undergirds and informs all manner of political judgments.  

The Brookings “full report,” only 20 pages long, is largely an interpretation without the inclusion of the actual data (let alone most of the questions on which the data is based). There are complicated reasons why polling data captures what it does and misses other things, but the questions matter (there are no “neutral” questions), as does the way they’re asked (the order and whether the choices are there for selection or the respondents come up with their own answers) matters. And most importantly the data is always open to multiple interpretations.  

For example, even in the summary of the findings above, there is a point of confusion. Are we looking at whether the election altered the religious/cultural political landscape or whether religion impacted the election? Those are not the same as they measure influence in two different directions. More importantly though, I have questions about how the study draws lines within the categories it compares.


Indeed, the entire table (image right) on which the central claim—that it is a mistake to see religion as central to the outcome—is based, includes a breakdown of issues that all have religious undertones but that are assumed to be non-religious.  

The Constitution, the religious motives attributed to the founders, the special place of Christianity in America and America’s special role on God’s behalf in the world are all wrapped up together for many conservatives. So when they say “I believe in the Constitution” it might sound like a secular claim but they are intending a very specific reading of the Constitution rooted in a religious worldview that so shapes how they see things that they don’t see it as “religious” but just “true.”

In fact, it’s only a certain kind of (Enlightenment) religion that divides reality into what sociologists call “differentiated” spheres. Religious studies scholar Bruce Lincoln has written about what he sees as the world’s religious divide: minimalist religion versus maximalist religion. The minimalists see most of life as “secular” and can clearly mark off things that are “religious.” But the maximalists see everything as religious. That the authors of this report are minimalist, in this sense, has led to a blind spot with regard to what can count as “religious,” though many of those about whom they write are actually maximalist.

Next week I will delve into the report itself, and show some of the specific points at which I think the category confusion leads to a misreading of the data. And how a broader framing of what counts as “religion” actually resolves what seems to be a paradox in their findings: that religion is very important but that it wasn’t central to the outcome of the election.

Read Part II here.

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