Are Politically Conservative Atheists Different from Politically Conservative Evangelicals?


by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

I was doing some work with racial resentment scores the other day and someone on Twitter asked an interesting question: are politically conservative nones different than politically conservative evangelicals? That’s an angle I had never really dug into before and that resulted in this tweet:


It deserves an entire post because it points to one of the most important questions that I am trying to get to the heart of: how much does political ideology matter compared to religiosity? In other words – are all political conservatives created equally or does being a conservative atheist mean something substantively different from being a conservative evangelical?

Let’s start by making one point clear: there are a lot more conservative white evangelicals than there are conservative atheists. Nearly 7 in 10 white evangelicals call themselves conservatives. That’s nearly 10% of all adults in the United States – it’s a huge voting bloc. It’s about half of white Catholics, but they only represent about 5% of the total population.

Atheists and agnostics are a different story. Just 14.9% of all agnostics say that they are conservatives – that’s .5% of the population. Conservative atheists are even rarer – just 8% of all white atheists identify as “conservative” or “very conservative.” That’s one third of one percent of all adults. There are more Hindus in America than white atheist conservatives.

But, do conservative atheists have different views on important policy issues compared to conservative evangelicals or Catholics? I wanted to look at two key areas of policy where a divergence might appear: abortion and immigration.

For abortion the question is simply, do you support or oppose this statement: “Always allow a woman to obtain an abortion as a matter of choice.”

Obviously, support among liberals for abortion is robust – and nearly unanimous for many groups – especially the religiously unaffiliated. There is some variation in support on the liberal side of the spectrum. While 95% of liberal atheists favor abortion on demand, it’s 78.7% of Catholics.

On the conservative side, support for abortion plummets among Christians. Just a third of conservative Catholics support a woman’s right to choose – it’s just one in five very conservative white Catholics. But, conservative nones are much more supportive. Half of conservative agnostics and 60% of conservative atheists support choice. Even among very conservative atheists support for abortion is majoritarian (54.8%). It’s much lower among very conservative agnostics, though (27.2%).

What about immigration policy – specifically ending the visa lottery and chain migration? Among liberals, the group that is the most supportive of ending these immigration policies is white evangelicals – and that carries through political moderates, as well. White evangelicals are less supportive of open immigration policies at basically all points on the ideological spectrum.

Moving to the conservative side, there is a significant jump in support for eliminating the visa lottery and chain migration among all religious groups. In fact, white conservative agnostics hold the same view on these issues as Christians do, with around three quarters in favor of more restrictive immigration. Conservative atheists are somewhat less supportive than agnostics, but not by much – about two thirds of them support policies that would limit immigration to the United States.

But, these policy differences only matter insofar as they show up at the ballot box. Do conservative nones vote the same way as conservative evangelicals? To test that I estimated a simple (logistic) regression model where the dependent variable is a vote for Trump in 2016. I controlled for basic demographic factors (gender, education, income, church attendance, and age).

The left side of the graph shows very little difference in the vote choice among those identifying as very liberal – although the model does indicate that very liberal white evangelicals were slightly more likely to vote for Trump than white atheists or agnostics.

Among moderate evangelicals, half voted for Trump. It was about 40% of white Catholics. Atheist and agnostic moderates had much lower support, with just a quarter casting a ballot for the GOP candidate in 2016.

But when we move to the conservative side of the graph, that gap narrows significantly. In fact, among very conservative evangelicals, Catholics, atheists, and agnostics, the model predicts that Trump’s vote share was nearly the same (~90-95%).

I don’t want to make too much about a group that is such a small portion of the population, but conservative atheists and agnostics are a fascinating subset of the population. Remember that these groups together make up about 11.5% of the population in 2018, which is up from 6% in 2008. That kind of growth will lead to more politically diverse coalitions very soon.

There is some emerging research that religious affiliation lies downstream from political ideology. For instance, Michele Margolis found that individuals who affiliated with the Republican party increased their church attendance/prayer at higher rates after Barack Obama won reelection. This increase in religious behavior was not found among Democrats. One has to wonder how this plays out among those whose political ideology is at odds with their religious affiliation. Does a win by Biden drive a politically conservative atheist to shift either their religious behavior or their political beliefs? It would be a fascinating line of inquiry for future scholarship.

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

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