Does Social Conservatism Go Hand in Hand with Economic Conservatism (for Evangelicals)?

Featured Image Credit: Sweetness and Light

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

When I was in graduate school, trying to construct a research agenda on religion and American politics, there was one book that was always on my mind. “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” by Thomas Frank had become popular among academics and political observers and led to a documentary film of the same name. Frank returns to his home state of Kansas, one that used to be known for socialist policies and “bleeding Kansas,” had now become one of the most conservative states in the union. So, what happened to Kansas? According to Thomas Frank, evangelicalism took over. The thesis of his argument is simple: with a set of cultural issues including abortion and gay marriage the Republican Party has lured poor, white, devoutly Christian people to cast their ballot for the GOP, even though conservative economic policy makes evangelicals’ economic station in life even worse.

It’s important to note that political scientists have strongly challenged Frank’s assertion. Larry Bartels wrote a response entitled, “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?” which contends that there is zero statistical evidence to support Frank’s claim. Other work by Ryan Claassen argues that the move by Kansas and other states toward the GOP is not about religion but is tied up with race, urbanization, and economic changes in the population. I still am fascinated by this argument and always look for another chance to observe the relationship between social conservatism and economic conservatism.

The Cooperative Congressional Election Study (2016) has an interesting question that boils economic policy down to its essence. “If your state were to have a budget deficit this year it would have to raise taxes on income and sales or cut spending, such as on education, health care, welfare, and road construction. What would you prefer more, raising taxes or cutting spending.” 1 indicates that the deficit should be corrected entirely through tax increases, 100 is closing the deficit by spending cuts alone.

The plot above illustrates how different religious traditions answered that question. Economic conservatism is to the right and economic liberalism is to the left. The graph is also arranged so that the most liberal group is at the bottom and the most conservative is at the top. The first thing that stands out is the huge bump at the 50 mark, which indicates respondents believe a deficit should be corrected with equal amounts cuts and new taxes. However, there are a significant number of atheists who would willingly raise taxes, but there are hardly any Mormons or evangelicals who would do the same. The mean score for evangelicals was 63.2, while Catholics are 61.2 and mainline Protestants are 58.6. It’s obvious that evangelicals are economically conservative, but how does that relate to social issues?

The CCES asks respondents about abortion in six different scenarios and included a question about support for same-sex marriage. The seven questions were combined to create an additive scale of social conservatism with zero being completely liberal and seven indicating the highest level of social conservatism. Using the previous economic issue question as well as the social conservatism scale, the bar graph above displays which portion of the entire sample are social or economic liberals in the left panel. The same analysis is conducted with just white evangelicals in the right panel. I defined liberalism as anyone below the midpoint for either scale. The differences in economic policy positions between the two groups is miniscule, just 6%. However a tremendous gulf exists on social issues: about 35% of white evangelicals are social liberals, while 63.2% are left of center in the entire population. I then combined each of these two measures into a single scatterplot. This plot has social conservatism on the X axis and economic conservatism on the Y axis. In addition a LOESS model was added by the blue line. Obviously the relationship is a positive one: the more economically conservative, the more socially conservative. Or the relationship could be the other way. For every point an individual moves up the social conservatism scale, they become 5.8% more economically conservative. Notice however there is a flattening out of the line once you reach around 5 on the social conservatism scale. That is the point when one does not become economically conservative. Now to consider white, evangelical Protestants.

Among white evangelicals, the pattern is similar. There is clearly a positive relationship between economic and social conservatism. There are a few small differences. For white evangelicals, the y-intercept (meaning the economic conservatism score for those individuals who are a zero on the social conservatism scale) is slightly higher at 45 than the entire sample (40). This indicates that even the most liberal social conservative evangelical is slightly more conservative economically than the general population. In addition, the upward slope among white evangelicals is not as steep as it was for the general population and it does level off at the same point on the x-axis. For every one point of increase in social conservatism there is a 4.6% increase in economic conservatism. That would provide tacit support for the assertion that these two dimensions of governmental policy are not as closely linked for white evangelicals as previously thought.

This analysis is just a superficial glance at what is a very complex issue. The main problem that social scientists wrestle with when considering the link between economic and social policy is called endogeneity. In laymen’s terms, it’s the “which came first: the chicken or the egg?” argument. Do changes in opinion of economic policy drive individuals to reassess their opinions of social issues? Or does the opposite occur? It’s nearly impossible to assess this through the use of a survey instrument. However, in a subsequent post we hope to try and understand this relationship in a more nuanced way. I find it necessary to return to Thomas Frank’s home state for just a moment. In November of 2010, the state elected Sam Brownback as governor on a platform of massive tax cuts. After a few years of those cuts, a significant budget shortfall occurred and a backlash quickly developed. In fact over 100 Republican legislators endorsed Brownback’s Democratic opponent in the 2014 election, which Brownback won by a narrow margin. Despite the governor’s veto in 2017, the Kansas legislature passed a tax increase that returned rates to the 2012 level and helped close the budget deficit. Maybe Kansas isn’t as conservative as Frank believed.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

Full coding syntax for this analysis is available on my Github.


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