Ask Professor Burge 8: Religious Identity and Political Warmth (or Lack Thereof)

by | April 19, 2021

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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, RepresentationPoliticsGroupsand 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 attitudes, politics, and religion.

*Interview conducted on September 28, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: With regards to American Muslim identity in the United States, what are identities cross-linked between American Muslim identity and political identity in regard to the United States?

Professor Ryan Burge: With Muslims, first, it is important. They are not a large portion of the United States. They are in the media a lot. A lot of stories about them, especially in the post-9/11 world.

The reality, they are less than 1% of the population. I don’t see a lot of evidence of a lot of growth. They are geographically located in certain places in the United States like Dearborn, Michigan. They have a huge Muslim population, but they are only 3% of the population of Michigan as a whole.

So, it doesn’t matter as a whole for the state. Interestingly enough, 80%+ of them voted for Hillary Clinton. They are a strong Democrat backing coalition. You would think this translate into labels. Muslims don’t get into labelling themselves liberals.

In fact, only about 30% of Muslims identify as liberal and 50% identify as independents. All independent liberals voted for Clinton, but they don’t see themselves liberals. They are strong Democrats, but not strong liberals. They are a sold blue vote, but are not far left on policy.

Jacobsen: This is an interesting part of the research. So, quoting you, “If transgender is subbed for abortion, the gap narrows quite a bit,” n terms of Trump approval among white Evangelical Republicans. Can you break that down for me?

Burge: I hear people say, “White Evangelicals vote for Republicans largely because of abortion and hold their nose, and aren’t for all the other policies of the Republican Party.” I have been toying with the idea that it isn’t abortion. Maybe, it is immigration.

That is one that comes to mind because Trump brought immigration to the front of what the Republican Party is about. So, I published a bunch of stuff recently showing that an Evangelical who disagrees with Trump on abortion, but agrees with him on immigration, has a much higher approval rating than the opposite.

So, abortion is doing less work there than immigration is. I had a question about transgender. Do you agree or disagree? ‘There is two genders: only male or female?’ If you take abortion out and put transgenderism in, then the gap between immigration and transgender is smaller than the gap between immigration and abortion.

I think abortion is less important than the views on transgenderism among Evangelicals, which shows you where it lands in the pecking order. It is a social issue, but it is not nearly as important as other issues in the Republican constellation of issues.

I think we need to stop talking about abortion as Evangelicals’ single issue vote. It is not about abortion. It is about the whole suite of Republican ideas and abortion as one of them. They’d still vote for Republicans if they were more moderate on abortion.

Jacobsen: This is a less nuanced question. Which has an amusing angle on it, you called it a ‘weird little nugget,’ where 66% of Evangelicals or Catholics who tend to vote for Biden think that Jesus would vote for Biden.

Only 53% of Trump supporters thought Jesus would vote for Trump. What is going on?

Burge: [Laughing] I don’t know. I found this nugget in a private advocacy group. I love the idea. Am I voting for what the Bible tells me to vote for or for what my politics is telling me to vote for? It is figuring out how that matrix of decision-making happens. Does politics come first or religion come first?

It adds a weird angle. You’d think a lot of Evangelicals would say, “I would vote for Trump. Jesus would vote for Trump. I want to vote for who Jesus would vote for.” It is clear. That’s not true. Half of people who are going to vote for Trump go, “The Jesus of my religion wouldn’t vote for Trump. I will vote for Trump anyway.”

It is not “the Bible tells me who to vote for.” It is “my party tells me who to vote for and I justify it later.” So, I think it’s really an indictment of what American religion has become, especially American conservative religion.

They don’t think Jesus would vote for who they’d vote for. But they will still vote for him anyway, because it is not really about Jesus at this point anyway.

Jacobsen: There’s so much interesting research. Some really crucial points of contact in the United States. These are reiterations of things we’ve discussed in other sessions. When I look at some of the identifications of how people look at sex and gender issues, something that you did not expect was that transgender identities would have less support from older Evangelicals.

Yet, 65% of 40-year-olds think there are only two genders, but drops to 60% among 70-year-olds. My first question: Is that statistically significant? That 5% or just within the margin of error.

Burge: It is interesting. That’s a huge sample. It’s like 300,000 people. So, margins there are very small. I don’t know if it is substantively significant. The thing that jumps out to me. The expectation is agreement with the statement would happen with older and older people.

I think that’s the assumption we all have. The oldest Americans are, typically, the most conservative, especially on gay marriage, abortion, and transgenderism. The fact they don’t go up from a 40-year-old. It is something interesting about old people.

If you look at older people, they tend to moderate, become more soft, less dogmatic, even on abortion. Older people are not more opposed to abortion than young people. At 40-year-olds, you’re still thinking about it because you might still get pregnant. At 70, you’re more in a live-and-let-live mentality.

I think transgenderism is more current and gay marriage is more 15 years ago when the public was more divided. We are still in the moment around 2004/06 when big swathes of America really have conservative views about transgenderism like they did about gay marriage.

I am curious, in the next 15 or 20 years, if this becomes an issue, or if this moves to the progressive side, or if this moves to the abortion side and has a lot of stability over a long period of time. Transgenderism follow the track of “I’m not changing my mind. I don’t care what happens…” It is too early to know, to test that.

Jacobsen: This is interesting as a piece of research. 2/3rds of Jews know John Roberts is the Supreme Court Chief Justice. ½ atheists and 40% of Mormons, now, these are quite different numbers with Evangelical Christian, non-Evangelical Christian at the lowest.

Why are we seeing these differences in knowledge about the political-legal landscape of the United States?

Burge: It is, basically, a proxy for education. Political knowledge questions are always fun. You can see who pays attention and who doesn’t. You can ask, ‘How much attention do you pay attention to politics?’ There’s not a whole lot.

But down to brass tax, you have to ask substantive questions. A lot of people get them wrong. Jewish people have very high levels of education. That’s part of their culture. We know almost half of atheists have a 4-year college degree.

People with 4-year college degrees are atheists. It is noteworthy people continue to exist and do not have a basic knowledge of American politics. They don’t know how long a Senate term is, which is a basic civics question.

Only 4 religious groups actually got more than half of the people in those groups getting it right, which means more than half of the people in 12 groups got it wrong. It is amazing how democracy can function with so many people voting and not knowing how it functions and voting every 4 years.

Jacobsen: Approximately 25% of Protestants of the Greatest Generation consider their church non-denominational, 30% among Boom, 60% among Millennials, 60% among Gen Z. So, why the explosion of non-denominational churches?

Burge: My co-author and I wrote a book about the rise of non-denominational Christianity and the future of religion. We have come down to the idea of Americans of rejecting labels and institutions more and more, especially when the institutions are far away from them.

We see these non-denominational churches started by a local pastor without much help. They are all local. The pastor grew up in that community. Most of the people in that church are from that community rot hat town. They grow well because they don’t have all the baggage that Southern Baptists, Methodists, or Presbyterians have had for years.

They can start from ground zero without the history that ties them down. They have the new, shiny factor of growth feeds growth. More people talk about it, come to it. Growth means growth means growth. The churches have gone out of their way to not be controversial and not have this long history on race issues, gender issues, and sexuality.

You avoid all that stuff. People come to them as almost a blank slate. They have sights, sounds, and a place where other people go to. I think American Protestant Christian will have over half of the people who are Protestant will be non-denominational in the future.

Most Protestants will decline, even the Southern Baptist Convention has had a decade of decline in size – even more relative to the size of the population. When they’re declining, everyone is. The United Methodists, the Episcopalians are declining.

When we see all these declining, and when we see the Evangelicals not declining, it is because a lot of them have shifted from being denominational to non-denominational. I think that’s what a lot of American Christianity is beginning to look like.

Jacobsen: So, the thermometer score of various groups like party identifications. “Atheists,” “Congress,” “federal government,” “Tea Party,” “Christian fundamentalists,” “feminists,” these labels tend to rate very low on metrics of party identification, Democrat, Republican, Independent.

Why are these related to being significantly less liked among different political groups in the United States?

Burge: You would think Republicans wouldn’t like atheists because Republicans are the party of white Christians and white Christians don’t like atheists. Atheists are, obviously, antagonistic towards that. But Democrats don’t like atheists that much.

On a scale of 1 to 100, Democrats rate atheists at 41. It is the second lowest. The only group lower were the Tea Party at 30. So, 20 points lower than unions. Christians among Democrats rank 70.5 and atheists rank 41.4. That’s about 30 points.

It shows you how American, even though we have such a rising group of religiously unaffiliated; we still have a civic religion in America. That’s religion is Christianity. Being an atheist, it is being out of step with what most Americans think American should be about.

Even though, they don’t go to church and couldn’t care less about church. They think you need to be Christian to be a good person. This is one more piece of good evidence: Atheists are discriminated against as much as, if not more than, any other religious group in America because they are ut of step with what it means to be a “Real American.”

Jacobsen: An addendum: this is regardless of political label.

Burge: Yes, even if you look at Independents, it is 40 out of 100. Republicans, it is 33, which is slightly above the federal government and slightly above liberals. Muslims are 37 rather than 33 (atheists). So, Republicans like Muslims more than they like atheists, which tells you a lot.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] I wish we could talk some more. Ryan, Professor Burge, thank you for your time.

Burge: Thank you, Scott, I 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-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

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Image Credit: Ryan Burge.

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