Columns Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Does religion moderate politics?

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, speaks during the Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council Action, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, in Washington. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

With the Value Voters Summit under way in Washington this weekend, let’s ponder recent evidence that the hard core of President Trump’s does not consist of America’s most religious people.

That was the message delivered by the Cato Institute’s polling director, Emily Ekins, in a New York Times op-ed this week. According to survey data from the Democracy Fund Study Group, churchgoing Trump voters were significantly more moderate than non-churchgoing Trump voters on a host of issues, ranging from religious tolerance and acceptance of immigrants to the death penalty and international trade.

After the 2016 election, just 49 percent of Trump’s churchgoers regarded him favorably, compared to 63 percent of his secular voters.

This analysis is consistent with Pew’s findings in its new typology of religiosity, which maps Americans onto a seven-item scale from “Sunday Stalwarts” to “Solidly Secular.” The Stalwarts are a good deal more religiously observant than the second most religious group, the “God-and-Country Believers.” They attend worship much more often, they participate in church groups, and they are significantly more likely to say that they rely on religion to make life decisions and that religious faith is the most important source of meaning in their lives.

But curiously, although both groups overwhelming profess a belief in God, only 62 percent of the Stalwarts claim that a belief in God is necessary to be moral, compared to 93 percent of the G-and-C Believers. This suggests that the latter see themselves much more as culture warriors manning the barricades against encroaching secularism—even as almost one in ten say they have no religion. Notably, they are less likely than the Stalwarts to have positive views on immigration and race and gender equality, and to believe in global warming.

When it comes to politics, both the Stalwarts and the God-and-Countries are, at 59 percent, equally Republican. But while the former just barely approve of Trump’s performance, 50 percent to 48 percent, the latter solidly (and alone among all seven groupings) approve of it, 58 percent to 41 percent. By contrast, it’s the least religious who are most liberal on the issues and most anti-Trump, with the moderately religious somewhere in the middle.

The lesson that Cato’s Ekins draws from her findings is that, rather than condemn religion as a force for Trumpism in the world, liberals should acknowledge its liberalizing effect on conservative Americans. One could, on the basis of Pew’s findings, similarly take the view that religion brings liberal Americans towards the center.

The problem, for those concerned about polarization in American politics, is that religiosity is in decline across the entire political spectrum. Indeed, where PRRI found that just seven percent of Mitt Romney’s 2012 vote came from those without religion, according to the Democracy Fund Study Group, they supplied 24 percent of Trump’s support in 2016.

In other words, the non-religious are bifurcating between a large majority who are very much to the left and a significant minority who are very much to the right. And as their numbers increase, the political polarization is only going to increase.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

58 Comments

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  • Thank you, Mark. The study indicates that religion may/does moderate the political views of Trump voters/Conservatives, which seems to mean it brings their views more in line with what liberals believe. Does this or a similar study indicate that religion also moderates the views of Clinton voters/Liberals? Does “moderate” here mean “in the middle” in terms of American public opinion?

    What I’m trying to determine is whether we’ve now abandoned the idea that one can hold opinions at either end of the political spectrum without being considered an extremist, religious ideologue, etc. Wouldn’t it be dangerous for us to assume that those who believe in their positions least are those who best embody American ideals and values? Instead of moderating one’s religious beliefs, shouldn’t we all have the right to believe as we see fit, but to accept what others believe as well? Thanks again – Monica.

  • On the positive side, the word “religion” appears in this article.

    On the not-as-positive side, phrases like “significantly more moderate” appear without explanation or definition.

    Let’s consider a hot button issue: abortion.

    A is dead set against abortion, period. A believes that life is gift from a deity and that only the most extreme situation should ever, if ever, result in an abortion.

    B believes abortion is a basic human right. B believes that any restriction on abortion is an infringement of that basic human right.

    Which, A or B, is “significantly more moderate”?

    Let’s hazard a guess that Mark Silk believes B is significantly more moderate.

    If your religious belief system corresponds to:

    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM

    it is likely you will consider A significantly more moderate.

    If your religious belief system corresponds to:

    https://episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_topic_search.pl?topic=Abortion

    it is likely you will consider B significantly more moderate.

    In short, “moderate” is in the eye of the beholder.

  • And if you have no religious belief system you may well consider that such matters are nothing to with anyone other than the potential parents – and in the event of disagreement solely the responsibility of the potential mother – hopefully supported by a secular, caring society no matter what the decision.

    As in all disputes about what a deity might wish believers must first prove a deity exists; until done no-one can morally claim to know what said deity wants. Since no religious believer can do the first there is no rational basis for the second.

    BlockedByBobx2

  • You said “instead of moderating one’s religious beliefs” shouldn’t we all “accept what others believe as well”. THAT is a moderate position. That is what a middle position is for the Religious liberal or conservative or Atheist. Each has the right to live their lives, according to their beliefs as they see fit as long as they don’t interfere with others rights to live their lives, according to their beliefs!

    The extremist position for all 3 (Religious liberals or conservatives or Atheists is that it is their way, all others must change not them!

  • Since theistic belief is without supporting evidence, it becomes simply a matter of personal preference. Or, rather, dependent on region of birth and the mother’s beliefs.

    History, ancient and recent, is replete with many of the most savage wars and genocides done in the name of one or another god.

  • There are issues which by their nature cannot be gray.

    Slavery in the United States, which helped divide the nation and led to a civil war, is an example.

    You yourself have taken what you’re defining as an “extremist position” from time to time.

    In fact, you’re taking the position now that people who will not compromise are taking an extremist position, which of course is an extremist position by your definition.

  • No. I wrote “Instead of moderating one’s religious beliefs, shouldn’t we all have the right to believe as we see fit, but to accept what others believe as well?” None of us is required to believe less, just to accept more.

  • Mitt Romney was a Mormon. The hyper religious, as evidenced on These Very Pages, co spider them a “cult” and not True Christians (TM).

  • The church is the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day saints.

    That “Jesus Christ” bit probably has something to do with Christian.

    Where they diverge is in the definition of the Trinity which is viewed as a council.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_in_Mormonism

    This internecine difference and its consequences are not relevant to the discussion and have about the same significance to Christianity as which Marxist theory one subscribes to among Marxist-Leninists.

    Christians know that the enemy of their enemies is their friend.

  • As I tried to show, the Pew typology does indeed indicate that religion pushes liberals towards the center—or more precisely, that religiosity correlates with more middle-of-the-road positions across the spectrum. I would never suggest that people don’t have the right to hold extreme beliefs, and with respect to religious beliefs, there’s certainly Christian teaching (Revelation 3:16) that middle-of-the-road faith is bad. But politically, there can be a problem when, as Yeats said, the center cannot hold. Lukewarmness has its virtues.

  • Thank you, Mark. I may have misspoken if I gave the impression I’m concerned with “extreme beliefs.” My concern is that people have as much right to hold and defend their specific beliefs as to moderate them. I think we’re approaching a point where anyone who actually believes what their religion claims is considered an ideologue.

    Except for me, of course. Nec tepida nec frigida sum.

  • He appeared to have laid out the proposition that “‘moderate’ is in the eye of the beholder”.

    Your comment does not appear to address that at all.

    There is no requirement that “believers must first prove a deity exists” to consider this or that a moderate position.

    It might be relevant to whether or not you would agree with the believer’s criterion, but whether you agree or not is irrelevant except insofar as it alters YOUR perception of what is moderate and what is not.

  • For purposes of this discussion, a demonstration that god acts in human affairs is irrelevant.

    The question appears to be whether religion moderates politics, not whether this or that religion is demonstrable.

  • That is exactly correct, sir. Religion can influence one’s political views without reference to the reality of its claims.

  • That Monica is a moderate position.Allowing others to believe what they want is seen by many Evangelical Christians as accepting those beliefs as equal to their own and that they can’t or refuse to do. Accepting more is the moderate position.

  • There are issues that “cannot be gray”? Really? By whose standards? Who is the judge that says this has to be this way and no other way? Name one issue that has no “ifs, ands, or buts”!

  • Okay, I will play along with this.

    What you are writing is that were you around when the South seceded from the Union, and the Abolitionists demanded that the Union engage in war to keep the Union together and free the slaves, you would have taken the position that everyone has the right to live their lives, according to their beliefs as they see fit, as long as they don’t interfere with others’ rights to live their lives.

    So that would be one vote for “Good luck, South!”, correct?

  • I meant “middle-of-the-road positions” in the sense that independent voters as a whole take a position midway between Democrats and Republicans on a wide range of issues, and politicians. As in Republicans are very pro-life, Democrats are very pro-choice, Independents are somewhere in the middle. In a sense, it’s a question of averages.

  • I’ve never seen any data that, on average, independent voters take a position midway between Democrats and Republicans.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independent_voter#Definition

    “The definition of an ‘independent voter’ is controversial and fraught with implications.” to say the least.

    That brings yet another variable into this in addition to Pew’s “typology of religiosity”.

    This enterprise has the hallmarks of the polls prior to the last presidential election.

  • I disagree. All this shows is the when one measures “religiosity” by social participation you find that the people who are more social are more pro-social. They are also of higher status, as half a century of research on religious participation has shown. This “study” uses crappy data and controls for nothing, and then chops categories into groups that likely contain only a handful of individuals (weekly churchgoing Trump Voters….or more than weekly!, as if REPORTING weekly attendance is indicative of religiosity instead of indicative of what occupation you have and when you have to be at work. This is classic “how to lie with statistics.” Joel Best would be proud.

  • Gay marriage. Not one upside to it, inside or outside of the Bible.
    (And you’ve never stated any upside to it yourself, by the way.)
    It doesn’t build up. It only tears down.

  • Re: “In other words, the non-religious are bifurcating between a large majority who are very much to the left and a significant minority who are very much to the right. And as their numbers increase, the political polarization is only going to increase.” 

    So now we’re going to blame political polarization on non-believers!? How, exactly, does that work, when non-believers are a rather notable minority in the country (at best, around 20%)? Even if their numbers increase each year, they will still be vastly outnumbered by religious believers, for decades to come. 

    The assumption that a 20%-or-so minority can be the impetus behind political polarization affecting the entire country, is simply ridiculous.  What’s more … this whole analysis leaves out the fact that there’s plenty of political polarization in the country among just the religious folk. Yes, religious believers themselves are politically polarized! 

    Instead of blaming polarization on non-believers, why not take a deeper look at those “God-and-Country Believers,” who’re effectively militants scrapping for a fight against the relentless onslaught of modernity (which includes increasing secularization, among other things)? You’re taking them off the hook for their own part in deepening the polarization — which is illogical. This survey touched on their nature as “culture warriors manning the barricades against encroaching secularism,” but the ramifications of that are vociferously ignored. 

  • Re: “Gay marriage. Not one upside to it, inside or outside of the Bible.” 

    There’s a very big “upside” to gay marriage: Freedom! It’s kinda important in a country that, supposedly, is founded on “freedom.” 

    There’s no downside, because two gays getting married somewhere quite literally doesn’t affect anyone else. Gay marriage doesn’t rob straight couples of their ability to marry, if they want, so it can’t be said to “harm” hetero marriage. 

  • “He appeared to have laid out the proposition that “‘moderate’ is in the eye of the beholder””

    Well – yes it is – can’t be anything else unless it’s a matter of law or culture can it?

    He then goes on to use differing religious outlooks to illustrate his point.

    I merely extended his thinking to encompass the non-believing community.

    By using two opposing views of what believers in God think to illustrate his point he has given a validity to the concept of God which he cannot demonstrate to be true. If he cannot demonstrate the existence of that which he bases his point upon he invalidates that point. It doesn’t alter anyone’s perception – it merely renders rationally (rather than emotionally) invalid any that rely on “God-given” hints.

  • “Well – yes it is – can’t be anything else unless it’s a matter of law or culture can it?”

    “He then goes on to use differing religious outlooks to illustrate his point.”

    “I merely extended his thinking to encompass the non-believing community.”

    Had you done that I would not have commented.

    By using two opposing views of what believers in God think to illustrate his point, he has made it clear that he read the article which suggested a correlation between degrees of “religiosity” and “moderate” views, whatever they might be.

    You might ask Dr. Silk to write an article on what moderates the views of people who have zero religiosity for you.

  • I do not share your love for polls and surveys.

    This vagueness – “midway between Democrats and Republicans”, “a wide range of issues”, reeks of weasel words.

    Bottom line: “moderate” is in the eye of the beholder.

  • Two gays getting “married” somewhere doesn’t affect anyone else if they live on an island by themselves.

    If they live in a society, that they can get “married” in the first place, and all that goes with it, has an impact on society.

    We do live in a society.

  • If by “freedom” you mean the right to – using right reason – order our affairs and society in ways which fulfill objective human rights and fashion a society which must respect them and cannot violate them, you would have no argument.

    But to call our rights to be whatever we declare them to be and whatever the government at any time and place declares them to be, changing with the fashions of the day or our basest desires “freedom” is the error the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei made.

    And we know where that led.

  • There’s nothing wishy-washy about believing what one believes and accepting that others believe differently. What would be wishy-washy would be to have nothing at all to say, but to spend one’s days trying to highjack other people’s discussions.

  • I grew up in TEXAS among a crowd of Church of Christ (Not the United kind) neighbors and relatives who very proudly espoused the following rule of life : You can go to hell any damn way you want, just so long as you do it in your back yard, not mine!

  • Very loving people, those Texans. I believe that’s a paraphrased version of the Golden Rule, once removed. 🙂

  • There’s nothing wishy-washy about believing what one believes is true and accepting that others are wrong.

    Of course, in matters of taste – beer, wine, how you like your steak done, hairstyle – no harm, no foul.

    On important matters to society – abortion, war, punishment, abuse – some issues require resolution.

    So I will count yours as a second vote for “Good luck, South!”

    As to “highjack other people’s discussions”, these Disqus discussions are open. Once a post is made, anyone can respond, comment, critique, applaud, supplement, or detriment.

    Unless, of course, you happen to hit something along the lines of

    http://www.aggiornamento.net/

    where the “moderation” is immoderate and folks can get banned on whims.

  • Hmm. Originally, somebody claimed that “theistic belief”, all by itself, “is without supporting evidence.”

    Which produced a “Seriously?” response from me, because providing supporting evidence for God’s existence, a la Romans 1:20, is exactly what I do. Endless biological evidences and scientific discoveries. Your own cheap bathroom mirror — you know, the one with the flecks of dried toothpaste on it — is sufficient to rationally prove God exists (and yes, we’ve discussed it in this forum.) Straight outta Rom. 1:20.

    Which has now produced a moving of the goalposts. NOW, “objective evidence” (with the skeptic getting to dictate what’s objective and what’s not) is being asked. But no longer in reference to “theistic beliefs” — apparently somebody knew what dominoes were about to be happily slammed on the table — but instead for a brand new, extended proposition: “Demonstrate a god that acts in human affairs.”

    (Which a Christian could select Jesus, Genesis, Revelation, Christmas, Easter, and everything in between, as a good example to start off. But I honestly lack time. Don’t forget to capitalized the “G” there, by the way).

  • Mr. Thin may need extra help from you, Mr. Give. I already forced him to visibly move his goalposts.

    Theism really DOES own this discussion forum.

  • “Freedom”? Gay Marriage (which is not a real marriage at all, because male-female gender complementarity exclusively defines and powers marriage itself), does NOT generate any additional “freedom” for this nation, its states, or its individuals.

    Our constitutional freedoms were operating long before the year 2004 (when the first state legalized gay marriage). Gay Marriage added nothing to that.

    In fact, Gay Marriage actually distorts and therefore undercuts, the concept of “freedom”. Gay Marriage is actually about “calling our rights to be whatever we declare them to be and whatever the government at any time and place declares them to be, changing with the fashions of the day or our basest desires.” (hat tip — what Bob said.) That’s how you corrode and erode American freedom.

    “Just as it is distorting to press race (racial restrictions) into marriage, it is distorting to subtract (one) gender from marriage.” — Bishop Gilbert Thompson, quoted by Boston Globe

  • Re: “‘Freedom”? Gay Marriage … does NOT generate any additional ‘freedom’ for this nation, its states, or its individuals.” 

    Of course it does! An additional freedom granted, always increases the freedom of society. Much the same is happening in other ways, e.g. in states which now allow recreational marijuana use. 

    Re: “Our constitutional freedoms were operating long before the year 2004 (when the first state legalized gay marriage).” 

    It’s fortunate that we’ve added freedoms since the country’s founding. For instance, back then, only land-owning white men could vote … but we now have universal suffrage. And then there’s that slavery thing, which is now gone. 

    Call me unimpressed with the contention that we must always perpetuate only the “freedoms” established by the Founding Fathers and never add any others, at any time or for any reason. 

    Re: “Gay Marriage added nothing to that.” 

    Of course it did! It’s insane to think otherwise.

    Re: “In fact, Gay Marriage actually distorts and therefore undercuts, the concept of ‘freedom’.” 

    I will concede the arrival of gay marriage has done one thing: It’s eliminated the ability of hyperreligious nutjobs to prevent gays from marrying. Beyond that, though, it hasn’t done anything. And religious belief has never entitled one to control others … so the “freedom” to circumscribe the lives of gays, is a “freedom” that hyperreligious nutjobs never actually had in the first place. 

    That said, though, the advent of gay marriage hasn’t done anything to prevent hetero couples from marrying. Has it? If so, I’d love for you to provide some examples. 

    Re: ““Gay Marriage is actually about ‘calling our rights to be whatever we declare them to be and whatever the government at any time and place declares them to be, changing with the fashions of the day or our basest desires.'” 

    Gee, it sounds to as though you object to the idea that people should have a voice in what freedoms they enjoy. I would point out the Founding Fathers whom I assume you revere — since you’ve said you want us to limit ourselves only to those freedoms they explicitly envisioned — disagree with that notion. After all, the Constitution they wrote begins with, “We the people.” Who, other than “the people,” are to decide on our freedoms? 

    Re: “– Bishop Gilbert Thompson, quoted by Boston Globe” 

    I honestly don’t know what this quote is about, and thus won’t address it. I will only say that I think you’re coming unglued. 

  • Why don’t you list one of those “endless biological evidences” of God’s existence? Keep in mind that neither “I don’t understand this, therefore God” nor “Science hasn’t answered this one yet, therefore God” constitutes evidence.

  • Black people should have figured out by now that denying civil rights to minorities, including marriage, is wrong. Yet for some reason they have not.

  • Civil rights have many upsides. That’s why they’re guaranteed in the Constitution. Black people should know that by now, yet for some reason they do not.

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