Are Women More Supportive of Churches Defying the Government Over COVID-19?

By Hannah Smothers, Ryan P. Burge, and Paul A. Djupe

The pandemic has shaken up almost every sector of society on some level, laying bare some of its foundations. We’re only beginning to grasp what the effect on religion will be, but we already can draw on people’s reactions to state orders to help us understand religion. In just published work at Politics & Gender, which offered a rapid response review process for COVID-19-related work, we explore how the religious response to state action on the coronavirus is gendered.

Using data we gathered from 3,100 people (quota sampled to match Census figures) in late March 2020, when states were just a few weeks into locking down, we can get a taste that men and women had somewhat different responses, but especially when it involves reacting to the state. In both cases (left column), men are more resistant to closure orders (or suggestions in some states). Men are more likely to agree that freedom to worship is more important than public health, and more men argue that their congregation should resist the state and stay open (30 percent compared to 15 percent of women). Why?

In the paper, we argue that the difference in response is linked to gendered worldviews developed, in part, in religious settings. In some places, this is called “complementarianism,” which means that men and women have separate but complementary roles. That is, men and women have separate spheres, with men engaging in more public roles and women holding sway over more private contexts. This division of societal labor can be seen on dramatic display in the figure below.

Among biblical literalists – our proxy for a complementarian worldview – a very wide gender gap opens up among worship attenders. Women literalists max out at 20 percent, while 40 percent of literalist, attending men argue for resistance to the state. Men and women with similar worldviews and connection to the church have markedly different responses to state action that implicate the separate spheres argument. Consistent with this argument, the gender gap decays as a view of the bible supportive of complementarianism fades.

How do we know that this is actually a function of a worldview supportive of separate spheres for men and women? We can’t know for certain, but we can look to other data to provide suggestive evidence that this logic is in play. For instance, we asked whether women should be allowed to preach in worship services (as part of a battery of items about women’s roles in the church). As the figure below shows, men who attend more often are uniformly less supportive of women clergy – biblical literalism has nothing to do with it. However, literalism differentiates women’s views such that literalist women hold the same views as men. Put another way, women are more likely to support keeping women in more private roles when they hold literalist views of the bible.

We can look at how literal views of the bible and worship attendance shape the political participation rates of men and women. One of the long-standing findings of religion and politics work is that more church involvement is linked to more political activity. Once called the “spill-over effect,” more modern takes point to the skills gained, recruitment attempts received, and political information absorbed as the key building blocks of civic action. But there’s a large gender gap that opens up among those with more literal views of the bible that shrinks (but never goes away) as literalist views fade. It may come as no surprise that the same literalist, frequently attending men are also far less trusting than others.

It is important to emphasize that almost all religious organizations complied with the spirit and orders from state governments to close to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. But that does not mean that adherents took the same cooperative view. In fact, a good number remained defiant and more of them were men. Men were defiant in many ways during the pandemic, but some of their responses revolved around the church when they held a suitable worldview and involvement level. It is hard not to see this as an attack on collective action itself, which is at the core of successful coronavirus responses. People have to comply voluntarily with wearing masks, remaining socially distant, not stockpiling every bottle of hand sanitizer, and regularly checking symptoms. At least for state public health policy, count them out.

Hannah Smothers is a graduate student in the political science department at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

Ryan P. Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He is also the co-founder and frequent contributor to Religion in Public, a blog to make empirical work about American religion accessible to the general public.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the book series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of (posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

Feature Image Credit: Los Angeles Times


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