Whose side will “God” be on in the 2008 presidential election? Recent elections have emphasized the importance of Christian voters to American electoral outcomes. How is this element of private spiritual life likely to influence party politics leading up to 2008?
A new survey from The Barna Group explores the so-called “God gap” between Republicans and Democrats, examining 32 measures of religious commitment, belief and activity. The study shows that while Republicans continue to hold advantage in attracting born again Christian voters, Democrats are not as far behind on measures of Christian commitment as might be assumed.
Republicans were distinct from Democrats on 18 of the 32 measures. However, less than half of those (just eight of the 32 factors) generated a difference of more than 10 percentage points, suggesting that in most areas of faith, the gap between the two parties is not large.
Beliefs and Born Agains
The eight most significant differences were almost exclusively in the domain of beliefs and commitment, rather than the arena of behavior. For instance, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to strongly assert that the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches (57% versus 40%); twice as likely to believe Satan is a real spiritual entity (33% versus 17%); more likely to reject the idea that good works can earn salvation (35% versus 23%); and more commonly describe themselves as absolutely committed to Christianity (61% versus 48%).
Another gap relates to the proportion of born again Christian voters aligned with each party. In Barna studies, a born again Christian is defined based upon a person’s religious beliefs – rather than their use of the “born again” term. Overall, 51% of Republicans have spiritual convictions that qualify them as born again Christians, compared with 38% of Democrats.
However, since Democrats outnumber Republicans among registered voters by a 10-point margin (31% to 41%), the born again vote balances out. This means that, if the 2008 election were held today, among born again voters, 37% would vote as a Democrat, 38% would be entering their ballot as a Republican, with the remaining born voters being unaffiliated.
One crucial subset of the born again audience is evangelical Christians. Republicans attract a disproportionate share of evangelicals (described by Barna as a 9-point evangelical by virtue of their spiritual beliefs on nine separate survey questions). This group of voters – who represent 8% of the adult public – favors allegiance with the GOP over the Democrats by more than a 3-to-1 ratio (59% to 16%).
If the turnout for the 2008 election resembles that of the last two presidential contests, born again voters will cast roughly half of all ballots, despite being just 40% of the adult public. Of those born again voters, roughly one-fourth – or one-eighth of all voters – will be 9-point evangelicals.
Other Faith Perspectives
The study confirmed one spiritual distinctive of Democrats: they are much more likely to attract a wide spectrum of religious perspectives. While one out of 14 Republicans is aligned with a religious belief system other than Christianity, the same is true for one out of every five Democrats. Among the non-Christians within the Democratic Party, two-thirds are atheists and agnostics.
Church attendance was the only area of religious behavior generating a difference between the parties of more than 10 percentage points: 53% of Republicans say they attended church in the last seven days (compared with 41% of Democrats) and only 22% of Republicans qualified as unchurched (as opposed to 34% among Democrats).
Other gaps in faith-related behavior also emerged, though much less significant in scope. For instance, Democrats are slightly less likely to attend Sunday school classes (17% versus 25% among their GOP counterparts) and to participate in church-related small groups (18% versus 25%). Republicans feel greater compulsion to share their faith with others – 34% strongly agreed with the importance of this impulse, compared with 24% of Democrats. However, born again Democrats were equally likely as born again Republicans to have explained their faith in Jesus Christ to someone in the last year.
In terms of the size of the congregation attended, Democrats are less likely to go to churches of 500+ attenders (10% versus 18%). Members of the two parties demonstrated equivalent personal participation in prayer, Bible reading, and volunteering at a church or other charitable organization.
The survey also explored denominational loyalties. One-quarter of the adults associated with each of the parties is Catholic (23% of Republican voters, 27% of Democrats). Non-mainline Protestants make up roughly one-third of both groups (36% and 31%, respectively), while mainline Protestants, surprisingly, are more common among the GOP (21% versus 13%).
Several other religious beliefs generated gaps between the parties. Republicans are more likely to deem their religious faith to be important in their life (77% versus 67%) and they are more likely to believe that God is the all-knowing, perfect creator and ruler of the universe (75% versus 65%).
Yet other areas of belief were indistinguishable between the parties, such as the likelihood of saying their primary purpose in life is to love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength; contending that their life has been “greatly transformed” by their faith; and rejecting the notion that Jesus sinned.
Message and Mobilization
David Kinnaman, the researcher who directed the study, described the continued importance of reaching Christian voters. “Born again Christians should not be underestimated: they represent half of Republican voters, two-fifths of registered Democrats, and one-third of independent voters. As the presidential primaries gear up and both parties try to attract the broadest group of voters, it will be to their benefit not to alienate the diverse Christian segment.”
The President of the California-based firm suggested that the results of the 2006 mid-term elections may portend a shift in the faith vote. “Committed Christian voters are not at all the monolithic right-wing voting bloc portrayed by media. In fact, tens of millions of born again voters align with the ‘blue’ party. Even though Republicans continue to attract born again Christians in greater numbers, they lose some of their advantage because they are a smaller group of voters than Democrats. In addition, recent elections have galvanized Democrats’ attention on the faith vote. Republicans are hardly assured of mustering the substantial margins of born again voters they enjoyed in past elections.
“Keep in mind that many Christian voters are increasingly skeptical of being played for political purposes. Appealing to them must go beyond simply saying the right combination of messages or getting them to show up at the polls, but instead should genuinely connect with their perspectives and principles.”
The data in this report are from a national survey conducted by The Barna Group among random sample of adults, age 18 and older. The survey was conducted in January 2007. In total, 1003 adults were interviewed. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.
“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”
“Evangelicals” and “9-point evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
“Mainline” attenders include Protestants who say they attend one of the following denominations: United Church of Christ, American Baptist, Episcopal, the Presbyterian Church USA, Lutheran, and United Methodist Churches.
“Non-Mainline” Attenders represents any Protestant denominations not covered in the mainline category above. Major groups include Adventist, Assembly of God, Baptist (various types), Church of God, Evangelical, Nazarene, non-denominational churches, Pentecostal, Wesleyan, and so on.
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research on a wide range of issues and products, produces resources pertaining to cultural change, leadership and spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources, both free and at discounted prices, are also available through that website.
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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