Professor Ryan Burge‘s website states: “I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science as well as the Graduate Coordinator at Eastern Illinois University. I teach in a variety of areas, including American institutions, political behavior, and research methods. My research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior (especially in the American context). Previously, I have completed an appointment as a post doctoral research fellow at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, Illinois. While there I was an adviser on issues of survey methodology and polling, as well as providing data collection and analysis.
I have published over a dozen articles in a number of well regarded peer reviewed journals including Politics & Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Review of Religious Research, the Journal of Religious Leadership, Representation, Politics, Groups, and Identities, the Journal of Communication and Religion, the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture and the Social Science Computer Review.
In addition, my research has been covered in a variety of media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, Vox, 538, BuzzFeed News, Al-Jazeera, Christianity Today, Religion News Service, The Daily Mail, Deseret News, World Magazine, Relevant, and C-SPAN. I am the co-founder and frequent contributor to Religion in Public, a forum for scholars of religion and politics to make their work accessible to a more general audience.
Finally, I am a pastor in the American Baptist Church, having served my current church for over thirteen years.”
Here we talk about coronavirus, religion, and politics.
*Interview conducted on August 17, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So well, let’s start with COVID. What are some of the cross-sections with this coronavirus, religion, and politics, in American life?
Professor Ryan Burge: What’s actually surprising to a lot of people in America is, if you look at social media, the assumption here is that Democrats are being a lot more compliant. Not going out in public, wearing masks, social distancing, all those kind of things.
And Republicans are just doing whatever the hell they want. Not following the rules. They’re actively flouting the rules, essentially. If you look at the data, especially on the issue of mask wearing, compliance has never been higher for both parties right now.
Democrats are in the mid-90s. And Republicans aren’t far behind that. They’re like 88 percent. So, the perception in the public of this resistance to mask-wearing, especially in the case of the loudest voices, are the minority voices. And the more moderate, sensible, practical, reasonable voices are the quietest voices because they don’t yell about it.
So what we’re seeing actually is that the public is there. They’re realizing that their behavior is actually having an impact on Covid cases. And in some cases, people are actually responding to that in acting in a more compliant way.
Obviously, that cuts across religion because Evangelicals are more likely to get their information about Covid from the Trump administration. They’re actually less likely to get information from places like the CDC and public health experts.
The Democrats are just the opposite of that. They write the Trump administration low in the list. And the group that they look to, most scientists at the CDC. So you can see that this partisan divide not just overemphasizes, but the partisan divide has probably killed some people in America.
The Republicans, especially see this as government control and government trying to run your life. And you’ve been sheep wearing a mask; and it’s all made up and Democrats are much more science based. And I would say that Democrats are much more fearful of Corona and Republicans are not fearful enough in a lot of ways.
Jacobsen: Now, what about some of the more recent research on race and religion in politics? Now, I know you’ve covered some of the aspects of the metric of racial resentment. What are some other ways in which one can cut up this idea? This categorization of race in regards to politics and religion.
Burge: So when we talk about Protestants in America, we actually divided Protestants into three separate groups. There are Evangelicals, which sort of everyone knows about. The most famous religious group in America, I think in a lot of ways. And then there’s your mainline Protestants and the mainline Protestants are almost always white.
But they are much more moderate politically. They’re sort of center politically just because of taxation and things like that, not because of social issues. So those are groups like United Methodists, Presbyterians, etc. Now, there’s a third group. But this is where it gets interesting, a race standpoint called black Protestants and that’s what we call them. That’s what one of the categories called. When I use that terminology a lot of people are like, “That’s racist.”
Like, “Why are you dividing up a group of people based on their race? When they look a lot like evangelical Protestants in terms of behavior?” And that’s absolutely true. If you look at things like church attendance, black Protestants attend church at basically the same level as the Evangelical Protestants do. Their view of the Bible is very similar to black Protestants and Evangelical Protestants.
But on issues of politics, they could not be more different. 80% of Evangelicals, white Evangelicals are Republicans – vote for Donald Trump. Bottom line: immigration, gun control, taxation and everything else.
And then your black Protestant. 90%of them voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and then for Hillary Clinton in 2016. So, the main cause was, actually, the Democratic group in America, large democratic group in America.
So they are very similar on the issue of religiosity, but they’re very different on measures of politics and political ideology. And a lot of people don’t understand that the black church is a completely different phenomenon than the white church in America, because during the Jim Crow South, during segregation, Reconstruction Era, a lot of communities in the South that were black. You did not have access to social clubs.
You couldn’t go out to local restaurants and hang out with your friends or the next company. You could go to the fraternal organizations. You got locked out. Labor unions often post their labor union in your area.
So if you were a politician and you wanted to run for office, especially if you are a black politician, they would like even go to get an audience with the black church because that’s where white people basically stayed away from – because they had their own churches.
So the black church is a completely different phenomenon in American life because the black church is not just a religious center. It’s a social center; it’s a political center; it’s an economic center.
The black church is a sort of gathering place for the entire black community. And so they’re sort of different institutions on the outside. They look very similar in terms of religious beliefs and behaviors. On the inside, it’s a lot different. And so, we talk about being Protestant, being white or black. It’s dramatically different based on the color of your skin.
Jacobsen: You’ve also been posting about educational levels and religion itself, self-identified religious identification. So with the non-religious identification, individuals who have no high school. Other individuals who have the highest levels of education with postgraduate. How does this split up along different religious categorizations and non-religious categorizations?
Burge: Yeah, so interestingly enough, the more education you have, the less likely you were to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. That’s the case for white people. For non-white people, there’s no relationship between an amount of education and a Trump vote. Whether you never graduate high school or you have got post graduate degree, you’re just as likely to vote for Trump at very low levels – by the way, 30% or less.
Now, for white people, there’s a strong negative relationship between education and a Trump vote. So, for example, a white Evangelical who did not graduate high school, 80% of those people voted for Trump in 2016. But a white Evangelical who has a graduate degree, only 55% voted for Trump in 2016.
So a huge difference. And that actually holds up for the larger question. Even if you hold up for atheists too, 35% of atheists who did not graduate high school voted for Trump in 2016. But if you look at atheists who have a graduate degree, it’s below 10%.
And that downward trend is consistent for every religious group, higher levels of education, lower likelihood of a Trump vote amongst white people, amongst people of color. There’s no difference based on education.
Jacobsen: Also, in terms of sexual orientation, people’s religious identification does influence the public statement of their sexual orientation, or these identifications attract certain kinds of sexual orientations. That doesn’t seem plausible, but it is an open category of possibility as a hypothesis. So what are the numbers on religious and non-religious identification and sexual orientation? What are some hypotheses as to why these numbers are coming out this way?
Burge: Yes. So actually, I’m going to make this graph to look at the sexual orientation of about 13 different religious groups. Because I was talking to a lot of people who work in atheist organizations in America. And I came to find out that a lot of them are not straight – LGBTQ, non-cisgender. And I thought that was interesting because I know that atheists are said to be more liberal and more affiliated with the Democratic Party.
But I guess I didn’t think carefully about that piece of sexual orientation or gender orientation. So I just found an analysis about that. 95% of white Evangelicals identify as straight, which is not surprising. Right? But then you go over the Bible list and the group atheists.
Only three-quarters of atheists identify as straight and 10% of atheists identify as bisexual, 8% identify as gay, and about 2% identify as lesbian or gay women.
So atheists, about a quarter of all atheists today are not straight people. They’re LGBT. So to me, I think those two things are like chicken and egg. It’s hard to figure out the cause. A lot of stories of the conversion that people tell are directly related to their sexual orientation. Growing up, the gender orientation they grew up in a church community that was so accepting of either of those two things.
And so, they left a faith community because they felt so oppressed and so isolated by being part of that community. And so they left and became an atheist and many of them they were actively opposed to church when they thought church with them was an impediment to life and hurt them, caused trauma in their lives.
So, another sort of active campaigning against religion in America because of their personal experience. I do think those two things run hand in hand. I think atheists are a good place to land for them. Gays in conservative small communities felt bad for being gay. They were made to feel bad for being gay largely by church people. And so they’re having this sort of reaction, a justifiable reaction to that. And that’s why we’re seeing so many atheists not being on the LGBT spectrum.
Jacobsen: Now, what about the general population? What are the numbers in terms of LGBT?
Burge: Yeah, so, it depends on how you ask the question. This is actually a huge topic going to people who study sexuality, because there’s all kinds of survey things that pop up in here. We think there’s somewhere around 8% of Americans, adult Americans, who are not straight.
But we also know that when we ask people that question on a survey, they’re going to probably lie, or at least some of them will lie, especially older people. Who maybe are married to someone of the opposite gender or have kids, have an established relationship with the church, they don’t want to publicly say that they are not straight in orientation.
What we do know is, younger people are much more likely to say they’re not straight. Like I have data that says the kids, college age kids 18 to 22, at least 15% to 20% of them say, they’re not straight. But that could be experimentation. We know that a lot of people are sexually experimenting in their early years.
But now, the interesting thing is the stigma against that has gone away dramatically in the last 10 years or so. And so now, maybe, we’re seeing the true number, which is, maybe, 15% to 20% or of under-22-year-olds experiment with someone of the same gender. But then, it goes down over time.
And then once you get into the 50-year-olds, 60-year-olds, it’s 5%. So, it’s definitely a downward slide as people age, but we don’t know for sure because there’s still some stigma there that we can’t fully pull out of the survey or we won’t even see the true number for the next 10 or 15 years.
Jacobsen: Why do half of liberals, white liberals, identify as Nones?
Burge: Oh, because the God gap in America is huge. The thing is, the Republican Party, I tell everybody this. The Republican Party in America today is a white Christian party.
75% of Republicans in America today are white and Christian. Which is staggering because 50% of America is white and Christian. Only 38% of the Democratic Party is white and Christian. you can not have two diametrically opposed parties.
Now, we go back to this argument of what came first, the chicken or the egg. And the reality is we don’t know if your politics drives your religious affiliation or your religious affiliation drives your politics. There does seem to be some evidence emerging now that politics is the first cause and that it is changing people’s religion versus the other direction, which is your religion impacts your politics.
Because we do have some data that people, for instance liberal Evangelicals, left their churches or were more likely to leave their churches during the 2016 campaign than Republican Evangelicals were. Because we think it’s a bad fit for them politically.
So, we think that white liberals are being attracted to the Democratic Party, that non-white liberal Nones like the Democrats because that’s become the party of non-Christianity and racial diversity and openness. I don’t want to go too far here, but the left in America, especially white liberals in America, have sort of developed their own spirituality around progressive politics of being as liberal as humanly possible.
There’s some data now. There’s this term called “.” I don’t know if you have heard it.
Jacobsen: Yeah, there’s been some comedy sketches within some of the Latin American community around different Latin American countries. Reactions to the term “Latino” and then the introduction of “Latinx,” because so much effort was taken to even get general community support for “Latino” as a general term. And it’s a whole series. It’s very funny how this all plays out in terms of these sketches.
Burge: What’s funny to me is that I love that term “Latinx,” if you’re going to write a paper about Hispanics, you’re going to use that term in your paper. I just saw a survey in which like only 2% of Latinos would like that term.
Burge: They don’t want to be called that. But it’s like academics like have this paternal thing, “No, no, no, you are being oppressed. I can tell you. You’re being oppressed. We’re going to call you something you don’t want to be called. So, you don’t feel oppressed.”
It’s very hard. It goes on with the left in America in some ways because, for instance, there was a recent survey that said that white liberals were more bothered by the fact that Joe Biden was an old white guy than black liberals were, which tells you a lot about what’s going on in American politics. I think, which has a lot of virtue signaling.
Jacobsen: Well, it seems like non-dialogical activism. There’s no discourse in terms of “What do you see as most important, and to what degree?” And then using that information, you can build concretized activism. If you don’t have that, then it becomes very hard to represent a community in general.
Here’s one I haven’t asked you. If you have an individual who is poor, what is their most likely religious identification in America? If the person has a doctorate or the highest level of educational status in the United States, what is their most likely religious identification? Then those same questions for political identification.
Burge: So here’s the thing. People don’t realize this, but like when we talk about the Nones. There’s actually three types of Nones: atheists, agnostics, nothing in particulars. The three different groups of people.
Atheists and agnostics have incredibly high levels of education. They’re near the top now. They’re not as high as, for instance, Hindus. There’s a ton of education because a lot of them come here from the country to get education here, because in places like India, Pakistan. They’re places where Hinduism is strong.
Here’s what’s super interesting. So they’re high on the education spectrum, the highest in America. And then at the bottom of the spectrum, the group that has the lowest level of education in America is that nothing in particular. Less than a quarter of nothing in particulars, have a four-year college degree, lower than black Protestants. They’re lower than every other group.
Burge: When we match the Nones together, you’re mashing together two groups with one group, and the one group is completely different than the two other groups because most people pick atheist and agnostics – because they’ve gone through some sort of intellectual pursuit of those terms of understand what “atheism” means and “agnosticism” means, what “secularism” means.
All those things. They’ve read about Karl Marx and all this kind of stuff. Nothing in particulars for a group of people go, “I don’t know.” It’s not the same thing. So nothing in particular group is this is key demographic too. This particular group is 20% of all Americans.
The atheists are about 6% of all Americans. The agnostics are about 6% of all Americans. So together, atheists and agnostics are just over half the size of the nothing in particular group. So we mash all those groups together. Look at the education of the Nones, it’s going to skew downward because of the nothing in particular group.
Usually, agnostics downward would have a high level of education. So there’s this debate going on amongst academics who study these people. “What are the Nones? Who are they? These three groups together are not a model.
They’re so different in characteristics. We don’t consider Protestant Christianity a monolith. We divide it up. We talked about mainline Protestant and Evangelical black. We probably should do the same thing with the Nones because they’re 30% of the population. They’re completely different.
Evangelicals are the middle. Mainline classes are near the top. Jews are also near the top. So, Evangelicals have gained a lot of education over the last thirty years. That used to be more true, but not less true, because a lot of them are going to college working ahead – working at white collar jobs.
Now, in terms of education, here’s something super interesting, I didn’t know until last week when I got asked by a reporter about this – to look it up. It used to be for a long, long time, as far back 1972. The average Republican had more education than the average Democrat.
And sometimes, it was significantly more like a year and a half or so, or two years, more school back in the ‘60s, ‘70s. Now, that begins to narrow beginning in the 1980’s. And now in the last two years, the lines have crossed. Now, the average Democrat has more education than the average Republican. And that’s largely because the average Republican educational attainment has stalled over the last twenty years or so around the millennium.
It’s up right about fourteen years of education, the associate’s degree, the Democrat education is continuing a trend upward. And in five years, Democrats might clearly have more education than Republicans do.
Jacobsen: Now, in other words, if someone is of Jewish ethnic background, atheist, non-religious identification as a None subcategory and a Democrat, then this individual will have far more education than any other categorization in the United States.
Burge: At the aggregate level, sure, I would definitely look to get their education level. I would say they have at least a bachelor’s degree, if not more. But obviously, there are always outliers.
So, maybe, if you never graduate high school, there are so many good jobs. It’s all over the board. But in the aggregate, you would figure someone, a Jewish person anyway, could have a higher base level of education because that’s the culture of the Jewish community. But then there are a lot of atheists that you talked about, which I think give a different level of Judaism.
But you can always have outliers. I love a plumber who reads. That’s great. But those people don’t exist very much. People sort of follow the tropes surrounding their religious and social groups.
So for Evangelicals, you, typically, read the Bible. So, that’s kind of how that works.
Jacobsen: Why are white Evangelicals the single most conservative group on immigration?
Burge: A lot of Evangelicals are living in very homogeneous communities. They live in racially homogenous communities, even politically homogenous communities. And they don’t have a lot of interaction with immigrants.
They live together like a Mexican restaurant, where there are immigrants. But beyond that, they don’t have a lot of interaction with them. And so, it’s just good old nationalism. A lot of it. Christian nationalism, which is a whole term, it’s emerging in American politics today.
The idea that America is a Christian nation and we need to defend Christian values. So, white and Christian go together. And so when we see brown people coming here, they’re making America less white. And that’s scary because that means whites won’t be the majority and lose their rights.
White people in America have a privilege that they don’t recognize, a lot of them. A phrase I use often is “when you’re used to privilege equality feels like oppression.” And white Evangelicals in America are used to privilege. And now they’re going to have to face a world where they’re equal with other racial groups, other religious groups. They don’t want that.
So what you’re seeing in America is sort of the last gasp or backfire effect of a group who knows that the end is near. Their reign in American politics is slowly coming to an end. It probably will be in the next 10 to 15 years.
And so what you’re seeing is they are like gasping and grasping and trying everything they can to hold onto the power for as long as they can. And immigration is part of that. They realize by slowing immigration, they’re actually slowing the browning of America, which is good for them.
Now, what’s super interesting is to go down the rabbit hole quick, Evangelicals have always been pro immigration for the issues of Christian persecution in other countries. We used to let in about 100,000 people in this country every year who were being persecuted for their religious beliefs in countries across the world.
For instance, Christians are being persecuted in China a lot. That’s factual, not just Evangelicals. And we’ve let them come to our country and give them safe haven here. During the Trump administration, the number of immigrants coming for religious persecution had dropped from 100,000 to less than 20,000, which is the lowest it has ever been.
Most Evangelical organizations are completely opposed to the idea and think it should go back to the 100,000 threshold that it has been for a long time. But the average rank and file Evangelical doesn’t know that. But if they did know that, they would not change their position and still would say, “Yes, we need less immigrants in America.”
So, this is an interesting disconnect going on amongst the Evangelical community, between the elite Evangelicals, the ones who run the publications and run these organizations Evangelicals care about, what the rank and file Evangelicals think, which is that “immigration is bad.” And in reality, there are some instances where it is not bad.
Jacobsen: Ryan, thank you so much once more, and I will talk to you again in two weeks.
Burge: Always a pleasure, Scott. Appreciate it.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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Image credit: Ryan Burge.