Are Christian Conservatives Different from Secular Conservatives?

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University 

I very much enjoy when other people share my work, especially when they have an audience as large as Rod Dreher’s over at the American Conservative. He picked up on my piece last week that laid out the most recent data that we have on the religiosity of Generation Z. In short, about 45% of them do not identify with a religious tradition. But, where a lot of that growth is coming from is through young people who identify as politically conservative. 

Dreher writes,

“I would like to know what separates conservative Nones from political conservatives who are religious. That is, on what political points they differ. Are the Nones pro-choice, for example? I’m guessing they are probably fine with gay rights, though I don’t know what they think about trans; maybe they’re for it. What, exactly, makes them conservative?”

Well, I can make an attempt at documenting whether  politically conservative Christians look like politically conservative nones using the same data sources that were included in last week’s post. Let’s start very broadly, by assessing just what percentage of Christians (regardless of age) identify as conservatives compared to those who are atheists, agnostics, or nothing in particular. 

You can click on any graph in this post for a hi-res and larger version.

Just a bit less than 50% of Christians (of all races) identify as politically conservative. That’s been basically true dating back to 2008. The share has never dropped below 45% and vacillates very little from year to year. It’s fair to say that 47-48% of Christians are conservatives. The share of nothing in particulars who are conservative is much lower. In 2008, it was just 21% but that slowly crept up to 27% by 2011, but has stuck around 25% in the last few years. 

Political conservatives represent a very small portion of atheists and agnostics . In 2008, just one in ten atheists and agnostics were conservative. By 2014, that had increased to 15% for agnostics, and maybe had jumped a single point for atheists. By 2020, 11% of agnostics were conservative and 9% of atheists. But looked at holistically, it’s important to note that about three quarters of all conservatives identify as Christians, 17% are secular, and the remainder come from smaller religious groups like Jews, Hindus, Muslims, etc. 

Each of these conservative groups reliably vote for the Republican candidate during presidential elections. About 80% of conservative nones vote for the GOP every four years. In 2016, Donald Trump got 78% of this voting bloc – it increased to 84% by 2020. There may be some evidence here of secular conservatives hardening their support for the GOP, as Biden did worse among them in 2020 than any Democrat since 2008. 

Among Christian conservatives, the vote is even more lopsided for the GOP’s nominee. In 2008, 93% of Christian conservatives voted for McCain. That did drop about five points in the 2012 matchup of Romney and Obama. Donald Trump’s first run for the White House led to some serious defection among Christian conservatives – just 82% voted for him. But, he rebounded in a big way, earning over 90% of their votes in 2020. Again, it looks like the 2020 election marked a further cementing of the relationship between conservatives and the Republican party. 

From this evidence, it does look like secular conservatives are a bit less Republican than Christian conservatives – but not by much. So, let’s dig a bit deeper on that, trying to understand if seculars are a different type of conservative than those who are Christians. To do that, I pulled out a fairly random selection of issue questions that appeared on the 2020 Cooperative Election Study. I tried to touch on a variety of topics including: immigration, abortion, the environment, taxation, policing, and guns. 

If there’s any overall impression from looking over these dozen questions, it is that a Christian conservative seems to be a bit further to the right than the average secular conservative. That’s clear on items like withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord and eliminating mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes. On social issues, it’s clear that Christian conservatives are much further to the right. A secular conservative is twice as likely to be pro-choice as a Christian conservative. A Christian conservative is 15 points more likely to support banning transgender individuals from the military. 

But, there are some surprises too. For instance, Christian conservatives are slightly more likely to want to ban assault weapons than seculars (34% to 28%). Secular conservatives are also more apt to want the Department of Defense to stop selling its surplus gear to local police departments. On immigration, the differences are small, though. Nearly two-thirds of both groups want to cut legal immigration by 50% and less than half support a pathway to citizenship for those who came to the United States illegally. 

Rod Dreher focused on an interesting possible explanation for secular conservatives: they are anti-woke. Here’s what he wrote:

“What, exactly, makes them conservative? I would guess — but it’s only that — that it’s anti-wokeness. I was at an event here in Budapest yesterday in which a friend of mine, a secular academic, said, “My conservatism boils down to this: I’m anti-woke.”

 I had to try and get to the bottom of that. Obviously, there’s no single question on a survey that taps wokeness, but there are batteries that focus on views of systemic racism. I pulled out four of those and visualized the responses to each.

The only interpretation of these results is that there are no significant differences in racial views among conservative nones and conservative Christians. On all four questions that I tested, I simply couldn’t find a difference that was more than two or three percentage points. It is notable that a bare majority of conservatives, regardless of religion say that racial problems are rare, isolated situations. 

Thus, a reasonable conclusion is that the most unifying dimension of American political conservatism is views of race and racism. The fact that Christian conservatives are just as likely to say that racial problems are rare, isolated situations as secular conservatives is a fairly obvious tell. If one wants to argue that Christians use their theological outlook to understand the political world (something that secular conservatives don’t do) then how do they both arrive at exactly the same conclusions in nearly the same proportion? In my mind, this is fairly strong evidence that politics is the first lens at which people look at the world – everything else is downstream of that. 

I won’t comment on the merits of partisanship becoming the operative worldview for more Americans beyond stating the obvious – when we use the phrase Christian conservative, we should be putting a lot more emphasis on “conservative” and a bit less on ”Christian”. 

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

One comment

  1. I followed the excerpt of this article from GetReligion to here, and I will state — just once — my ongoing objection to your reporting as I have often expressed on GR. You confuse the unchurched with the irreligious. I am an American NeoPagan, and I know plenty of people who share this minority religion and are “nones.” It’s just bad religious journalism to ignore this.

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