How Big is the God Gap?

by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

One of the most pervasive terms in the field of religion and American politics is “the God Gap.” There are dozens of pieces written about it in outlets both large and small. In simple terms it’s the gap in vote choice between those who are (strongly) religious and those who do not consider religion to be an important part of their life. Or even more simply – the Republican party is the choice of the religiously devout and the Democrats are preferred by those who hardly darken a church door. We and others have already talked about how overstated this perception is – a majority of Democrats are religious and there is a substantial portion of nones in the GOP.

Oftentimes when people talk about the God Gap that focus is always on the direction of how religion drives a wedge in politics, but what about the reverse? I wanted to focus on how politics impacts what happens in churches, mosques, and synagogues every weekend in the United States. I wanted to know what would happen if all young people went to church like Republicans or if all the older folks behaved like Democrats when it came to religion.

First, let’s take a broad look at how the electorate is divided by partisanship in six different age groups ranging from those in their twenties to those who were 75 and over. The graph below visualizes partisanship in three categories: Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. Those who answered in another way were excluded from the analysis.

There’s clearly a pattern that emerges as one moves from the top of the chart to the bottom. The youngest Americans are more likely to identify as Democrats than Republicans – although it’s worthwhile to note that almost a third of them say that they are Independents. However, that begins to switch as the Republican share of each group starts to get larger. Here’s what I didn’t expect – the only age group where Republicans clearly outnumber Democrats is among the oldest Americans, those 75 years old and older. But, to return back to the point of the post – what would happen to American religion if these bar graphs were entirely blue or entirely red?

To get a sense of just how large the God Gap is, I calculated the percentage of Republicans and Democrats who attended church at least once a week or more for each of the six age groups previously described. To me, this is the simplest and most straightforward way to understand the differences in religious behavior of political partisans. Some of the gaps are huge.

For respondents in their twenties, the total God Gap is nearly twenty-four percentage points. Over four in ten Republican twenty somethings attend church once a week or more, compared to less than one in five Democrats. The numbers don’t actually shift that much as you move across the top row. For Democrats, the share stays between seventeen and eighteen percent, however the Republican bars do get shorter, dropping from 40.9% to 35.8% for those in their forties. The bottom row shows a consistent increase for both Republicans and Democrats at nearly the same rate. The gap for those who are fifty years old and older is about eighteen percentage points. However, it’s crucial to note that the absolute share of both Democrats and Republicans moves up in each successive graph – older people do go to church more often. Note that half of all Republicans and a third of all Democrats who are at least seventy-five years old attend church once a week – easily the highest rate of any age group.

Using both of these pieces of analysis as building blocks, I can now answer the question that I have been wondering about – how many more people would be in the pews every Sunday if we attended like Republicans and how empty would they be if we are all Democrats?

To do that I grabbed some numbers [PDF] from the U.S. Census bureau that indicated how many Americans were in each of the six age groups. Then I just did a simple calculation – if 40.9% of all 20-29 year olds attended church once a week, like Republican twenty somethings currently, how would that translate into actual numbers of people. Then did the same for Democrats – if only 17.2% of young people attended church, how many fewer people would that be? Then I repeated the process for the other five age groups. The results are visualized below along with an estimate of the number of people currently attending based on the overall average attendance for each age group.

Here’s the broad result – if we were all Republicans, churches, synagogues, and mosques would be standing room only affairs. For instance, if forty percent of all 20-29 year olds were in church there would be 17.7 million of them – compared to just 9.9 million who currently attend today. That’s a function of two things – how religiously active young Republicans are, but also how just 26.1% of twenty somethings affiliate with the GOP. This exercise would double their numbers and expand church membership. On the other hand, if all those in their twenties were as active as Democrats that would leave just 7.4 million church goers, a decline of 2.5 million people from the current environment. The total swing in attendance in these two scenarios is over ten million twenty somethings.

That same general trend is apparent for the other age groups, as well, however the results are not quite as dramatic. If we were all Republicans, there would be six million more thirty somethings, 5.3 million more people in their forties, 4.6 million people in their fifties, 4.1 million people between the ages of sixty and seventy-four, and finally just 1.6 million more people seventy five and older attending church weekly.

The current best estimate is that 59.6 million Americans attend a religious service at least once a week. If we were all Republicans that share would climb to nearly 90 million people (89.3). That’s thirty million more Americans. If we all affiliated with the Democrats and behaved like current Democrats, it would be just 44.8 million people or a decline of about fifteen million people. The total population swing in the two scenarios is over forty-five million Americans. It’s nice to put some actual numbers on the size of the Gop Gap.

A couple broad observations. It’s fair to say that Republicans’ religious behavior falls far outside the norm of the average American. The gap between the Democrat estimate and the current totals is much smaller than it is between the current estimate and the Republican projections. The only age group where this is not true is among the oldest Americans. That means that Republicans are particularly unique in their amount of religious activity, while Democrats are much closer to the mainstream. The other data point I wanted to note is how far young Republicans are from the median young person. They are incredibly religiously active and, as we’ve written about before, are as conservative as their grandparents. It’s almost like young Democrats and young Republicans are living in entirely different worlds.

Obviously, this is just a statistical exercise. There’s no way that everyone is going to somehow become Republicans or Democrats any time soon. However, we do know that there are shifts in partisanship among cohorts as they age – that could have a ripple effect on religious institutions. In fact, it could lead millions more to Sunday services or it could make the pews even emptier than they currently are. If one looks at just the youngest adults in the sample, they are overwhelmingly not Republicans, while at the same time are less likely to be attending church regularly. It’s well known that people tend to move toward the Republican party as they age, but will we see that same gradual drift back to church? I’ve shown previously that this return to faith is not happening under younger generations – might what may lie ahead is a very irreligious future.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. The syntax for the post can be found in here.

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