Printer Friendly Page Asking a Taboo Question ~ #35

Asking a Taboo Question ~ #35

By Alan F. Kay, PhD
2004, (fair use with attribution and copy to authors)
April 14, 2004

Religion is the 800-pound gorilla on the American political scene.  People who have traditionally relied on the First Amendment to keep church and state separated believe that President George W. Bush simultaneously appeases his religious-right base and confounds his opponents with anti-abortion forays and a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriages.  Religious-right views are promoted on the TV religious channels and talk radio.  Al Gore, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are all born-again Christians.  John Kerry, a Catholic, avoids the social issues.  The views of all major-office candidates fail to appeal to more than about half of the electorate, which is very divided, especially along religious lines.  We are not being brought together by any of them.  Some people think that the religious right, now highly politicized, will be as much as 25% of the voting electorate this fall.  What is known from polling about the religious views of the electorate?  Until now, almost nothing.  In fact, asking about religious affiliation was once taboo for a pollster.

About 15 years ago, one of the pioneers of polling, Lou Harris, told me that he had been the first pollster to ask people about their religion.  Now, many routinely ask religion as a demographic question.  To my knowledge, that data has never been mined.  I recently examined the findings of my organization, Americans Talk Issues (ATI), which asked the same demographic religion question in over 30 surveys from 1987 to 1999 using the language shown in Q1.  Here interviewers spoken words are in italics, and instructions to interviewers are in [brackets]. 

Q1: Is your religious background, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish or something else?  [If "something else" or unclear whether Christian ask:] Is that a Christian church?

  Nov 1999 Mar 1991 Oct 1987
Protestant 42% 54% 51%
Catholic 24% 27% 26%
Jewish 1% 2% 3%
Something else      
    Other Christian 17% 11% 13%
    Other non-Christian/Unspecified 6% 2% 2%
    Agnostic/Atheist 2% 1% not asked separately
    None 5% 
} 4%

 Don't Know 2%    

A trend, probably previously unknown, emerged.  The three traditional religions, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish, together over the 12 year period dropped by 13 points.  {Note:  calculate "points" this way:  Add up the three percentages in the earliest survey and subtract from that the sum of the three percentages in the most recent survey, (51%+26%+3%) (42%+24%+1%) = 13 points}.  The traditional religions were a "shrinking" group.

"Other Christian," "Non-Christian" and "No religion or No answer," absorbed the difference.  Each of these three rose by 4 points, and constitute the "growing" group.  In the 8 year period, March 1991 to November 1999, the pattern of change is similar but slightly accelerated, with 1 point more coming from the shrinking group average to the growing group average.

The change seems relatively modest and might be labeled "diversification" away from the traditional religions and polarized in equal measure toward more extreme Christian sects, toward other religions (Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.,) and toward "no religion or no specified religion."  The diversification might well reflect the trend in U.S. immigration as much as the change in non-immigrant attitudes during this 12-year period.  ATI gathered no further data after November 1999, i.e., the last 3 years.  It could be that some of these trends have accelerated recently. Clearly if enough good data were found, such a study could be a bonanza for sociologists and possibly for candidates wrestling with the religion question, too.

It would be useful if a religion survey were undertaken based on a more encompassing survey question than Q1, for example, Q2:

Q2  I am going to read you a list of items: religions, religious beliefs, non-religious beliefs and so on.  I want you to tell me after I read each item what number from 0 to 10 applies for you, where 0 means you have no interest, affiliation, or support for that item and 10 means the item completely characterizes you as far as religion goes.  Now here's the trick.  All of the numbers you give me have to add to 10.  If you have a single 10, then everything else has to be zero.  I'll tell you your running total and you can go back and change any number as you hear more items read.

Here are the items: [Read 19 items in random order]

1.  Protestant
2.  Catholic
3.  Jewish
4.  Muslim
5.  Hindu
6.  Buddhist
7.  Taoist
  [For any of 8 through 12, if necessary say:]
8.  Fundamentalist Christian Believes every word of the Bible is true
9.  Evangelical Christian Believes Christians should convert others to Christianity
10.  Born Again Christian As adult accepts Jesus as personal savior, loves Jesus
11.  Ecumenical Christian Respects and accepts non-Christian religions
12.  Deist Believes that God created the world but has since remained indifferent to His creation.  Our Founding Fathers were Deists.
13.  Other Christian  (volunteered sect OK)
14.  Other non-Christian  (volunteered sect OK)
15.  Atheist
16.  Agnostic
17.  Spiritual Values
18.  Belief in re-incarnation
19.  Secular Values.

Q2 is worded for a telephone interview.  To allocate among 19 items, an Internet survey would be more user-friendly.  The user would be given, say, 10 cyber-pennies.  To be fair everybody gets the same number of pennies.  The user would see on the monitor screen at one time all the items each followed by a box for putting in pennies.  This allocation is a good way to capture a true picture of those whose attitudes are divided.  Many married couples have come from different religious backgrounds, e.g., Methodist and Baptist, and one or both might want to put 5 pennies on each.  Many, particularly young families, or those that have recently moved, choose their church for convenience, or because they like the minister, or the Sunday school, or because they initially know and like a few members of the congregation -- not because of any deep devotion to a particular Christian sect.  The same might be true for Jewish families or Sunnis and Shiite.  

A question such as Q2 could be asked in a survey, along with questions on more broadly accepted values (like science, technology, evolution, and others dear to secular humanists and to those who strongly believe in the separation of church and state).  Cross-tabulation of these questions could produce a bonanza for understanding the evolving role of religion in the total population.  The country and the candidates themselves could then be in a position to handle the divisive religion issue more sensibly.

It is important to realize that all this potential value arose from one pollster, Lou Harris, who found the U.S. population, responding to a reasonably clear question, quite willing to tell strangers their personal religion.  The potential value was expanded here in this column to show a U.S. population with clear, slow trends in religious affiliations over the years.  I strongly suspect that because of the willingness of the people to speak honestly about the role of religion for them, much more can be done to face down the 800-pound gorilla that has polluted our politics.  Maybe we will even do so before the Nov. 2, 2004, election.

There is a lot to be said for breaking old taboos.


>>> 2.5  The Polling Critic

Table of Contents

Return to Top