Study: Despite declining church attendance, Western voters still influenced by religion

(Image: Flickr Creative Commons/Hitchster)

Image by Matt MahurinAlthough many political experts consider voters to be “floating without party loyalties” and without a religious belief that influences their voting habits, a new University of Missouri study found that — despite declining church attendance in western democracies — religion still has a large impact on how people vote and helps define many of the platforms represented in the party system.

Chris Raymond, a graduate instructor of political science at UM, compared church attendance to other categories such as income, union membership and education and found that religion still matters for a sizable number of voters. By comparing the findings of the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany, Raymond discovered that even as the countries had different degrees of religious attendance, the religious beliefs still had a high level of influence.

The three countries were selected, he said, because they each represented a different trend regarding religious voting, or voting based on religious beliefs — people in Germany are perceived to be moving away from religious voting; the U.S. is experiencing a rise in religious voting; and religious voting in the U.K. has held steady. When compared to the 1960s – an era during which experts say voting behaviors began to change – religious voting has shown an “enormous degree of persistence,” Raymond said.

“The literature indicated that these countries had become more secular, and scholars have said that religious voting ‘no longer mattered,’ but this study shows that is not the case,” Raymond said. “Regardless of the trends, religiosity remains on par with class issues as far as why people vote. In fact, I argue that religion is No. 2 to social status.”

Each country he explored has specific political issues that could lead individuals to vote in accordance with religious belief. For instance, U.S. voters have been presented with abortion rights issues, British voters have looked at state funding of churches and German voters have considered the integration of Muslim populations. Discussion of such topics as well as their alignment to strong religious beliefs, he said, impact voter turnout. In addition, religious voting also tends to favor conservative parties, because those social values tend to correspond with traditional conservative political values.

“It’s important to understand that religion isn’t the only factor, but an important one,” Raymond said. “This makes sense because as a person with a vote, my religion and my class are how I perceive the world.”

In his study, Raymond approaches this topic bluntly, noting that such religious affiliation can be co-opted by political interests.

[T]he average religious voter self-locates on the more traditional end of the political values spectrum, supporting traditional values and issues of morality, positions which lend themselves to support for more conservative parties of the right. Because churches and the sub-communities that churches create foster intense political socialization and facilitate mobilization for campaigns and voting, the moral traditionalism and general conservatism of many religious voters make them tempting targets for conservative parties seeking to realign their bases with ardent, faithful supporters.

Future studies, he notes, need to “move beyond questions of whether or not religiosity (and other social cleavages) still matters for politics and instead need to move toward answering questions of for what (else) religiosity matters and why.” Specifically, he would like to see if the demands of religious voters have been met on the issues most important to them, or if the failure to deliver on these issues have led to the “apparent partisan dealignment” that has taken place in Germany.

The study was published in the journal Electoral Studies.

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