Why “Fact Checking” Falls Short

Perhaps it’s my imagination, but “fact checking” this election season seems to have reached a fever pitch. This despite the historically weak tie between facts and politics in general, it would seem. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to it, given the word-by-word scrutiny to which my own work and media interviews have been subject recently. (Not that the media would ever misquote someone…)

But after “lecturing” to a class of 12-year-olds yesterday on some themes in the book of Exodus, I am reminded again of the difference between moderns’ assumptions about detailed history–what we often mean by “the facts”–and historiography, the telling of history over time and from particular perspectives. Moreover, the former is not very easy to accomplish, and always, always misses material and meanings. It’s partial by definition. This came to mind when I briefly noted to the class that Exodus 1:6 simply states, “Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation.” The author (or authors/redactors) of that text clearly was not interested in conveying the details of the aging and death of the sons of Jacob–indeed, most of their lives and that of their children and their families–but rather with the rise of Moses and the Mosaic Law, from the perspective of those under it. So they paid some things no attention. So be it. (Then you have the lengthy lineages found in a variety of places in the Pentateuch, where we moderns feel like they paid too much attention to detail.)

People are often tempted to think that such a peculiar way of doing history is flawed, but in reality all accounts of “news” or “facts” are perspectival and partial. There is what actually happened–if it can be known–and then there’s the teller, who is a complex person (or organization) with interests, by default. There’s a philosophy of history embedded in all history writing, and indeed even in all news media. In a world increasingly short on attention span but long on bandwidth, this should only grow more familiar to us, not less. Take, for a recent example, the recent death of our Libyan ambassador. There are the facts, and frankly they may never be known with certainty, not simply because some people “won’t tell,” but because eyewitnesses saw different content and perceived different meanings, and have complex interests in relating “the facts” to those different sorts of persons (with quite different interests) who ask them. Add to that the untimely occurrence of this in an election season, and Senate and/or House hearings on the matter, and political sabre-rattling, and you can see how layers of interpretation are added.

And yet we still speak glowingly of “the facts.” In the Era of Science, we sense somehow that facts are always knowable. We presume someone is guardian of The Truth About Things.

This is normal behavior. What’s not normal, because it’s not really possibly in a strong way, is to have a very good grasp of “all the facts.” What’s relevant, after all? Even what counts (or is ignored) as evidence is constituted by particular perspectives. A recent critic of mine suspects I have been directly aiding the Romney campaign, but I’m not sure that the utter lack of evidence will convince them that I am not. To the critic, it’s simply evidence that my aid is more clandestine and thus I am even more suspect.

So it’s often an unrealistic challenge to learn all the facts about events that have already occurred, even recent ones, let alone those that have not. So “fact-checking” presidential candidates and their promises, budgets, plans, etc., is almost a joke. Almost. Moreover, to flippantly accuse one of them (but not the other) of lying–a ubiquitous occurrence of late–is to misunderstand all this.

It would behoove us all in this election season to understand that all politics involves some deceptions, and that human memory fails, and that people misspeak. We ought to remember that the public will always dislike “the facts” if they were all laid bare (and in today’s world, more are laid bare than ever before). This is true about most any of us, for that matter. Let’s be grateful that our thoughts–and for many, their words and actions–aren’t always an open book. We are flawed persons electing flawed candidates who will no doubt run flawed administrations. The two candidates for highest office have quite different philosophies on governance, rights, goods, economics, the role of the State, etc. (and probably most importantly, very different teams of trusted advisors and assistants). Vote on those. Not on some wistful idea of honesty and commitment to “the facts.” Politics has never dealt deeply in that.

Racial Religious Patterns in Political Ideology – Expanded Version

In a recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center, we had some new statistics available for the religious diversity within the Latino populations. The published findings only show us the registered voter group of Latinos surveyed which is not an identical match to the other figures I presented in a previous post, but until we can access the actual data , we may need to go with what we have. This got me thinking, why not try and pick up other data to create as comprehensive a picture as possible. So I pulled the figures on registered Hispanic voters and their religious affiliations for 2012. The nearest survey with a large enough sample of different religious African Americans was the Pew Religious Landscape Survey 2007. The nearest survey with a sizeable and reasonably representative sample of American Muslims was the Pew 2011 American Muslim Survey. However, I couldn’t access the race information that would help see racial variation within this religious affiliation.

Before we get to the figures, a few caveats. I readily admit that this is far from ideal, a lot has changed since 2007, and these changes to our political-economy could have an effect on party preference. So take these figures with a big grain of salt. My sense however is that generally the patterns don’t vary radically; that is, no major shifts amounting to a shift of 10% or more. Also here’s a breakdown of some of the shorthand:

AsAm = Asian American

AfAm = African American

(reg) = registered voter percentage, 2012

(’07) = Pew Landscape Survey 2007

(’11) = Pew American Muslim Survey 2011

Unless noted by the aforementioned, the figures refer to 2012 general percents not limited to registered voters.

Figure 1: Catholics

When we include African American Catholics (assuming the 2007 figures don’t vary much from 2012), we find a strong Democratic preference that is slightly higher than the Hispanic Catholic preference. Republican preference is stronger among white Catholics and slightly more for Asian American Catholics.

Figure 2: Non-Catholic Christians

I started the figures this time with Catholics because the second cluster is what I describe as non-Catholic Christians. I use this catch-all term because I found a sizeable group of Orthodox Christians (all of whom identify as white and non-Hispanic). This is the only predominantly white Christian group that actually leans more Democrat than Republican. Among African American Christians, there’s no contest, very clear preference for the Democratic party, regardless of whether they are in predominantly white religious traditions such as evangelical and mainline Protestantism or in a historically black Protestant tradition. Put this together with African American Catholics and we see strong majorities of all black Christians for one party over the other (again assuming little voter preference has changed since 2007 for this population). Among Latino non-Catholics, we a similar stronger preference for the Democratic party as African American Protestants but it’s not as pronounced. The largest presence of Republican presence is with Hispanic evangelical registered voters. In the 2007 data, we have enough respondents to look at the preferences of those Latinos who affiliate with an historically black Protestant tradition. We find that they also support the Democratic party more so than the GOP. With better inclusion of more racial diversity we see more clearly too that Asian American evangelicals are the only minority Christian group that leans more in favor of the Republican party than the Democrats.

Figure 3: Other Religious Americans

Using the Landscape Survey from 2007 we have a large enough sample of white Buddhists to help us compare Asian American Buddhists (albeit tentatively due to the 5 year gap). White Buddhists clearly favor the Democratic party and more so compared to Jewish respondents. In fact we might say that of all the religious minority groups that have a substantial presence of white followers, white Buddhists are the most Democratic. They stand in contrast to Mormons (which is predominantly white) who are the religious minority group that clearly favors the Republican party. When we account for Muslim preferences (and they identify with a diverse array of racial labels so we can’t say how race might or might not work among them), we find that they follow other religious minority communities in greater support of the Democrat party.

Figure 4: the Unaffiliated

There’s amazing parity among the unaffiliated. Again, as long as there are no time effects or major differences between registered voters and all members of that group, nearly every racial group among the nonaffiliated identify as Democrat.

My conclusions from the previous analyses seem to be stable even when we account for more religious and racial diversity. The Democrat party is a very diverse tent and trying to develop a platform that appeals to these diverse constituencies and the particulars that affect their social and economic conditions is challenging. Republicans for the most part are still clearly a party of Christians, namely white Catholics, white evangelicals, Mormons, and Asian American evangelicals (and perhaps Asian American Catholics). This doesn’t mean that the GOP is devoid of non-Asian minorities, but they are clearly a minority within their religious traditions.

Share your other observations!



Racial-Religious Patterns in the 2012 Elections

I received a news alert from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life where they ran a slide show of religious affiliations and political party, and given that they ran one of the few Asian American surveys ever, I thought surely they would add in the Asian Americans this time. Alas no. So I found the numbers from both the July report and from the recent slideshow to put together a few figures that help us put race and religion in a more comprehensive picture of where a lot of religiously-identified voters stand:

Figure 1: Protestantism and Race

Pardon the color switching, it’s just the default on Excel and I didn’t have time to figure out how to change it. The main takeaway I see here is that white Protestant affiliates and Asian American evangelicals lean Republican more so than lean Democrat. Black Protestants and Asian American Mainline Protestants lean Democrat more than Republican. I couldn’t find recent data for the Latino Protestant party preference which would have really been comprehensive. Unlike white and black Protestants, Asian American Protestants seem to be divided on political party preference.

Figure 2: Catholicism and Race

Here we have data on the Hispanic Catholic case which we can then compare Asian American and white Catholics. In similar fashion to the Protestant analysis, I couldn’t find current data on black Catholic party preference. The main observations here are that Catholics are somewhat more moderate (admittedly based on only 3 groups). Hispanic Catholics follow Black Protestants and Asian American Mainliners as more pro-Democrat Christian, while white Catholics tilt slightly in favor of Republican identification. The Asian American Catholic case is very interesting as it is the only instance in which there is some parity in party preference. This would be a religious swing vote group for sure. But to be clear, Asian American Catholics form 19% of the 6% of the US population that identifies as Asian American.

Figure 3: Minority Religions and Race

Mormons are reintroduced here for comparison since they constitute less than 3% of the population. Again we have no current data on American Muslim and Sikh voter preference. That said, we see that 3 of these 4 minority religious groups lean Democrat whereas Mormons lean Republican. American Jews and Mormons usually identify racially as white so these two groups reflect interesting contrasts in the political orientations of two predominantly white minority religious groups. Among the two predominantly Asian minority religious groups the patterns of political preference are somewhat parallel.

Figure 4: Unaffiliated by Race

We lack data on African American and Latino unaffiliated political party preference so we can examine the largest racial group of the nonaffiliated along with the minority group with the largest proportional presence of nonaffiliated Americans. We see here a very similar pattern in party preference, with a clear Democrat leaning by white non-Hispanic nonaffiliates and Asian American nonaffiliates.

Overall these figures suggest that the religious composition of both parties is quite different from one another. The Republicans might well be considered a very Christian party. Larger proportions of white Protestants (including Mormons), white Catholics and Asian American evangelicals are represented in their ranks. The Democrats would be like a religious salad bowl consisting of larger proportions of many religious constituencies including African American Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, Asian American Mainline, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu Americans. Given that 5 of these 6 religious groups are predominantly racial minority in composition, these religious groups also make Democrats more racially diverse. We also have a sizable presence of religious nones as well and both white and Asian Americans mirror one another. Given the religious diversity of the Democratic party, it makes sense that they will struggle with presenting a religious sensibility that is inclusive of so many perspectives. The Republicans can more easily reference a Christian narrative that is accessible to most in their party.

The other observation I see here is the remarkably higher rates of non-mainstream party preference by Asian Americans regardless of religious group. Asian Americans who said they had some other party preference or could not identify one ranged from 16-19% across religious groups. Non-Asian Americans at most are 11% non-mainstream in their party preference.

It’s important to remember also the general racial composition and religious composition of the US. White non-Hispanics take up 63% of the population, followed by Latinos at 16%, African Americans at 12% and Asian Americans at 6%. Protestantism still dominates at around 60% (or a little lower) followed by Catholicism at 25% and the remaining 15% are a combination of Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and other religious groups.

As a sociologist interested in Asian America, the availability of comparable data between Americans of Asian descent and other Americans is a welcome step forward in getting a better idea of the big picture that includes a group that is often sidelined or invisible in public discussion over matters like politics. Hopefully with improved survey tools that can pick up more representations of our major racial groups in the US we’ll have a more clearer picture of the role that religion and race play in the political sphere.

Note: new update here

The context of religion

I had the privilege to spend the last week at the 5th Latin American Conference on Evangelization (CLADE V in Spanish), sponsored by the Latin American Theological Fraternity (FTL). FTL is well known for its emphasis on integral mission, a Protestant response to many of the social, political, and economic problems occuring in Latin America during the 1960s and 70s.

Sociologists would classify most of the people at the event as conservative or evangelical Protestants.  The average participant reads the Bible regularly and takes a high view of its authority; she believes in  the power of the Holy Spirit to work in the world.  The group prioritizes the need to share ones faith and live the Gospel. Relationships are of central importance, both regarding one’s relation to God and neighbor.  Among the denominations represented were the Evangelical Free Church, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Assemblies of God, Christian Missionary Alliance, Baptists, the Christian Reformed Church and independent Pentecostals.

As studies of religion and political life reveal, theology often seems to matter inconsistently (or very little) when it comes to political and economic issues for the average person of faith.  Within the United States, for example, Kenneth Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown (in Religion and Politics in the United States) show that socio-economic status (and history) are much more important that the theological beliefs of a group in predicting their political views on economic issues. In the United States, due in part to the upward mobility of this group, white evangelicals have tended to be more politically conservative regarding the economy (think of issues such as welfare or taxation policy). Yet among Black Protestants (also theologically conservative) and evangelicals across the Global South, this same connection is not present.  Increasingly, scholars are also separating Hispanic Catholics from other Catholics, as faith seems to matter in different ways for these different groups as well.

While social science data often seems to support the idea that theology and religious beliefs do not matter in any consistent ways when it comes to views of the economy, we should remember this does not mean theology is not important for the ways people engage and think about economic life.  As Hart found in the mid 1990s in his study of Christians in the United States (What Does the Lord Require? How American Christians Think About Economic Justice), people use their faith to develop ideas about economic life; yet people pull from different religious ideas, and those who worship together may arrive at contradictory conclusions. While many in the United States would still say theology doesn’t matter much when it comes to their economic views, for others, religious ideas are very important.

Sitting in a room with my Latin American sisters and brothers, I saw the social sciences played an important role, and I doubt few would have been surprised by any of the statements listed above.  However, they take such ideas a step further, arguing that theology itself is contextual.  So the issue may be less that one’s economic position takes precedence over one’s view of scripture in predicting certain political views, and more that economics has the power to deeply shape ones view of scripture and theology.

Many of the arguments I heard last week were uncontested, yet they were not ones you would hear at the typical megachurch in the United States. Access to water should not be bought and sold. No person is illegal. The high level of consumption many of us have is not a good use of the earth´s resources.  When abuse or exploitation happens, real justice demands responsibility for one´s actions.  These views are deeply theological, flowing from beliefs of most participants in the global South: that the image of God is in every person, that the Holy Spirit brings life where there is death, that solidarity with our sisters and brothers is a demand of the gospel, and that obedience to Christ is about a covenant with God and those around us.

Recognizing that context matters as it does should cause all people of faith to re-examine their own theologies and religious beliefs. Evangelicals of various political stripes in Latin America tend to see destruction caused by US mining efforts or manufacturing of weapons. Christians in the United States must at least seriously consider these claims (and our responsibility).  As I find in my own research, among Christians in the US who share some of these concerns, it is often those with connections with Christians abroad. That is, although their context is that of the global North, their perspective is shaped by those outside such a context. This seems to resonate with what Christian Smith and Michael Emerson (Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America) found over a decade ago when studying white evangelicals. It was those who were in networks with black Americans that were more likely to see systematic injustice– in this case, to recognize racism and discrimination as significant problems.

In an age of globalization, we have more chances than before to be a part of global networks, with those in different positions in the international system. How might we—here, I specifically mean people of faith within the United States—allow ourselves to think more critically about our own context and how it shapes our theology?  How might we think about issues like economic globalization (which tend to benefit many of us in the middle or upper class of the United States) as deeply theological ones? These are issues of life and death, as my brothers and sisters consistently confirmed last week. As people of faith, we can not afford to ignore the context of our own theologies.