Time to Rethink the Religious Right Stereotype

Posted: Nov 28, 2005 12:05 AM

A recent report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research provides penetrating insight into the role of religion in America. Outside coverage from ABC News, however, the report hasn’t received the attention it deserves. In the report, Massachusetts Institute of Technology  economist Jonathan Gruber identifies a correlation between the frequency with which a person attends church and that person’s income.

According to Gruber, a household that attends church with twice the level of frequency as another household has 9.1 percent more income. Gruber’s paper highlights some other interesting findings, according to ABC News:

“That extra participation in religious activity correlates with 16 percent less welfare participation than the usual rate, 4 percent lower odds of being divorced and 4.4 percent increased chances of being married.”

Gruber does not claim to have established causation through his study. He only notes the correlation.

ABC News pointed out some additional findings by other researchers not included in Gruber’s study, and when combined with Gruber’s findings, they begin to paint a new image of the average American churchgoer:

“…religious participation correlates with better health and lower levels of deviant or criminal behavior. Further, attending religious services weekly, rather than not at all, has the same effect in individuals’ self-reported happiness as moving from the bottom quarter of the income distribution (that is, people who are poor or near poor) to the top quarter (the well-to-do.)”

Both ABC News and Jonathan Gruber posited some “whys,” though they were careful, again, not to endorse any specific explanation:

“Another factor could be more attendance at religious schools of the children of highly religious families. That could provide better schooling or contacts for adult life.

“Or, Gruber continues, it could be that those ‘with more faith may be less stressed out about daily problems that impede success in the labor market and the marriage market, and are therefore more successful.’”

So let us sum up. Americans who attend church with greater frequency than their neighbors tend to be richer, healthier, and happier, less prone to commit acts of crime, and more likely to get and stay married; possible explanations include educational background and the influence of religion in withstanding worldly pressures.

Now, at the risk of mixing religion and politics – a no-no in our ongoing public dialogue unless you are condemning the Religious Right – allow me to mention another, more established correlation: the frequency with which you attend church is determinative of the likeliness you will vote Republican on Election Day. 

According to exit polling data on the 2004 election, Americans who attended church “more than once a week” voted to reelect President George W. Bush by a margin of 64% to 35% over Sen. John Kerry.  Those who attended church weekly voted for Bush over Kerry by a margin of 58%-41%. The tiniest of a majority of those who attend church monthly voted for Bush over Kerry 50% to 49%. But those who attend church “only a few times a year” or “never” favored John Kerry with majorities of 54% and 62%, respectively. 

Attending church regularly is a greater predictor of your voting Republican than having served in the military or earning over $100,000 a year. To put it another way, white evangelical Christians (the church-goingist of churchgoers) voted in greater strength for George W. Bush in 2004 than homosexuals did for John Kerry (and there are more evangelicals than gays.)

So what do these two sets of data mean? If anything, they ought to cause Hollywood and the mainstream media to redefine their central casting stereotype of religious conservatives. For too long the working definition of a Christian conservative has been, in Michael Weisskopf’s notorious words in the Washington Post, “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.”  The truth, apparently, is exactly the opposite.