Religiosity and Party Choice

It’s interesting to read Justin Parkinson, Political Reporter at the BBC, on Christianity and the election.

Clive Field has already posted extensively earlier this week here and here on the ComRes/CPanel survey of Christians’ political attitudes, conducted 30 March-12 April. The think-tank Theos also commissioned a poll of religion and politics on 17 and 18 February, which Clive has covered here.

It’s noteworthy that in the European elections of 2009, the Christian Party – established five years earlier – won 250,000 votes, or 1.6 per cent nationally. While this was not a significant result at the national level, it was nevertheless ahead of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party. The party also polled 2.9 per cent in London. Andrew Brown has set out some interesting thoughts on the Christian Party here.

My personal guess, though, is that strong Christians won’t swing the election this time, although this is almost pure intuitivism.

First, it is incredibly difficult to predict what will happen now – whether the Lib Dem surge is going to last, and how that will affect the outcome. As far as I’m aware, psephologists had not expected the leaders’ debates to matter much, beyond a brief bounce. If there is a great deal of switching, particularly from none to Lib Dem (and particularly by the under-25s), and turnout is affected, it’s difficult to predict both shares of votes and how they translate to seats.

Second, my guess is that there are very few Christians who vote as Christians, rather than in line with their political ideology which in turn is more likely to be driven by socio-economic status, as well as perception of the apparent fitness for government of different parties and party leaders.

Third, the ‘Christian vote’ is not an enormous constituency. A quick look at the British Social Attitudes survey for 2008 suggests that about 9% of the population are Christians who attend church weekly or more (and there is other evidence to suggest that people over-report their church attendance – David Voas alluded to this earlir this week in his post on Easter church attendance).

I did a basic analysis of party choice and religiosity for this year’s British Social Attitudes report. This suggested that after controlling for other socio-demographic variables, there was a weak but positive correlation between religiosity (strength of religiousness, rather than just religious identity) and likelihood of supporting Tory or Labour compared to no party (you have to have a base category so in this case it was ‘none’). For the Lib Dems, and other parties (Greens, Nats and others combined), there was no difference comapred with the ‘nones’.

The next question was whether this was causal, or whether the causality might run the other way (from political alignment to religiosity). I’m doing further work at the moment which suggests it is causal.

But even if there were such a relationship at the national level, what does this mean for this election? Expressing a party choice in the 2008 BSA survey was cheap talk, almost two years ago. Furthermore, where are the ‘strong Christians’ living? I can imagine that many older, traditional, staunch Anglicans (for example) live in safe seats, where even if their vote is partly determined by their religiosity, this might have negligible impact.

It’s also difficult to test. We could gather data on congregations at the constituency level, or compile many case studies. One possibility might be the Taking Part survey which provides neighbourhood-level measures of religious practice in the 2007/8 survey (though it doesn’t collect data on party choice). This could be used to calculate constituency-level measures of practice using and incorporated into a constituency-level study.

Ideally we would have a very large survey including measures of religious affiliation and strength of religiosity, with enough detail to look at how these correlate with party choice at the constituency level – or at least the marginal constituencies.

An interesting insight is the following work by Ed Fieldhouse and Dave Cutts on electoral turnout (rather than party choice) by South Asian communities in 2001, which found differences between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.

There is undoubtedly more work out there which looks at religion (particularly religious affiliation rather than religiosity) and voting at ward level – so please send links because I have much to learn here. In some areas parties may sponsor candidates who they think can help deliver part of a community vote. Other cases include the Respect alliance which in some areas has appealed to a Muslim anti-war vote. Ingrid Storm’s PhD research suggests a link between ‘ethnic Christianity’ and attitudes to immigration. If true, this may partly account for the increasing use of ‘Christian Britain’-type language of the BNP.

If you have more to add on Christianity and the forthcoming election – or religiosity and politics writ large – please add your thoughts below.

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One Response to Religiosity and Party Choice

  1. Steffi Doebler says:

    This is very interesting. Also, thanks for the links.

    As far as I have read, the literature that suggests a link between religiosity in general (religious belief as well as religious observance) and political conservatism is large. In this realm there are also contributions that claim a statistically significant, positive relationship between being religious (no matter what denomination) and authoritarianism. In my opinion, the most interesting articles in this field come from psychologists (just one example I recently read but there is a lot more: Bouchard (2009): Authoritarianism, Religiousness, and Conservatism. In: Voland, E, Schiefenhoefel, W. (eds): The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior). In this context, Haidt et al. are also noteworthy. I’m currently studying Haidt’s moral foundations theory. Haidt claims that the human personality is built on 5 underlying moral foundations (harm/care; fairness/justice; authority/respect; ingroup/loyalty, purity/sanctity). He and his colleagues developed these foundations on the basis of extensive quantitative research, carried out lots of psychological studies with questionnaires that were specifically developed for the purpose.

    The interesting thing about Haidt’s theory is that he and his co-authors point out that Liberals and Conservatives have different moral foundations. One provocative claim is that Liberals are somewhat less balanced in their moral foundations than Conservatives because they only emphasize two of them (Fairness/Justice and Harm/Care) whereas Conservatives emphasize all five. It has to be said that the operationalization of Haidt’s moral foundations can (and should) be questioned. I suspect that this concept is biased towards conservatism because of the scaling they use. But it is still interesting. I aim to link my own (similar) concept, inspired by Haidt’s moral foundations, to religious socialization and to further investigate the relationship between religion/ religious socialization and conservative vs. liberal civic values in my thesis. Just in case, someone is interested, here is a link: Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007): When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize. Social Justice Research, 20, 98-116. A number of papers can be obtained directly from their homepage —> )

    But I think it is also important to distinguish between denominations: some denominations are known to be more conservative than others. There is an argument about the extent to which the Catholic Church fosters conservatism and authoritarianism. Some, Uslaner for example, stress that the Catholic Church is more hierarchical than Protestant Churches and thus fosters authoritarianism and intolerance. But one could also argue the same for small, protestant sects (Max Weber’s Calvinists), since they have a much better chance to exert social control over the individual. In large churches like Catholicism, social control is low, the hierarchy is far to high above the congregation’s heads to have significance for the individual. Some authors present empirical evidence for the argument that the Catholic Church and Mainline Protestant denominations are more conductive to social trust, tolerance and a general openness towards others than Evangelical Churches and small sects (Coreno, 2002, Wuthnow, 1999: Traunmueller, 2008). But there are others who found the opposite. Kim, using WVS-data, interestingly found that Muslim affiliation has a positive, statistically significant impact on support for democracy in industrialized countries but not in developing countries. Protestant and Catholic affiliation, on the other hand, according to Kim, don’t have a significant impact on support for democracy in industrialized countries but in developing countries they have (Kim 2008).

    In any case, the empirically interesting question is: do religious congregations and denominations in Britain and other industrialized, highly secularized countries still have an impact on people’s civic values, on conservative versus liberal attitudes and therefore on people’s political preferences, choices and behaviour? (I suspect that through socialization they still do, but decreasingly so). It is, however interesting that you found a correlation here.

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