Duval on Moral Epistemology, pt. 3.1: Demographics of US Conservatism

Duval on Moral Epistemology, pt. 3.1: Demographics of US Conservatism October 7, 2016

Following on from my last post, and across the next three posts, I will discuss how conservative educational preferences, and particularly the use of corporal punishment, create much of the American Conservatism that Haidt has done so much to document. I have clearly stated that Haidt underestimates the complexity of Liberal morality, by focusing on the preference for two moral flavours, as compared to the five of conservatism. Haidt’s flavours ignore an entire quadrant of the Schwartz model, which would be reason to consider the Haidt model suspect. However, even beyond this, I have shown that Liberals rely on more conceptions of fairness than conservatives do (and that these may pair up with the flavours in a way that gives liberals greater access to them than Haidt’s model might imply). Before discussing the impact of conservative preferences in education styles, however, it will also be helpful to look at why American Conservatism is demographically unique, providing a third reason to be suspicious of the validity of Haidt’s move to base all human morality on American Conservatism.

The Demographics of Conservative America

The primary reason that US Conservatism is an anomaly is its demographics. America is the single largest population of Protestants in the world (just shy of 150 million). That having been said, this population, as of 2012, is no longer a majority, at 48% of the US population, down from 53% a mere five years prior[1]. Other countries with large populations that have significant percentages of Protestants are (in approximate order of Protestant numbers), Nigeria, Brazil, South Africa, Congo, Kenya, Germany, Ghana, and Uganda (Pew Research, 2011[2]). According to Pew, the UK should also be in this list, but work on behalf of, and collected by, the British Humanist Association finds that less than 50% of people in the UK are, in any meaningful sense, religious, and therefore fewer still are Protestant[3]. Some might suggest that Protestants, and particularly Evangelical Protestants, aren’t really that religious either (e.g. Think Progress, 2016[4]), but they are amongst the most churched of the various religions and denominations (beaten only by Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, see fig. 1). Of course, what people claim when asked in a survey, and what they do, are two different things – work on church attendance by the churches themselves suggest that the polls overestimate attendance at a rate of around 2:1 (Shattuck, n.d.[5]). However, declining attendance seems to affect Evangelical churches the least. One of the reasons that Evangelical churches, and particularly those of a Fundamentalist persuasion are amongst the least impacted by declining attendance is that new members of the congregation seem to be coming into the fold at a slightly higher rate than disaffected members are leaving (Altemeyer, 2006[6]).

pew attendance

Figure 1: Pew Religious Landscape Survey – Attendance at Religious Services by Religious Group[7]

More than half of American Protestants identify as Evangelical, making up 25.4% of the total population[8] (ranging from 34% in the South, to 13% in the North-East – for more demographic breakdowns, see Pew Forum, n.d.[9]). According to David Bebbington (1989[10]), Evangelicalism is defined by biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism (whilst some of these terms may not be familiar, they are fairly self-explanatory). What is of interest, given the attendance figures above, is a movement that is mostly at home in Evangelical Protestantism – Fundamentalism – so named for the 1910 publications funded by Milton and Lyman Stewart, The Fundamentals[11]. These 12 books (subsequently re-issued as four[12]) laid out the five fundamental tenets of Christianity that would eventually become the heart of Fundamentalism: scriptural infallibility, the virgin birth, the crucifixion as atonement, the resurrection, and the historical truth of the miracles of Jesus. These dovetail into Evangelicalism pretty well.

This is all very strange, if you think about the image that Protestantism has, and then compare that with the images that Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism have. According to Dr. Sascha Becker[13], “… data compiled as recently as 2000 suggests that Protestants generally are educated to a higher level than Catholics. They have a higher probability of going to university and finishing their course.” However, this is in Europe. In ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind’ Mark Noll puts it bluntly, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Darnell and Sherkat (1997[14]) support Noll’s point, “…fundamentalist beliefs and conservative Protestant affiliation both have significant and substantial negative influences on educational attainment above and beyond social background factors.” By the time we get to other hallmarks of Fundamentalism, such as scriptural infallibility (and thus creationism) and the like, we are starting to see the basis of the many recent complaints of American anti-intellectualism (e.g. O’Leary, 2013[15], William, 2014[16]). This summation from Steven Brint and Seth Abrutyn (2010, p. 332[17]) puts it clearly:

Many middle and upper-middle class Americans have joined evangelical churches because they provide a more prescriptive source of moral guidance than mainline churches and greater support for economic individualism […] At the same time, white Evangelical Protestants remain less educated than other whites. Almost half of evangelicals in the National Election Surveys of 2000 and 2004 had a high school degree or less, and only 20 percent had baccalaureate or higher-level degrees, proportions that were nearly the reverse among mainline Protestants. Their vocabularies also lag behind other Americans. They are more likely to be blue-collar workers than other whites, and their family incomes fall below those of other whites by an average of $8,000 to $21,000 a year (Greeley & Hout 2006:98–100[[18]]).

It raises the question as to whether Evangelicalism can be considered Protestant at all, having apparently shrugged off the relative advantages thereof.

Fundamentalists feature heavily in Bob Altemeyer’s work on Authoritarianism. According to which ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘authoritarian’ are virtually synonymous. Altemeyer (2006[19]) has found that authoritarians (and thus most fundamentalist Evangelicals) “…had more trouble remembering details of the material they’d encountered, and they made more incorrect inferences on a reasoning test than others usually did” (p. 76), their minds are highly compartmentalized, they are given to double standards and hypocrisy, they are self-blind, profoundly ethnocentric, and dogmatic. Compare this to the highly Protestant (but not nearly so Evangelical or Fundamentalist) recent history of Germany, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden, countries which Becker (2011[20]) points out are in significantly better economic shape than the Catholic nations of Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Becker (2009[21]) suggests, contrary to the famous claim by Max Weber (1904[22]), that this is due to the Protestant drive for education, not the much-hallowed Protestant Work Ethic (Becker, 2010[23]).

Politically, according to Pew Forum (2015[24]), American Evangelicals lean Conservative (55%), or moderate (27%). They lean towards the Republican Party (56%, up 6% on a mere 7 years ago), or have no leaning (16%). However, 64% are for smaller government, and fewer services; 63% say that abortion should be illegal in most cases; 64% oppose same sex marriage; and, 57% believe humans have always existed in their present form, whilst a further 25% believe we evolved, but under God’s direction. I think it fair to say that many of these Evangelicals are not as moderate as they think, and certainly lean Republican more than they have said (though I suppose we should allow for some Libertarians, which the Pew results don’t show). One reason why 55% claim conservatism, but 64% strongly oppose same-sex marriage, may be that compartmentalization and self-blindness that Altemeyer (2006) mentioned.

What this all means is that 14-16% of the US electorate is both conservative and Evangelical, and another 7-8% claims to be moderate and Evangelical. These self-professed moderates are conservative as far as most liberals or centrists would be concerned, however. According to Gallup (2016[25]) 27-28% of the US population consider themselves Republican (with a further 14-15% leaning Republican). As such, Evangelicals make up half of the Republican base, even with Trump as confirmed nominee.

The question has been asked, why Evangelicals support a so obviously un-Christian candidate as Trump (e.g. Merritt, 2015[26]). Part of the answer may be in Altemeyer’s description of Fundamentalist traits, and the fact that these can be deployed to describe Trump fairly accurately (albeit for different reasons): given to double standards, hypocritical, self-blind, profoundly ethnocentric, and dogmatic. Several articles have picked up on this and other related reasons (e.g. Burke, 2016[27]; Posner, 2016[28]; ThinkProgress, 2016[29]; Whittes Schlack, 2016[30]). Of course, the aforementioned tendency to poor educational outcomes, and Trump’s noted repetitious use of the English that a typical 11 year-old would use (Sandhu, 2016[31]) may well have more than a little to do with it. Some Evangelicals, however, are not falling for it (McLaren, 2016[32]).

In my previous post I spoke about pre-school experience. I have shown, above, that educational attainment amongst conservative Evangelicals is poor, and in those cases where it is not, it is because wealthy and educated people have joined Evangelical churches due to permissive views on “economic individualism” (Brint & Abrutyn, 2010, p. 332[33]). Whilst I want to move on to formal education, I first need to discuss one of the key crossover issues between attachment/early learning and learning at school: corporal punishment – that will be the next post.


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-19892837

[2] http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/table-christian-population-in-numbers-by-country/

[3] https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-belief-some-surveys-and-statistics/

[4] https://thinkprogress.org/the-real-reason-trump-is-winning-evangelical-support-theyre-just-not-that-religious-eed2ba9db675#.9hgoq762d

[5] http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html

[6] Altemeyer, B. (2006). The Authoritarians. Winnipeg: Lulu.com http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

[7] http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/attendance-at-religious-services/#social-and-political-views

[8] http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/

[9] http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/evangelical-protestant/

[10] Bebbington, D. W. (1989). Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, London: Unwin Hyman.

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fundamentals

[12] http://ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books%20II/Torrey%20-%20The%20Fundamentals%201.pdf




[13] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2011/oct/31/economics-religion-research

[14] Darnell, A., & Sherkat, D. E. (1997). The impact of Protestant fundamentalism on educational attainment. American Sociological Review, 306-315.

[15] http://churchandstate.org.uk/2013/02/christian-fundamentalists-are-driving-our-country-into-the-dark-ages/

[16] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201407/anti-intellectualism-and-the-dumbing-down-america

[17] Brint, S. & Abrutyn, S. (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.

[18] Greeley, A. & Hout, M. (2006). The truth about conservative Christians: What they think and what they believe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[19] Altemeyer, B. (2006). The Authoritarians. Winnipeg: Lulu.com http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

[20] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2011/oct/31/economics-religion-research

[21] Becker, S. O. & Woessmann, L. (2009) Was weber wrong? A human capital theory of protestant economic history, The Quarterly Journal of Economics;


[22] Weber, Max (1904). Die protestantische Ethik und der „Geist“ des Kapitalismus. Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 20: 1-54. [The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Routledge Classics, 2001.]

[23] http://storre.stir.ac.uk/bitstream/1893/1958/1/SEDP-2010-01-Becker-Woessmann.pdf

[24] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/chapter-4-social-and-political-attitudes/

[25] http://www.gallup.com/poll/15370/party-affiliation.aspx

[26] http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/why-do-evangelicals-support-donald-trump/403591/

[27] http://edition.cnn.com/2016/01/22/politics/seven-types-of-evangelicals-and-the-primaries/

[28] http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/how-donald-trump-divided-and-conquered-evangelicals-w430119

[29] https://thinkprogress.org/the-real-reason-trump-is-winning-evangelical-support-theyre-just-not-that-religious-eed2ba9db675#.9hgoq762d

[30] http://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2016/07/20/the-real-reason-white-evangelical-voters-support-donald-trump

[31] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-elections/donald-trump-uses-language-typical-of-children-under-11-a6936256.html

[32] http://www.rawstory.com/2016/09/former-pastor-flees-christian-right-and-reveals-how-they-exploit-the-anger-of-suffering-people/#.V-gJA6cAdTY.facebook

[33] Brint, S. & Abrutyn, S. (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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