Ask Professor Burge 14: Projections, Demographics, and a Hunch

by | June 11, 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 percentages and projections, and a hunch.

*Interview conducted on August 4, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: I should at least take a step back. There is an issue in which agnostics and atheists differ. This is with regards to support for abortion, but it is more to do with support for abortion on demand. How do they differ and on what lines?

Professor Ryan Burge: Yes, so, I was really interested in what conservative atheists, like the most politically conservative atheists, agnostics: How are they politically active in the world? Politically because, I’m a political scientist. So, for us, everything is downstream of politics. So, I want to see if a politically conservative atheist or agnostic sees the world in the same way that a politically conservative Evangelical or Catholic does. Come to find out, a politically conservative agnostic, even a conservative agnostic, only 28.8% of them are in favour of abortion on demand, compared to 55% of the conservative atheist. So, they’re even more agnostic from way more pro-life, twice as pro-life as a conservative atheist. It is super interesting because it shows you something about atheists. To them, being able to get an abortion whenever you want is like sacrosanct even to conservative members of that community.

Both liberals, it’s above 90%, but even among conservatives, 55% of agnostics go from 95% to 28%. I mean, that’s a huge drop. So, it is telling me something about agnostics, how they see the world ethically and morally, and they’re not morally liberal, let’s say, as your atheists are. You shouldn’t see daylight between the two groups.

Jacobsen: So, 1978 and 2018 is a significant time with four decades looking at the ethnic grouping of whites and the timeline of going to church per week. What was the shift there between 1978 and 2018 for the three major political categories and states? That’s fascinating.

Burge: So, this is super important. Because if you look at white Democrats versus white Republicans, that’s really where the difference shoots out because black Democrats go to church a lot because of black Protestant Christianity. Black Protestants are as religiously faithful as white Evangelicals are; they go to church as much. So, you pull them out of the mix. What you see is really the difference, so, you look at a white Democrat and a white Republican. 43% of white Democrats never go to church, then another 23.7%. So, you’re talking about a total of like 2/3rds of white Democrats going to church less than once a year. Amongst white Republicans, it is only 36%. So, almost half, half as much. So, about a 1/3rd of white Republicans go to church less than once a year, compared to 66% of white Democrats.

So, half of white liberals in America today identify as religiously unaffiliated. Half of white liberals, which tells you a lot about what the future of the party. The Democratic Party to me is going to get harder and harder over time to be the party that appeals to black Protestants who are religiously active, but politically active and also theologically conservative, are cool with gay marriage and abortion. At the same time, they will need to appeal to white liberal Nones who are extra liberal on policy issues. That’s a hard circle to square to try to appeal to this group, and that group, at the same time. The Republican Party is much easier because, like we talked about, it is the party of white Christianity, which can hit those high notes. You’re going to hit 80% of the people with one message. You do not have to try mixed messages based on your audience like the Democratic Party. If I was going to campaign politics, my own views aside, it’d be a lot easier to run a campaign for a Republican candidate than a Democrat candidate. Because of that, you only have that one note. You hit it every single time. A Democrat is much more versatile with different groups.

Jacobsen: We’re looking at the trajectory of the ratios of each particular denomination or non-denomination or non-religion in the United States. If we project those 50 years forward, what will the larger groups become in the United States?

Burge: Yes, so, 50 years for denominational Christianity is going to be a small portion of America. So, your Baptists, United Methodists, Episcopalians, all those are going to be a small portion of America. Maybe, 20% of Americans are going to be part of a denomination. I still think the Catholic Church is going to hold strong. But then, I think what you’re going to see is another 20%. They’re going to be non-denominational Protestants. I think there’s going to be a day in my lifetime when non-denominational Protestants outnumber denominational Protestants. I mean, so, American Christianity, we’re going to look like a 1/3rd denominational Protestants, a third non-denominational Protestants, and a third of Catholics. That’s really what it means to some philosophizing like that. The Nones, they’re going to be made a 30% to 35% by themselves. The last 5% is going to be your atheists, Hindus, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists – everybody else is going to fall in that category. So, I do think there’s a future where American Christianity looks much different than it does today.

Jacobsen: How big will the Nones be?

Burge: Oh, I think they’re going to peak around 40%. That’s the plateau that I see in the data. Because if you look at millennials, they hit this peak at 40%, put a hold there. So, I think that somewhere upper 30s or low 40s is where I see that stopping. I get asked about that a lot, and that’s a hunch. That’s not really based on any data. I mean, obviously, projections can change for a bunch of reasons. But I do think that I do not see a future where 50% of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, at least not in my lifetime. So, probably 40% where they’re going to peak, then America is going to be 50% people of faith, almost all of them, maybe 5%, are going to be something else. 55% are going to be your Christians probably.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Burge.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal (ISSN 2369-6885). Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and the advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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Image Credit: Ryan Burge.

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About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

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