The commonly referenced “God gap” between Republicans and Democrats is disappearing.

Polls released before the 2008 election demonstrated America’s Christian voters are no longer synonymous with the political right: a George Barna survey showed born-again Christians evenly split between John McCain and Barack Obama, and a Public Religion Research study found that even among white Evangelicals, touchstone issues like abortion and same-sex marriage weren’t in their top five voting considerations.

If Christian voters share common morals and values, how is it that their voting patterns and priorities aren’t more unified?

According to a new study, the answer is that Christians don’t share a common worldview, their morals and values sprayed across the spectrum by differing views in a handful of key areas.

The 2009 Religious Activists Surveys – conducted by Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in partnership with Public Religion Research – focused on religious activists working on both “conservative” and “progressive” causes, and found that while the majority of both types called themselves Christian, they are driven apart by disagreements over social responsibility, biblical authority and the role of government.

The statistics reflect that Christians who differ in defining these key areas also differ in political and moral convictions.

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In the past, said E.J. Dionne, one of the speakers chosen to announce the study, “Social and theological differences between denominations and faith traditions mattered a great deal. Those old divisions have largely passed away. Now conservative Catholics, Protestants and Jews tend to ally together against more liberal Catholics, Protestants and Jews.”

In fact, the study showed that among religious activists aligned with conservative causes, 99 percent called themselves Christians; while among those aligned with liberal causes, 71 percent claimed the same.

Dionne explained the flocking of Christian activists to both the left and the right by quoting popular British author C.S. Lewis:

“Lewis, of course, writing as a Christian said the following. He said, ‘Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says; we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party,'” Dionne quoted.

The study’s stats suggest Lewis and Dionne are exactly right.

The study data included a combined 3,000 survey responses from political activists associated both with the religious left – working for organizations like the Interfaith Alliance and Sojourners – and the religious right – from groups like Concerned Women for America and the National Right to Life Committee.

And while the majority of both groups labeled themselves Christian and affirmed that religion is extremely or very important in their lives (96 percent among conservatives, 74 percent among progressives), some demographic differences did emerge:

  • 55 percent of the conservative activists identified themselves as Evangelical Protestants, while only 10 percent of the progressives claimed the same label.
  • Conversely, among the progressives, 44 percent called themselves mainline Protestant, while only 9 percent of conservatives identified themselves as such.
  • Roman Catholics were more evenly split, composing 35 percent of conservative activists and 17 percent of progressives.

How the religious right and left differ

Practically speaking, the differences between the two groups play out in the causes and the priorities considered important to each.

For example, when asked about the most important issues among a set of eight choices, conservative activists pegged as priorities abortion (83 percent) and same-sex marriage (65 percent). Fewer than 10 percent of their progressive counterparts, however, identified those issues as “most important,” choosing instead to focus on poverty (74 percent), health care (67 percent) and the environment (56 percent).

The activists not only differed on their priorities, but also on the positions they took, despite their professed common religious beliefs.

For example, 95 percent of the conservative religious activists responded that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while 80 percent of the progressives answered that abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

Similarly, only 13 percent of conservative activists supported additional environmental protection at the cost of raised prices or lost jobs, while 87 percent of progressive activists would rather suffer the price in exchange for increased environmental protections.

The disparity between the two groups was also reflected on the issues of same-sex marriage (82 percent of conservatives opposed, 59 percent of progressives in favor), government health care, the Iraq war, the use of extreme interrogation techniques and so on.

And despite being divided in their voting patterns (93 percent of progressives voted for Obama in 2008, while 90 percent of conservatives report voting for McCain), the majority of both groups affirmed that faith was “an important factor” in their voting decision.

Why the religious right and left differ

Table from Public Religion Research’s 2009 Religious Activist Surveys

To what cause can these widely different politics and priorities among people of common faith be attributed?

While the study itself didn’t delve into a diagnosis for the differences, it did identify at least three foundational worldview issues that may be contributing factors: biblical authority, the role of government and social responsibility.

For example, the religious activists from both stripes affirmed the importance of faith in their lives and their regular attendance at religious services, but varied significantly on their perspective on Scripture.

Among conservative activists, 48 percent stated they believe the Bible to be the “literal Word of God” and another 36 percent accepted the same label without the word “literal” – a total of 84 percent affirming the Good Book as the Word of God.

Among progressives, however, only 22 percent of respondents combined to call the Bible the “Word of God.” Instead, 36 percent answered that the Bible merely “contains” the Word of God, and 21 percent called the Bible simply “one important source of wisdom.”

The groups also diverged on the role and function of government, particularly in the area of economics.

For example, 86 percent of conservative activists argued the government should provide fewer services and cut its spending; while among progressives, 68 percent believe the government should increase spending to provide more services.

Similarly, while 85 percent of conservatives affirmed that large tax cuts are good for the economy because they encourage investment and job creation, three-quarters of the progressive activists argued the opposite – that large tax cuts are bad for the economy because they lead to deficits and prevent necessary government spending.

“We talk a lot about issues such as gay rights and abortion and those issues are important,” Dionne said, “but I think the unspoken split, the overlooked schism, if you will, is over attitudes toward the role of government in dealing with major social challenges.”

The study also found a chasm of difference between the two groups on how they view the best way to solve our nation’s problems.

To measure how religious activists apply their theology to solving our nation’s struggles, the study’s authors developed theological ethics scales (each group’s slightly different, in accordance with their responses), based on respondents’ degree of agreement with the following statements:

  • The main cause of America’s problems is moral decay.
  • The main cause of America’s problems is poverty and discrimination.
  • Social Justice is at the heart of all authentic religious values.
  • If enough people were brought to Christ, social ills would take care of themselves.

The answers were then tabulated into a seven-point scale to determine whether the religious activists look to society’s individuals as the source and solution of society’s ills, or whether activists consider reforming society’s structures as the key to positive change.

The difference between the groups was significant:

Charts from Public Religion Research’s 2009 Religious Activist Surveys

“Conservative religious activists generally favored an individualist approach to solving social problems, with an emphasis on personal morality,” the study found. “A distinguishing attribute of progressive religious activists is their strong emphasis on structural rather than individual solutions.”

In fact, 95 percent of the conservatives surveyed favored at least somewhat individualistic approaches, while only 13 percent of the progressive activists looked to individuals. Instead, 74 percent of progressive religious activists focused their attention on society’s structures.

The numbers were driven by the religious activists’ responses to the theological statements used to construct the scales:

  • Among conservative religious activists, 92 percent agreed the main cause of America’s problems is moral decay, while only about 1-in-4 progressives agreed and nearly half disagreed.
  • Instead, 47 percent of progressives look to poverty and discrimination as the primary causes of America’s troubles, while only 4 percent of conservatives agree.
  • When presented with the idea, “If enough people were brought to Christ, social ills would take care of themselves,” 67 percent of the conservative activists agreed, and 15 percent disagreed. Among progressives, only 13 percent agreed, while 61 percent disagreed.

The report itself contains dozens of other questions, statistics and graphs, but one of the study’s authors attempted to summarize the study this way:

“What I think all this implies,” said Dr. Robert P. Jones, president of Public Religion Research, upon announcing the results of the study, “is that in the future what we’ll see is perhaps a more balanced set of religious voices in the public square that challenge each other not just on policy points but on the very nature of
faith and what it means for the role of religion in the public square.”

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