Does Religious Attendance Drive Up Political Participation?
Or does church crowd out other activities?
“I only have so many hours in my day.”
That’s true for all of us. We have a finite amount of time to work, to sleep, to spend time with our families, and to find a hobby that makes us happy. Thus, every decision we make comes at the expense of time. If we choose to go to a movie, that’s three hours when we can’t mow the grass, do some laundry, or just take a nap.
Everything’s a tradeoff. Including going to a house of worship. When someone chooses to get up, get dressed, and go to a church, synagogue or mosque they are making the conscious decision to not go do something else. They think that the benefits of religious attendance are worth the cost. But they also think that taking the time to go to church is worth taking time away from other stuff.
This raises a really interesting question for political scientists - does church attendance crowd out political participation? It makes logical sense, right? The more someone devotes their free time to Bible study, weekend worship, and church camp, the less time they have to knock on doors for their favorite candidate or attend a local city council meeting.
Or maybe it’s the opposite? The more people get involved in their local congregation, the more they become invested in the local community. They make friends with people who are going to run for office and offer to help them in their run for school board. That scenario is really the one laid out by Putnam in Bowling Alone - being socially active generates social capital in a variety of venues.
I already tackled the overall political activity of the non-religious in a prior post, but I wanted to dig really into the mechanisms of religious attendance today. So, I am using the same data as before - the Cooperative Election Study. But I am excluding the non-religious this time around. Just looking at people who identify as any type of religion from Protestant to Buddhist.
I’ve got six political activities here that run the gamut from really time consuming (working for a candidate) to incredibly passive (putting up a political sign). This poll was also conducted in November of 2020, as well. Right before the election, so if people were going to be politically engaged, this was the time that they were going to do it.
Are people who attend houses of worship more likely to be engaged politically? The answer is unquestionably yes. In all six of these activities, the trend line goes up when moving from never attenders to those who attend multiple times per week. However, the slope of the lines do vary quite a bit.
It’s pretty clear that regular attendance in church leads to a higher propensity of attending a political meeting - from 4% among never attenders to 12% among those who attend more than once a week. There’s also a big effect on contacting a public official: 16% to 25%. In terms of putting up a political sign, that’s much more likely among high attenders as well.
There are some modest effects, though. Attending a protest or march was not that much more likely among high attenders. Also, very few folks work for a candidate anyway, and there’s not much variation across the attendance spectrum.
But clearly the theory that church attendance crowds out political activity is refuted here. In fact, it’s the opposite. Religious engagement goes hand in hand with political engagement.
Time to get into the weeds on this now. Let’s look at individual religious traditions. Maybe the above graph is swamped by the number of Protestants in the sample and it’s masking some interesting variation that’s happening with a smaller religious group.
To simplify this, I created an additive index of all six political activities. Zero means doing nothing at all politically, six means engaging in all six. Just for context - 44% of all respondents scored a zero and 1% scored a six. The mean number of political activities was exactly 1. Again, this broken down by religious attendance.
What do we see here? Generally, the same pattern we observed in the first graph - religious activity is positively related to political activity. That’s crystal clear when looking at Catholics and Protestants, regardless of race and denomination. In most cases a weekly+ attender is twice as politically active as someone who never goes to church. It’s a really large effect for Latter-day Saints. From .3 acts at the bottom to 1.2 acts at the top.
There are a couple of oddities that you all can dive into in the comments. The Orthodox Christian line is flat. So is the one for Buddhists. The Jewish line technically goes up, but it’s probably better to describe it as curvilinear — low on the sides and higher in the middle. The most politically active Jew is one who goes to synagogue two or three times a month.
But there’s something looming behind this discussion that we haven’t gotten to yet — political partisanship. Maybe it’s the fact that most high attending Protestants and Catholics are also politically conservative. But it’s the politics that’s driving the activity, not really the high level of religious participation.
There’s an interesting story here that is a bit nuanced and could be really interesting when it comes to the 2024 election cycle.
Using the additive index again, I calculated the number of political activities that were engaged in at each level of religious attendance for Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. Again, I excluded the non-religious from this analysis.
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