Being Evangelical Is Not the Same as Being Conservative

The recent political campaign and election once again brought out the influence of US Evangelicals on the political scene, including many statements about the reasons for their alliance with conservative politics.  Many reports in the media give the impression that Evangelicals are at the center of the US conservative movement.

There are many competing ideas as to why and to what extent Evangelicals are aligned with conservative politics, but my own experience has always been at odds with this assumption (that being Evangelical also means you must be politically conservative).  In looking for evidence that might cast some light on this issue, I came upon an extensive 2010 study by social scientists Brint and Abrutyn[1].  These two researchers at the University of California looked at five common ideas on the connection between Evangelicalism and conservative politics: that the connection is due to (1) being religious, i.e. the more religious a person the more likely they are to be conservative, (2) holding traditional values, (3) believing in male dominance and strict child rearing, (4) belonging to a lower socio-economic class, or (5) living in a rural small town.  In effect, they asked if these five characteristics that are common to the conservative movement are also common to Evangelicalism.

For their study, the authors used data collected by the National Election Studies database (NES) over four years (200-2004).  The NES is a large ongoing national survey of voting behavior and characteristics designed to help inform politics, managed by Stanford University and University of Michigan.

Of the five common explanations of the link between Evangelicalism and conservative politics, only adherence to traditional values held up as an explanation of the connection.  The other four explanations were minor factors.

In one of the most interesting conclusions, the authors stated that the emphasis on a sub-set of values related to abortion and traditional roles is often over emphasized by the media, on the false assumption that if the concern with abortion and roles is true of Evangelicals, then they probably share other conservative concerns as well.  According to the authors …

 “… religious people [are] not, in the main, opposed to government social programs or to internationalism and diplomacy in foreign policy. Nor were they notably anti-immigrant or opposed to environment-friendly policies. In this respect, commentators have frequently overstated the support of religious people for the broader conservative movement. They have failed to see how narrowly focused this support has been on issues like abortion, gay rights, and end-of-life care.” 

This is a key point worth examining, and one which I hope can lead to further dialog.  Because politics focuses on abortion and gender roles as key hooks for Evangelicals, there is an assumption made by the media that Evangelicals align with all conservative issues.  In fact they do not.  Evangelicals care about many things that they do not share with the conservative movement, including support for refugees, concern for the environment, caring for the poor and disadvantaged, to name a few.

Some of the other interesting findings were:

  • Evangelicals who hold more conservative political opinions are no more committed religiously than Evangelicals who hold more progressive views (based on self reported religiosity);
  • Both more educated and less educated Evangelicals are equally likely to hold conservative political views;
  • Evangelicals are more likely to be Republican and to believe that Republican positions are aligned with traditional values. Some Evangelicals go so far as to question whether non-Republicans can be Evangelicals, which is flatly rejected by this study;

The upshot of this work is that the political emphasis on a narrow set of features of Evangelical commitments (i.e. traditional values) has distorted our understanding of Evangelicalism and the rich diversity of Evangelical commitments.  It is no leap to conclude that this narrow focus has been destructive by leading some to equate Evangelical commitment, and even salvation, with alignment with a very few traditional values.  Brint and Abrutyn conclude by saying …

 “The partisan search for votes, in short, deploys a wide variety of [strategies] … many with very narrow and targeted appeal, to assemble winning electoral coalitions, piece by piece, across numerous organizational and demographic contexts. For Republicans, messages resonating with adherence to traditional moral standards represent one important symbolic resource, but not the only one.” 

[1] Brint, S., & Abrutyn, S. (June 01, 2010). Who’s Right About the Right? Comparing Competing Explanations of the Link Between White Evangelicals and Conservative Politics in the United States. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49, 2, 328-350.

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