Politics and Christians

a review

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workingman of nazareth

Originally published in New Ground 116, January — February, 2008.

by Bob Roman

The Truth About Conservative Christians: What They Think and What They Believe by Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 206 pages, $22.50

This is a polemical book, based on public opinion research, written as an answer to popular political commentary that equates conservative Christian theology with conservative politics. The basic contention is that conservative Christians are “far too varied in their political views to be President Bush’s political base” Or, in the words of a popular bumper sticker of some years ago, “Christians are no better than other people, they’re just forgiven.” The Truth About Conservative Christians examines the opinions, voting behavior, and consumption patterns of Christians (and others, for comparison), in order to draw conclusions not just about politics but culture and religion.

Chicagoans will recognize one of the authors, Andrew Greeley, as a Catholic Priest, columnist for the Sun Times, and a highly prolific author: possibly Catholicism’s answer to Isaac Asimov, though Greeley’s attempts at science fiction were pretty lame. What they may not know is that Greeley is also a sociologist with, naturally, an interest in the sociology of religion. He’s currently a professor at University of Arizona but is also on the staff of the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. I remember him as being more than a bit conservative back in the 1970s but most would likely regard his contemporary columns as being rather liberal, at least.

Michael Hout is apparently from a similar Irish Catholic background as Greeley though of a younger generation. He’s presently the chair of a joint program in demography and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Hout has collaborated with Greeley in a number of other papers.

Back when I studied the subject, there were two methodologies used by sociologists, and it typically was a matter of one or the other but not both when it came to individual sociologists, even departments. One was participant observation, a methodology akin to journalism crossed with some aspects of anthropology. The other was statistical: reducing society to numbers in a variety of ways, finding correlation, and trying to tease out causality from the observations. Both Greeley and Hout are firmly in this latter camp. But be assured that the statistics are largely behind the scenes in this book, and the findings are presented in tables that, with few exceptions, are very accessible.

One major pitfall to a statistical approach to the study of society is: Just what is it that you’re measuring? When a person answers a survey question, for example, just what does that answer mean? Sociology is humble enough (unlike economics, for example) to be acutely aware of the ambiguities of measurement, and, with one exception, so are Greeley and Hout.

With respect to politics, the authors demonstrate that conservative Christians do vote more conservatively, but not nearly so much as one might expect: Class and especially race matter more. A majority of working class conservative Christians vote Democratic though not as much as other working class populations. But if biblical literalism reduces the Democratic vote among whites, exactly the opposite is true among Blacks: “Bible Christians in Afro-American denominations are even more likely to vote Democratic than are other African Americans”

The authors’ conclusions boil down to the following political advice to Democrats on the conservative Christian vote:

“1. Try to arrange that you don’t have to run against an incumbent who has managed to portray himself as a wartime president.

“2. Try not to lose your gender gap advantage because your own candidate cannot present a credible national security strategy.

“3. Try to remember that poor and working class conservative Christians share attitudes on equality that are closer to yours than you realize and vote your way when you give them cause to.

“4. Try to understand that Catholics lean your way, that they do not vote as their bishops tell them to do, and that they are more likely to vote Democratic than others who hold the same views ­ whether we are talking about the economic agenda, the social agenda, or the military agenda. Call it loyalty. They like that.”

The first two points are really different aspects of a single thing: What is the individual’s relation to society and how does one find security among one’s fellows. This is not examined in this book. It’s a major omission as the advice above implies that the candidate must credibly promise both guns and butter. It also has implications about what policies would be perceived as “credible.”

Finally, Greeley and Hout assert that economic justice is back on the table: “Get economic justice right, and the Conservative Christians held back by economic injustice will back you.”

These recommendations are not based on voting behavior alone, but also on research into opinions, sexual behavior (the authors have fun with this), and consumption patterns. It’s interesting that the authors’ research tends to lend some support to economic historian Robert Fogel’s The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism and has thought-provoking links to Senator Jim Webb’s history of the Scots-Irish, Born Fighting, though neither work is mentioned in the bibliography.

The one major disappointment in this book is the authors’ attempt to measure anti-Catholic bigotry. As someone who grew up in a small Midwestern village dominated by descendants of Yankees out of New England, a village where Catholics were most certainly “outsiders” no matter how long (indeed no matter how many generations) they had lived there, I have some interest in the question. But arguing that if “a majority of a minority group says that a statement about them is not true, they have the right to interpret the statement as a slur,” the authors chose to measure anti-Catholicism by answers to two assertions: that Catholics are not permitted to think for themselves and the Rosary is a superstitious devotion. The right to interpret a statement as a slur does not automatically make the statement a good choice to measure bigotry or racism. In my opinion, the choice of these measures is more self-righteous and provocative than useful, a pity because this is still an important issue — as is bigotry towards Jews, a topic not touched in this book.

Even so, this is a useful book, not because it promises that everything will be all right for the center-left if only we learn to love Jesus, but because it provides information on how we can build a progressive majority coalition on the basis of policy, not just framing and spin.