New Gallup Poll on Religion in Election Has Problems

I don’t want to get too swept up in general election poll-mania, but I would just point out a few problems in the new Gallup poll out today on religiosity and voter preferences in the general election.

The poll finds that Mitt Romney is performing better among the “very religious,” by a 54-37% margin, while President Obama has a significant edge among the “moderately religious” and “non-religious,” by a 54-40% and 61-30% margin, respectively. The “very religious” made up 41% of the registered voters polled, while the “moderately religious” made up 27% and the “non-religious” 32%. That’s a lot of “non-religious” voters, at nearly a third of the respondents. “Faith outreach” proponents, take note.

The respondents, notably, did not place themselves in these categories. Rather, Gallup did so based on their responses to questions about frequency of church/synagogue/mosque attendance and the importance of religion in one’s life. This only serves to reinforce the notion that church attendance and public professions of devotion are correlated with religiosity, which in turn serves to compel politicians in the hunt for the “faith” vote to do the same. (Although, in fairness to Romney, he’s never made a big display of where he goes to church.)

When probing the preferences of the religious voters, though, the Gallup pollsters made some odd decisions. For example, the pollsters conclude that “Romney does better among Protestants,” as if they are a monolithic group. (I can hear you laughing.) The poll doesn’t distinguish between mainline Protestants and evangelicals, instead lumping them together in the “Protestant” category. Because evangelicals make up such a significant chunk both of the “very religious” and of “Protestants” it would of course be helpful to know more about their presence in this overly broad category. But Gallup doesn’t tell us. Instead, the analysis breaks down Protestants by “very religious,” “moderately religious” and “non-religious,” and guess what? Obama outperforms Romney with the latter two demographics. Gallup concludes that the group it calls “very religious” white Protestants, the majority of whom support Romney, “is the functional equivalent of the group of voters often called evangelicals.” The poor mainline Protestants who say they go to church weekly or more and that religion plays a big role in their lives are made invisible.

The misunderstanding of mainline Protestantism doesn’t stop there. The president, the analysis continues, “is a Protestant Christian, and was a member of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, while Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Despite Protestants’ broad religious connection to Obama, they support Romney over Obama by a five-point margin in the April 19-23 tracking aggregate.” It’s silly for Gallup on the one hand to declare that “very religious” Protestants are the “functional equivalent” of evangelicals (which isn’t true, religiously, politically, or theologically) and then also conclude that Protestants, generally speaking, have a “broad religious connection to Obama.” In fact, it is Obama’s past relationship to Trinity and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that anti-Obama religious voters cite as a reason they are suspicious of his genuine Christian-ness. Even setting aside the deep animosity toward Wright, theologically conservative evangelicals have significant doctrinal differences with mainline Protestantism, particularly the more liberal denominations like the UCC. Politically motivated groups like the Institute on Religion and Democracy have devoted themselves to demonizing them as un-Christian and anti-American, and causing strife within them, particularly over issues such as gay marriage and ordination.

The poll also breaks down the Catholic vote, finding that Catholics, overall, support Obama, with the “very religious” ones tilting toward Romney—but only by a 4 point margin, 50-46%. All that fretting over Obama losing the Catholic vote because of the contraception mandate seem to be overblown.

All told, it seems that Romney does not have a “religion problem” with the self-described frequent-church-attending, religion-important-in-my-life voters, who for numerous election cycles have tended to vote Republican. (All according to plan! Go to church on Pulpit Freedom Sunday and find out!) The “religion problem” belongs to pollsters who can’t figure out a better way of understanding the role of religion in peoples’ lives, and, if at all, in their political decisions.