By Paul A. Djupe, Jacob R. Neiheisel, and Anand E. Sokhey
Another version of this post just appeared at The Monkey Cage blog.
Image credit: Political Theology Today.
The 2016 presidential contest highlighted just how deeply divided the United States is over politics as well as religion. The vast majority of white evangelicals (81%) voted for Trump and a strong majority of religious “nones”—the 20-25% of the population who do not identify with any religious tradition—voted for Clinton (68%). And the divide does not stop at the vote, of course. For example, from May 2016 to February 2017, every religious group has become less supportive of temporarily banning Muslims from entering the country except for white evangelical Protestants; the gap between evangelicals and nones on this issue grew from 28 to 41 percentage points.
How did we get here? As the story is most often written, the close connections between the Christian Right and the Republican Party that became prominent with the Republican Revolution of 1994 pushed political liberals to conclude that religion simply wasn’t for them. From this perspective, American religion has been polarizing, as those who decline to identify with any faith tradition increasingly hold liberal political views and religious identifiers remain conservative.
On its face, this tale makes a great deal of sense, and it isn’t hard to find existence proofs – people who no longer identify as religious and who decry a noxious, ultra-conservative form of political religion. According to one variant of this process, it is in particular the anti-gay advocacy of the Christian Right that has driven out Millenials, at least a third of whom identified as a religious “none” (in 2014) – a figure three times that of their elders.
In new research forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science , we challenge some aspects of this broad narrative. To us, it makes little sense that political liberals would leave religiously liberal churches – where a large portion of “nones” come from – because of a conservative political movement. This would be like breaking up with your boyfriend because Casey Affleck is behaving badly. Instead, like relationships, people leave houses of worship when they disagree with other members. Liberals leave churches that are too conservative and conservatives leave churches that are too liberal. This is important because it allows us to recognize this process as plural and local – it is not something owned by the left or right, but is a regular and expected social process in organizations.
Put another way, the Christian Right did not cause people across the religious and political spectrum to leave their churches. Instead, their politics was inspiration to leave for evangelicals who disagreed with the Christian Right. We find evidence for this among Republicans in Ohio in 2006, when the GOP candidate for governor was closely identified with the Christian Right. We find evidence for this in national samples, too, where evangelicals who disagreed with the Christian Right were more likely to leave their churches. More generally, the rise of political engagement in houses of worship gave members another important dimension on which to evaluate their fit within the congregation.
We were back in the field in 2016 around the presidential election  and gathered data to replicate many of the notions explored in our paper. Of those who indicated attending a house of worship in September, 14 percent reported leaving by the post-election period – a number right in line with several of our previous estimates from surveys in the 2000s. ‘Leavers’ were distributed across the religious population, including 10 percent of evangelicals, 18 percent of mainline Protestants, and 11 percent of Catholics. This represents an enormous amount of churn in the religious economy.
We gauge whether politics is influential in the decision to leave by assessing how people react to politics in their house of worship when they do not desire it to be there. We asked if their clergy addressed any of eight political topics ; we also asked if seeing evidence of politics reminded them of how divisive politics has become. The figure below shows that those who believe politics is divisive were more likely to leave political churches (black bars). In non-political churches, leaving hovers around the sample mean as it depends on a host of other considerations.
While for some the presence of politics in any form may be divisive, for others specific political disagreements are likely to be more important. In the past, the Christian Right was a visible reference point for political religion that was salient in evangelical churches; 2016 was different. The Christian Right seemed to take a back seat to the genre-bending politics of Donald Trump. As arguably the most divisive candidate in at least recent – and perhaps all of – American history, one might expect that conflicting sentiment about Trump would drive some out of their churches. This might be especially true among evangelical Protestants, who were experiencing a great deal of cultural threat that helped to spawn the #NeverTrump movement composed of a select group of evangelical elites.
To find out, we asked evangelicals to tell us their own level of support for Trump and to estimate their clergyperson’s support of Trump. He was not well-loved, with an average feeling thermometer rating of 48 (though their rating of Hillary was only 25); similarly, the average perceived support level of evangelical clergy for Trump was 50 (on a 100 point scale). The two measures are strongly, but not perfectly, correlated. We looked for the patterns of who was most likely to leave their church using a regression model. In the figure below, we find that those who perceived disagreement with their congregation over Trump (in September) were the most likely to report leaving their house of worship by November. Those who felt very warmly toward Trump and perceived very little support for Trump from their clergy (red line on the left) were more likely to leave as were those who felt cool toward Trump and perceived considerable support from Trump from their clergy (blue line on the right). The estimates diverge quickly from their convergence in the middle, which suggests that feelings about Trump were quite salient in evangelical congregations. This finding might help us explain why evangelical clergy appear to have had little to say about Trump in their churches this fall – they were sensitive to these possibilities.
There are arguments on either side about whether this trend, which is not unique to 2016 or Donald Trump, is troubling. People are leaving congregations because of politics, which may be a troubling trend for anyone who is concerned with the role that organized religion plays in civil society. Religious institutions have long been found to promote a number of democratic goods and can serve as practice grounds in which individuals can develop civic skills that can then be turned toward the political arena. Somewhat fewer have access to those training grounds as a result of disagreements in houses of worship. On the other hand, this trend results from congregations being more engaged with politics, helping to connect people’s values with political options. While church engagement may promote partisan polarization, it is also linked to a more engaged citizenry. And the members most affected by political disagreements tend to be marginal, infrequent attenders. In this way, leaving over political disagreements is natural and expected, and churches do better at surviving partisan diversity in their ranks than do typical relationships.
Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog. Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.
Jacob R. Neiheisel, an assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, studies religion and politics, election administration, and political communication. Additional information about his research can be found on his website.
Anand Edward Sokhey, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is the associate director of the American Politics Research Lab and the incoming director of the LeRoy Keller Center for the study of the First Amendment. Further information about his work can be found on his website.
1. The article citation is: Djupe, Paul A., Jacob R. Neiheisel, and Anand E. Sokhey. Forthcoming. “The Role of Politics in Leaving Religion – The Importance of Congregational Context.” American Journal of Political Science. < DOI:10.1111/ajps.12308>. A pre-publication copy is available here.
3. The possible topics included: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Immigration in America, Abortion, The importance of voting/participating in the election, Religious freedom, Poverty, Same-sex marriage / gay rights.