That Pesky God Gap


Over on the Religion Dispatches blog, where religious progressives go to shake hands with each other, there’s a little excitement about some research purporting to show that all that fuss about the God Gap was overdone. As Candace Chellew-Hodge enthuses:

A new study
from the University of Florida may just be the amplification of our
voice that we need. It confirms that there is a growing religious left
in this country and dispels the “God gap” theory “that white religious
Christians are conservative and more likely to vote Republican, said UF
researcher Kenneth Wald.”

Then along comes Pastor Dan Schultz, also enthusiastic:

It wasn’t until I read about this study that this made sense, but it’s
precisely the communal faith of mainline Protestant denominations that
makes me caution political observers about writing them off as
irrelevant. It’s true that mainliners are a relatively small chunk of
the population–about 12-15%, compared to roughly 25% each for Catholics
and Evangelicals–but as the study points out, the communal ideal cuts
across denominational lines to some extent.

Unfortunately, however, Chellew-Hodge and Schultz are relying  on last week’s press release from UF. Had they looked at the actual paper by Wald, Stephen Mockabee of the U. of Cincinnati and David Leege of Notre Dame (given last September at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, and available here under the title “Is There a Religious Left?”), they would have realized that there’s a lot less to its God Gap critique than the release suggests.

The authors aim to measure American Christians in two
registers: individualist and communitarian. Their hypothesis is that there’s a
communitarian Christian Left out there that the standard way of reckoning the God Gap doesn’t account for–and they hope to account for it by distinguishing it from the individualist Christian Right. The problem is with the way they distinguish the two groups. The standard measures for the God Gap–frequency of attendance and “salience” (intensity of religious commitment) –are given to the individualists. Why should communitarians be less likely to go to church or to take religion seriously?

In addition, the authors rather peculiarly make belief in transubstantiation an indicator of communitarianism. It’s true that, according to their data, evangelicals (individualists par excellence) are less likely to believe in transubstantiation than other Christians–but surely that’s because enough of them are theologically literate enough to know that their churches deny the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper. Oddly, African-African Protestants rank higher than Catholics on belief in transubstantiation. 

To my mind, the study’s only persuasive measure of individualism versus communitarianism comes from respondents saying whether whether they consider “avoiding sin” more or less important than “helping others.” But the effect of the other criteria is really just to recapitulate the old Gap Gap analysis: frequent-attending, religion-is-really-important, sin-avoiding Christians on one side and less frequent-attending, religion-is-not-so-important, “helping others” Christians on the other.

In order to get a clear picture, you’d need to have a whole set of criteria that reflect actual individualist v. communitarian views (perhaps involving social philosophy), and then control for frequency of attendance and salience. And then you’d need to provide actual numbers on either side. If you ended up with one frequent-attending, high-salience, Democrat-voting communitarian Christian for every two frequent-attending, high-salience Republican-voting individualist Christians, you’d have the same old God Gap as before. So calm down, Candace and Dan.