By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
I must fully admit – I didn’t have the foggiest idea what an Orthodox Christian was until I took a trip to Chicago as an undergraduate where we visited a bunch of religious traditions. The one thing that I can clearly recall is that the Orthodox church we visited was visually stunning with icons over seemingly every surface. I’ve learned a lot more about the tradition in the last several years, due in no small part to the fact that I have met several people who are devout Orthodox. So – this post is for you!
I’m not going to get into the history or beliefs of Orthodox Christians, beyond saying that the tradition began with the Schism of 1054 when millions of Christians who were unhappy with the direction of the Catholic Church (on theological and political grounds) broke away to form their own tradition. While the Orthodox Church boasts 260 million members worldwide, it’s a much smaller portion of the United States. In the 2020 version of the CES, just .6% of all respondents were Orthodox (or about 20 million Americans). That means they are about the same size as Hindus, or Buddhists and just slightly smaller than Muslims who are 1% of the population.
One of my favorite parts about being a social scientist is solving puzzles and the political movement of Orthodox Christians is one of those nagging problems that I’ve been thinking about for a while. So, this post is essentially me documenting the puzzle and how I tried to solve it. I have to admit up front, if you are looking for a big a-ha type moment, there won’t be one. But, here it is anyway.
All images can be clicked on for a larger/hi-res version.
The issue, succinctly stated, is that Orthodox Christians have moved quite significantly toward the Republican party over the last four election cycles. In 2008, when Barack Obama faced off against John McCain, the Orthodox vote was slightly in favor of the Democrat (49%). But, that was the last election where this would be the case. From 2012 onward, the Orthodox vote has trended strongly toward the Republican candidate. Romney got nearly 52% of the vote in 2012, then Trump did much better. He got about 59% of the vote of Orthodox Christians in both 2016 and 2020. So, why is that happening? How can a voting bloc shift thirteen points to the right in just twelve years?
First, I wanted to map out how Orthodox Christians have moved across the partisan and ideological landscape over the last twelve years. The CES asks respondents to place themselves on a scale from “strong Democrat” to “strong Republican,” as well as “very liberal” to “very conservative.” I calculated that for all thirteen waves of the CES and visualized it above. It’s pretty clear that in 2008 the average Orthodox Christian was just left of center on partisanship and slightly to the right of moderate. However, as time passed, Orthodox Christians began to move to the right. By 2020, the average Orthodox Christian is now .8 points further right than they were in 2008 and just slightly more to the consevative side of the ideology spectrum. So, it’s clear that their presidential voting flows out of their shift in partisanship/ideology. But why is that happening?
When I’m confronted with a question of why a group is moving to the left or right of the political spectrum I check three different dimensions: social issues, racial issues, and economic issues. So, that’s what I did in this case. First up, let’s check out abortion opinion over the last few years.
The CES has asked a variety of questions about abortion, so I threw them all in here and then compared Orthodox Christians to white evangelicals to get a sense of just how pro-life Orthodox folks really are. The answer is: not nearly opposed to abortion rights as evangelicals. In basically every scenario, Orthodox Christians stand in the moderate middle when it comes to abortion. About half would permit abortion as a choice. But about the same share think that private companies can choose to not offer coverage for abortion in their health insurance plans for employees. There’s also little evidence that Orthodox Christians are moving to the right on abortion. In fact, there may be some weak evidence that they are becoming more supportive of abortion rights. So, it’s not because Orthodox Christians have become more conservative on abortion. Let’s check out race.
The CES asks several questions about a respondent’s view of racial issues that are part of the racial resentment battery. I have included two of them in this analysis because they have been consistently included in the survey over a longer period of time. On both questions, the analysis is incredibly clear: Orthodox Christians have shifted their views of race/racism and most likely as a result of the last several years of protests.
In 2012, 55% of disagreed that Black people have faced generations of discrimination, making it difficult for them to move out of the lower class. In 2020, that had dropped to 45%. In 2012, nearly three quarters of Orthodox Christians agreed with the statement, “Irish, Italians, and Jews and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.” By 2020, that had dropped to 60%. Thus, there’s little reason to believe that race was the issue that pushed Orthodox Christians to the right.
Okay – one last place to look: economic policy. The CES asks this nice question,
“If your state were to have a budget deficit this year it would have to raise taxes on income and sales or cut spending, such as on education, health care, welfare, and road construction. What would you prefer more, raising taxes or cutting spending? Choose a point along the scale from 100% tax increases (and no spending cuts) to 100% spending cuts (and no tax increases). The point in the middle means that the budget should be balanced with equal amounts of spending cuts and tax increases”
I visualized the responses to this below along with the median indicated by a vertical bar in each ridgeline.
It’s pretty clear that Orthodox Christians like plugging the deficit by cutting the budget, not by raising taxes. While a fair number each year like the 50/50 approach, the majority do fall to the right of center on economic issues. And, what’s even more notable, is that the mean response for each year actually moved ever so slightly to the left between 2008 and 2020. In 2008, it was 68, but by 2020 it had shifted to 62. Thus, there’s no evidence here that Orthodox folks have become more conservative on taxing and spending – just the opposite.
This is where I hit a brick wall. The evidence says that Orthodox Christians are much more likely to vote for Republicans than Democrats now. That wasn’t the case in 2008. But, the evidence also says that on abortion, race, and taxation the average Orthodox Christian is further to the left today than they were twelve years ago. So, how can both these things be true? I don’t know if I have a good answer, but here’s a potential guess. A significant number of Orthodox Christians are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.
If you look at the data, it’s clear that Orthodox communities are largely immigrant communities. About three in ten immigrated to the United States themselves and another quarter are children of immigrants. That’s much different than the general population, where about twenty percent are immigrants or children of immigrants. That means that a closer comparison for Orthodox Christians may be groups like Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims who are largely made up of immigrants.
As I’ve written about here – there’s ample reason to believe that many of these smaller religious traditions are less wed to the Democratic Party today than they were a decade ago. For instance, only 8% of Buddhists voted for McCain in 2008, but then 23% of Buddhists voted for Trump in 2020. Why? Maybe it’s because many leading Republicans have tried to cast the Democratic Party as radical socialists. Many immigrants came to the United States from countries that were economically struggling, with some immigrants blaming that on socialist governments.
That’s all conjecture. Honestly, sometimes the answers to these questions aren’t easily found when looking at the data. That’s what makes it fun to be a social scientist. It’s always satisfying to be able to find a clear explanation as to why something is happening. It’s also worth being transparent about when we just can’t fully understand some social phenomenon. But, maybe it’s just the Rod Dreher effect.