Democrats: Losing their Religion

It’s election week, and we’re inundated with polls, predictions, and predilections, so I’ll keep this short. While I was crunching NFSS data for an unrelated set of analyses, I stopped to dwell on an interesting survey question on perceived change in religiousness. We asked the 2,988 respondents:

Compared to today, were you more or less active in organized religion when you were growing up?

Given that we’re talking to 18-39-year-olds, and that young adulthood can often exhibit a notable decline in religiousness—something I’ve written about more extensively here and here—and that former US senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum misinterpreted here, it’s of course not at all surprising to see that most respondents said they were less active in organized religion now than when they were growing up. Fully 53 percent said that, whereas 34 percent said they were “about the same” and 13 percent reported being “more active” than when they were younger. But what aggravates these numbers in either direction?

My first guess is that age and marriage are apt to boost religiosity in some who had been flagging, while sexual “deviance” (from religious expectations about it) can cause it to lag some. Keep in mind, of course, that the question begs an unknown answer about just how religious respondents were when they were “growing up,” so a “more active” or a “less active” response is connected to a level known to them, but not to us. So be it. It’s still illuminating: only 8 percent of the youngest group (18-23-year-olds) reported becoming more religiously active, compared with 13 and 18 percent of the older two groups (24-32 and 33-39-year-olds, respectively). Makes sense.

Both married and divorced respondents reported comparable levels of growing religiousness, at 18-19 percent, while 63 percent of cohabiters said they had become less religious.

The most dramatic shifts, however, appear around personal politics. Political affiliation—a one measure, 1-5 scale of just how politically conservative or liberal our respondents consider themselves—takes the cake for shifting the bar on perceived growth or decline in organized religious involvement. Only 23 percent of respondents who said they were “very conservative” politically reported being less active in organized religion today, while 31 percent said they were more active than as a youth. Keep in mind that’s compared with 53 and 13 percent of the total population, respectively.

It’s a linear association, too: 48 percent of just plain “conservative” respondents reported being less active religiously, compared with 52 percent of moderates, 62 percent of those who said they were “liberal” and 76 percent of those who self-identified as “very liberal.” That’s quite a span–from 23 percent (among the most conservative) to 76 percent (among the most liberal).

The Democrats truly are losing their religion. Or perhaps these are persons who lost their religion and then decided the Democratic Party seemed most in line with their sentiments. There is probably plenty of both types.

This is not new news, I know. See here. But it’s heartwarming and confirming to me to see the NFSS data continue to make rational sense in so many domains of research questions, even while critics remain convinced that I got the basic story wrong in the July Social Science Research article on the adult children of parents who’ve had same-sex relationships. (I didn’t.)

Happy voting…



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!



“Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty”



Last week, I organized a panel at the Association for the Sociology of Religion to discuss Susan Crawford Sullivan‘s new book Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty?University of Chicago Press, 2011). Here  are my brief comments.

“Jamila. Age 28, Black, single. Two children ages 5 and 7 months. Raised Catholic (graduated from Catholic school); now attends Mass occasionally with her mother. Sends her daughter to Mass every week with her mother. On welfare, living in a family shelter.

Lenora, age 22. Hispanic. Single. One child almost two years old. Occasionally attends an evangelical church. On welfare; living in a family shelter.

Peggy. Aged 43. White. Divorced. Two children ages 5 and 15. Devout Evangelical who stopped her previously frequent church attendance when she got divorced. On welfare.” (Appendix A, pp. 227-229, Living Faith).

What images come to mind when you here these profiles, the profiles of 3 of the approximately 50 poor mothers Sullivan interviewed for her book Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty?”

Whatever image came to your mind, I assure you that you will have a very different image of mothers in poverty, and of their deep prayer lives, after you read this book. Among the many reasons I liked this book, perhaps the most important one is that Sullivan presents her interviewees with all the drama of their very difficult lives, and all their hope and faith for a better life to come. She presents their deep trust that “God has a plan”, their strong sense of personal sinfulness and desire to be better, alongside stories of their social isolation from most types of social groups and the particular stigma they often feel from many members and leaders of organized religion.

In presenting the struggles, faith and resilience of extremely poor mothers, Sullivan presents her interviewees in their full humanity and dignity, an important starting point for both social theory and public policy.



I first met Susan at a conference in 2009, where I presented findings from my book telling very similar narratives of hope in the midst of life-threatening trials and extreme poverty among Haitian immigrants. We then exchanged numerous emails and helped each other discover deeper insights from our work, in particular about religion and resilience among the poor. I encourage you to read every word of her new book, even the full list of bios of her interviewees in the appendix.

Her book, although just published, has already been awarded the best new book prize from the Sociology of Religion Section of the American Sociological Association. I’m sure our recent author-meets-crtiics panel at the Association for the Sociology of Religion and Susan’s well-deserved award represent the start of much discussion about this important book.

Socializing Character Through Popular Comic Books

Fill in the blank: “With great power _______” If you know the answer to this, you’ve been exposed to American comic books. “With great power comes great responsibility” is the lesson that a young Peter Parker ignores from his uncle who subsequently dies from a fatal gunshot wound that Parker could have prevented. So what’s sociology have to do with this? Maybe I’m just trying to rationalize something I just enjoy, but I do think comic books are a window into social life. And believe it or not, they can sometimes illuminate aspects about religion we would not normally think about.

Comic books have received surprising new attention in part because the current President of the United States has stated publicly that he enjoyed them while growing up. Yes President Obama has gone on record as saying that his favorite comic book characters are Spiderman and Conan the Barbarian. Marvel Comics ran with this and showcased Spiderman with the new president:

and an independent company went so far as to mythologize the 2008 election campaign as the adventures of “Barack the Barbarian”

The primary audience for comic books as we all know is males of nearly every age now it seems; the incredible disproportion of male heroes to female heroes demonstrates this. The male heroes usually exhibit power manifested in superhuman and sometimes unearthly form. Strength, speed, invulnerability, energy- all of these are part of the world of super heroes. But since these stories of grown men and women are geared primarily at youngsters, they serve as moral narratives that inform young minds about life. This is not all that shocking to most of us; we understand how this works in any story we share with children from Grimm’s Fairy Tales to Harry Potter. Mainstream comic books simply offer another world (or worlds) in which these same dilemmas of right and wrong, good and evil, trust and betrayal, competition and cooperation, choice and action are all worked out in dramatic fantasy. In sociological terms media like comic books usually (not always) narrate moral values and become part of the socialization experience of many. Parents are always the number one source for modeling morality since they are usually the most visible to children. But comic books and other media can also be a means of socialization.

That said, I was hooked when I discovered this PBS documentary called “Wham! Bam! Islam!” It was a delightful narration of a dream that one Kuwaiti Muslim psychologist, Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa shared with the world: to make his faith accessible to familiar and new audiences through the medium of comic books.

The comic books that most readers of this blog are familiar with are nearly entirely based in America (and almost exclusively in New York [even in DC comics, Gotham City and Metropolis are just “New York by day” and “New York at night”]). And the heroes are almost entirely white and/or American. Interestingly most of our mainstream characters are actually religious and specifically Christian (mainly Catholic and Protestant forms as seen in this list online [hat tip to the individual or group to construct this]).

What’s a Muslim kid (or adult) to do when there’s nary a character in mainstream comic books that he can identify with? Indeed this website of superhero religious affiliations shows a list of Muslim heroes and if you look carefully you will notice that none of the 55 or so are clear central characters in the Marvel and DC Universes. Thirteen are particularly new and appear as a result of Dr. Al-Mutawa’s efforts. 

The aim was to create a world in which 99 superheroes emerged from a series of events linked to an archaeological object that’s significant in Muslim history. Each of the 99 represents an aspect of Allah’s character (technically 99 names of Allah). Through this story, the author can then portray Muslim virtue through the behavior and perhaps powers of superheroes that align with basic Muslim theology. As with any form of art that is intended for broad and young appeal, the specifics and accuracy of theology are tempered by clarity of narration. So it’s not surprising that Dr. Al-Mutawa has not gained sympathy from the most orthodox of Muslim theologians.

But for me, what’s so interesting here is not the theological content and whether it’s true to Islam. It’s about the social implications of this. As the second largest religion in the world, Islam has not had a positive portrayal in western cultures. Through the use of comic book superheroes that relate a relatively unheard of Islamic concept in Christian/secular environments, Al-Mutawa helps affirm Muslim identity for youngsters who might feel insecure about their faith in environments where they sense hostility. Imagine the Muslim kid who feels embarrassed about his Muslim faith in Iowa or Paris picking up an issue of The 99 and finding a new way to validate his culture and faith. And for those avid non-Muslim readers of comic books, we’re invited into this new world where heroism is linked with Muslim virtue.

So here’s my main and final point: why hasn’t any Christian thought about doing this with major characters? As the superhero religions website shows in the blurbs on the right, of the 14 “most consistently religious” only Wonder Woman stands out to me as a widely known character and her religion is “Greco-Roman Classical Religion” (she is Amazonian after all). From my experience, Daredevil’s Catholic background stood out to me as the only one among the pantheon of heroes to wrestle with his faith and his behavior. We have little evidence of comic book characters that portray Christian beliefs in ways that might model for young men and women the virtues described in the Christian traditions. Perhaps Christians who are concerned about the socialization of the next generation can learn from this new venture from a Muslim fan of comic books.