Have People Abandoned Religion to Devote More Time to Politics? Not At All.

by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

Featured Image Credit: Public Orthodoxy

One of the most important (and most contested) concepts in political science is social capital. It has many definitions. Generally speaking, social capital is the bonds that people feel to other people in their neighborhood/church/workplace and the sense of belonging they have to their local community. The idea that someone who never uses the public park but cares that the slides and swings are in working order is an example of an individual having a good deal of social capital. Or when someone who has no children themselves but is actively concerned with the ability of the local school system to educate young people in the community is another practical instance of social capital. Why is it important? Because without a shared sense of identity individuals would be more resistant to pay taxes for things they don’t use, they will be less likely to pull together to help out a family who suffered a house fire or to participate in a community clean up day.

In his famous book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam argued that social capital was in serious decline in the United States. The evidence for this, according to Putnam, is reams of survey data that show that Americans are not engaging in organized social activities anymore. He pointed to things like membership in social organizations like the the Elks and the Rotary Club. He also noted that membership in bowling leagues has declined dramatically, so instead many Americans ‘bowl alone.’ One bright spot for Putnam was the fact that church attendance, while declining somewhat, was still a steady provider of relationships and shared identity for a large portion of the American population.

In a recent piece in the Atlantic, Alex Wagner describes a portion of the electorate who seem to have replaced the influence of church attendance in their life with devotion to the world of politics, more specifically to following Donald Trump. She quotes from Molly Ball’s description of a Trump rally as being “something joyous.” In a twist on the Gospels, Wagner uses the logical gymnastics of sociologist Brad Wilcox to suggest that those who have lost everything, including their religious affiliation, seek perfection and a tribe at Donald Trump rallies. It doesn’t take much of a logical leap to say that Wagner is saying that part of Trump’s base has decided to use their free time not to attend religious events, but instead to become even more political. But is that really true? Are we seeing a situation where people (not just Trump supporters, but anyone) attend church less and engage in politics more? I had to turn to the CCES (2016) to find out.

The survey asks respondents if they have engaged in the following five activities in the last 12 months:

  1. Attend a local political meeting (school board/city council/etc.)
  2. Put up a political sign (lawn sign or bumper sticker)
  3. Work for a candidate or campaign
  4. Donate money to a candidate, campaign, or political organization
  5. Donate blood

Obviously, donating blood is not a political act, but is surely an act that builds social capital. Together, these five activities are linked to a general sense of belonging to the community and wanting to have an impact on the future of the country.

It’s important to note that there is a strong relationship between how much individuals engage in those behaviors and how much education they have, which political science has long described. It does make sense that those with a postgraduate degree are more likely to donate money to a political campaign than those who dropped out of high school because of the difference in disposable income. There are other activities, though, that should not see such a stark disparity because they are not so resource-dependent. For instance, giving blood has no costs besides the time to make the donation. While it is likely true that those with higher levels of education have more free time to engage in such activities, that doesn’t seem sufficient enough to explain the fact that the most educated are nearly twice as likely to give blood than those without a high school diploma.

Realizing that the ability to engage in social or political activities is somewhat related to levels of education/income, we can now turn our attention to the task at hand. Are people replacing their religious activity with political activity? The above graph displays how often those of sixteen different faith traditions engage in each of the five activities. For most groups, donating money to a political cause is the activity that occurs with the greatest frequency. It’s interesting to note that most people are more willing to give a donation (typically a private act) vs. display a yard sign (a very public act). For the vast majority of groups it seems that putting up a sign or donating blood are the second or third most likely actions to engage in, with volunteering for a campaign being the least likely.

To zero in on the hypothesis that church attendance has given way to political activity, the above graph displays the average number of actions engaged, which ranges from zero activities to five total activities. The frequencies again are broken down by 16 religious groups, and further subdivided into self reported frequency of church attendance. Note that for many groups, the difference in means for each level of attendance is not statistically significant. This is evident for the ELCA, Southern Baptists, and non-denominational Christians. One could argue that it is possible that people who have abandoned religion and engage more in politics will change their affiliation on a survey to “no affiliation.” To answer that several groups of religious “nones” were included (atheists, agnostics, and nothing in particular). In no case is therea negative relationship between church attendance and social activities, which would indicate substitution.

To belabor this point, I created scatterplot graphs for each of the sixteen religious groups that contain a blue line demarcating the correlation between church attendance and the amount of social activity. Additionally, the correlation coefficient is displayed at the top of the graph and stars are included when the p value is <.05. Note that for 10 of the 16 groups there is a positive and statistically significant relationship between social activity and church attendance. Said another way: for most of these groups, attending church more is related to engaging in social activities more frequently. For the remaining six groups there is not one with a statistically significant negative relationship between the two variables. To sum up: there is zero statistical evidence that Americans of any religious flavor are replacing their worship attendance with social or political activities. In fact, this analysis provides support for the opposite hypothesis: church attendance is positively related to social engagement.

Obviously, this is an incredibly difficult causal chain to put together. Does church attendance drive social activity? Or does social activity drive church attendance? That’s a hard question to answer. What we can say is that they are both positively related. What we can also say is that there are vast swaths of Americans who are disengaged from society, in general. Here’s a stunning statistic: 18.4% of those surveyed by the CCES did not attend church at all and had not engaged in any of the five political/social activities in the last twelve months. That translates to tens of millions of Americans who are not engaged religiously or politically during the 2016 presidential election year. Of course it is possible that many of them engaged in social activities that were not measured by the survey, but it’s hard to guess at what someone’s social life looks like in the cacophony of social media in the 21st Century. Most of all we have to worry about how these socially disengaged individuals feel about functioning in the rest of society. Do they want to practice a type of “rugged individualism” or do they just feel disillusioned and disconnected from the rest of Americans? What we do know is this: politics doesn’t seem to be taking the place of religion in the social lives of Americans.

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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