Democrats: Losing their Religion

Democrats: Losing their Religion November 5, 2012

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…



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  • Jay egenes

    First, the religious right, with big business money behind them, claimed to represent all of Christianity.
    Then, when the left’s response should have been, “no you missed the point; christianity is about caring for those less well off…”, instead democrats said things like “you can’t legislate morality.”. Which of corse you can. People just won’t always obey the law.
    Then people who don’t like the media view of Christianity decided they didn’t need it. Those people are disproportionately under 40.

  • PLTK

    Then there are also those from religiously conservative backgrounds who chose to emphasize different political issues in their voting, became Democrat, and were subsequently driven out from participation in the church by those who remained politically conservative. While I do not claim this is a large number, it is definitely also part of the sad story. I see it happening to some of my family members now.

    • Rick Middleton

      PLTK is exactly right. This describes my own excruciating experience, which is ongoing.

  • David Gilbertson

    My pipedream:
    1. Evacuate the population of Australia and distribute the people wherever they wish to go in the Western World.

    2. Gather every arch-conservative Republican, every NRA member, and every blessed member of the fundamentalist “Religious Right” so-called “Christian” denominations, here in the US and take them all to Australia and put them off the boat.

    3. Sail to Israel and the middle-East and gather every Zionist and fundamentalist Muslim they have to offer, take them to Australia and put them off the boat, too.

    4. Engage the Army Corp of Engineers to build a mega-church, a mega-mosque, and a mega-synagogue atop Ayers Rock, to give them something to argue about and fight over.

    5. Come back to the US and throw the Arms industry into hyper-overdrive, cranking out every conceivable kind of handgun, rifle, shotgun, and grenade-launcher, and millions of rounds of ammo to go with it.

    6. Take it all down to Australia and load their shores, bid them all a cheery good-bye and leave for @ 90-days, whilst they work on their “final solution.”

    At the end of that time, there wouldn’t be a single man, woman, or child left standing. Good-bye and good riddance to the whole lot of them…the world will be a much happier and more peaceable place without all the religious fanatics.

    Problem solved once and for all, and we might even induce the second coming!

  • David

    This is careless interpretation and deliberately divisive rhetoric. The surveys indicate that younger generations are walking away from organized religion. Among the things that younger generations find repellant are the infusion of politics into religion, the rejection of science, and the vilification of homosexuals. Humility and loyalty to Christ might indicate a more measured and conciliatory tone. Instead, you have turned the issue into a partisan one. May God have mercy on you.

    • Mark Regnerus

      While I am dependent on divine mercy, I think you’re getting unnecessarily worked up here. This is more one of those, “Isn’t that interesting” blog posts. Nevertheless, the “why” question embedded in here is a very challenging one, one that you yourself took a decent stab at. I don’t think particular research questions or findings should be off-limits. Nor do I think this blog post’s tone was inflammatory. If so, you have a pretty low threshold for inflammatory.