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  • Writer's pictureDavid Beckmann

A Data-Based Picture of Religion and Politics

This week’s webcast features Henry Brady, one of the nation’s foremost political scientists and dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy. His most recent book (with two co-authors) is Unequal and Unrepresented. Based on many years of data, it reports that church attendance encourages political participation, partly by teaching participation skills and partly by encouraging people to get involved in morally-charged political causes.

Brady begins his presentation with commentary on Robert Putnam’s book, American Grace. Putnam is one of the country’s foremost sociologists, and American Grace is one of my favorite books. Based on a different set of surveys, Putnam found that attendance at religious services is correlated with increased contributions to charity and a higher level of civic engagement. He found that specific doctrines don’t change this effect very much, except that people who experience God as a loving presence in their lives are more likely to trust other people and support progressive government action, such as food stamps and foreign aid. I think the link may be that people who believe that God forgives them all the time are more inclined to be forgiving toward other people and worry less that somebody will get more help than they really deserve.

Brady’s data show that members of labor unions are even more charitable and politically active than church-goers and much more likely to participate in demonstrations. Churchgoers prefer elections and negotiation, but Brady points out that protest and conflict are also important in confronting the deep racial and economic divides in our country.

The main finding of Unequal and Unrepresented is that the political participation of low-income and less educated Americans has always been relatively limited. Their interests have thus always been under-represented. But Unequal and Unrepresented was published in 2018, and the authors noted that the surprising strength of both the Sanders and Trump campaigns in 2016 might finally signal a change in this grim reality. The unprecedented voter turn-out in 2020 provides more evidence that lower-income people may be getting more involved, and this just might turn out to be a transformational change in the politics of poverty.

Putnam and Brady both found that church-goers are less inclined than other Americans to live and let live, and since the 1970s church-goers have become increasingly Republican. The shift of the South (a churchgoing region) toward the Republican Party after Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats passed civil-rights legislation started this trend in the 1970s. It accelerated when the two parties took opposite sides of the abortion and same-sex marriage issues in the 1980s.

Partly because of the deep decline in union membership, attention to economic issues (such as funding for social programs) is now more often crowded out by concern about issues like abortion and gay rights (which are more important to many religious voters).

The number of Americans who don’t identify with any religious body or tradition has been steadily and rapidly increasing since the 1970s. One third of people under 30 now say they have no religious affiliation. Religiously unaffiliated people are often turned off by the intolerance, extremism, and anti-science attitudes they see in much organized religion. But they usually believe in God, maintain active spiritual lives, and are politically progressive.

As I reflect on all this data, here are some lessons for those of us who are both religious and progressive:

> Respect the spirituality of religiously unaffiliated people. Listen.

> Maintain high standards of morality without being judgmental of others.

> Be clear that intolerance of sexual diversity is wrong and that pro-life ethics should include more than concern about unborn children.

> Advocacy campaigns on poverty issues should include low-income people.

> Some situations call for conflict.

> Regular attendance at religious services is good for us.

> The gospel of God’s love is the best thing we’ve got going.

My favorite bits of Brady’s presentation are his brief comments at the beginning and end of his presentation about the development of his own philosophy and religious life.


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