By Robert P. Jones
president, Public Religion Research
This weekend, conservative Christian activists will gather at the fourth annual “Values Voter Summit” in Washington, DC. Sponsored by Family Research Council and other conservative Christian and political groups, the gathering will feature prominent conservative Christians and other leaders and sessions with titles such as “Silencing the Christians,” “Obamacare: Rationing Your Life Away,” and “Thugocracy: Fighting the Vast Left-wing Conspiracy.”
With titles like that, there is sure to be good, perhaps irresistible, religious and political theater, but sorting out the realities from the rhetoric can be a real challenge both for reporters and for readers who hope to come away from new stories with a critical understanding of the current state of the conservative religious activist movement and its relationship to the wider group of white evangelical Christians for which it claims to speak.
Below are four recommended questions that readers should use to evaluate the quality of the upcoming media coverage. These recommendations are largely based on findings from our newly released 2009 Religious Activists Surveys, conducted by the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics in partnership with Public Religion Research.
Question 1: Does the story note that conservative Christian activists are only one kind of “values voter”?
Our recent Religious Activists Surveys, the most comprehensive comparative portraits of conservative and progressive religious activists to date, are an important reminder that the conservative Christian activists attending the “Values Voter Summit” are just one kind of religious activist with one set of values. There is also another group of religious activists, progressive religious activists, who hold their own set of values and who have been making their presence known in recent years.
We found activists on both the right and the left who were both politically engaged and more highly religious than the general public. Referencing the so-called “God gap” during his remarks at our recent press conference, Michael Cromartie, Vice President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, concluded, “Well clearly, from this data, the God Gap is not only closing, it is closed.” In fact, in our surveys, while conservative and progressive activists didn’t agree on many political issues, they did agree that progressive religious groups had wielded a greater influence than conservative religious groups in the 2008 election.
Question 2: Does the coverage give a nod to the important differences between the priorities of conservative religious activists and the broader group of white evangelical Christians for whom these activists claim to speak?
Activists are elites who close ranks easily, and their views rarely correspond in a one-to-one fashion with the more diverse and less predictable rank and file. The Religious Activists Surveys confirmed that conservative religious activists ranked only two issues as the most important for religious people to engage: abortion and same-sex marriage. While this narrow agenda has the strategic advantage of being focused and clear, it does not map cleanly onto the priorities of white evangelicals overall, who have broader political priorities. The 2008 Faith and American Politics Survey (FAPS), for example, found that white evangelicals did not rank abortion or same-sex marriage in the top five issues that were most important to their vote. White evangelicals overall ranked these cultural issues lower than the economy, terrorism, energy and gas, the war in Iraq, and health care as the important factors in their vote. This is not to say that white evangelicals do not have strong opinions about opposing abortion and same-sex marriage (even here, not surprisingly, activist opinions are more polarized than opinions of white evangelicals in the general population), but it is important to note that the priorities of conservative religious activists do not necessarily square with the priorities of evangelicals overall.
Question 3: Does the story attempt to understand the deeper cultural and theological influences underneath the issues?
Underlying the most contentious arguments in the national health-care reform debate are deep disagreements about the appropriate role for government. On this broad issue, which provides a partial window into a religio-cultural worldview, conservative activists views are perhaps stronger but basically track the views of white evangelicals overall. Among conservative religious activists in the Religious Activists Surveys, 86% believe that government should provide fewer services and cut spending. The 2008 Faith and American Politics Survey, which contained a slightly different question, found similarly that two-thirds of white evangelicals overall reported favoring smaller government offering fewer services, rather than larger government providing more services.
But what is most interesting–and what gets to the passionate reactions in the health care debate–are the ways in which these views about the role of government are rooted in deeper theological beliefs that shape activists’ predispositions toward more individualistic or more structural approaches to solving social problems. For example, the Religious Activists Surveys found that more than two-thirds (67%) of conservative Christian activists agree that “if enough people were brought to Christ, social ills would take care of themselves,” a view shared by only 13% of progressive Christian activists. Understanding the links between theological beliefs about religious salvation and political strategies for solving social problems (which are perhaps an analogous albeit limited kind of this-worldly salvation) goes a long way not only towards taking religious people seriously, but also towards casting light on what may seem to some like perplexing visceral reactions.
Question 4: Does the coverage attend to the role of younger activists and to generational differences that challenge conventional wisdom?
One additional recommendation is to examine important issues through the prism of generational differences. While the views of younger and older white evangelicals are similar on some issues such as abortion, on others such as the role of government and gay and lesbian rights, there are significant generation gaps.
On these issues, white evangelicals have a larger generation gap than any other major religious group. A small majority (53%) of younger (under 35 years of age) evangelicals overall side with conservative religious activists favoring a smaller government offering fewer services. However, 44% of younger evangelicals say they favor a larger government offering more services, compared to only 23% of older evangelicals (age 35 or older)–a generation gap of 21 points. Likewise, a majority of younger evangelicals favor some legal recognition of same-gender relationships, either same-sex marriage (24%) or civil unions (28%). In contrast, only about one-third of older evangelicals favor either same-sex marriage (9%) or civil unions (25%)–a generation gap of 18 points (FAPS 2008).
In addition to dealing with the significant generational differences in attitudes, it is worth asking how conservative Christian activists are dealing with the considerable challenge of recruiting and integrating younger activists. One of the most striking findings of the Religious Activists Surveys is dearth of younger activists in the ranks of both conservative and progressive religious activists. Less than 1-in-5 conservative and progressive activists are 50 years of age or younger (16% and 17% respectively), compared to approximately 3-in-5 in the general population. And conservative religious activists are even older, with nearly half (49%) clocking in at 65 years of age or more. With the passing of so many dominant conservative Christian leaders in the past few years, one key question for the conservative religious movement is how it will reach out to a new generation of activists, especially one that is not necessarily looking for the next great leader and does not seamlessly share the issue priorities or the strategies of the previous generation.
In short, an event like the “Values Voters Summit” can present challenges to reporters (especially those whose primary beat isn’t religion) and readers alike who want to accurately locate these conservative religious activists in the context of American religion. But it also presents an opportunity. These four questions are at least one way readers can arm themselves with tools to differentiate between reporting that critically distinguishes between rhetoric and reality, stereotype and complexity. Done carefully and well, the coverage of this event has the potential to advance our understanding of the broad and dynamic American religious landscape.
Robert P. Jones, Ph.D. is president of Public Religion Research, a research and education organization working at the intersection of religion, values, and public life. He was a principal researcher, along with John C. Green, Director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, for the newly released 2009 Religious Activists Surveys. Dr. Jones was also the principal researcher for the 2008 Faith and American Politics Survey, sponsored by Faith in Public Life and conducted by Public Religion Research.