Ryan Burge: Data Shows That Just Like Political Parties, Religious Groups See Their Rivals as Extremists

President Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally at Bojangles’ Coliseum on Oct. 26, 2018, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Ryan Burge teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University and is a co-founder of Religion in Public. He is also a Baptist pastor. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.


Messaging is incredibly important in American religion.

Phrases like, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” are pervasive in evangelicalism. In fact, if one attended a Southern Baptist Church this Sunday, the only time the word “religion” would be used would almost certainly have a negative connotation.

The same is true in American politics. While the data clearly indicates that the Republican Party has moved further away from the middle of the political spectrum than Democrats have, lots of chatter on social media seems to indicate the opposite.

That chatter accuses Democrats of being out of touch with the American mainstream.

Give some credit to the Republican messaging operation — they have made the term “Democrat” synonymous with the word “socialist.”

However, messaging has consequences. If one party tries to make the other look extreme and voters internalize that message, they will perceive the political landscape as being hopelessly divided.

Data from the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study seems to show exactly that. The survey asked respondents to place themselves on a scale from “very liberal” to “very conservative.” They were also asked to place both the Republicans and Democrats on the same scale.

It’s a perfect test of messaging.

The survey found that most respondents placed themselves in the middle — somewhere on the spectrum between somewhat liberal and somewhat conservative.

“How Do Religious Groups See the Political Landscape?” Graphic by Ryan Burge

Religious groups, however, are different. White evangelicals, for example, see themselves as being just as conservative as the Republican Party. Their perceived political outlook is exactly the same as the GOP. And they see Democrats as being their polar opposite.

Non-white evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and white Catholics see themselves as closer to the Republicans than the Democrats, as do Mormons.

The nones — those who claim no religious affiliation — on the other hand, see themselves as having the same political beliefs as Democrats. Atheists, who are a subset of the nones, see themselves as more liberal than the Democratic Party.

One last thing jumps out: No religious group seems really caught in the middle. American religion has sorted itself out and taken political sides.

But where do Americans see Donald Trump?

The data indicates that most religious groups see Trump as being less conservative than the Republicans.

“How Do Religious Groups See the Political Landscape?” Graphic by Ryan Burge

However, one exception is white evangelicals. They see essentially no daylight between themselves and our current president. And, despite the fact that only about half of Mormons voted for Donald Trump in 2016, they are the group that is the second closest to his perceived political position.

But it’s also noteworthy that many moderate political groups like mainline Protestants see themselves as closer to Donald Trump politically than the GOP.

In looking at the data, I wanted to answer a central question: If someone labels themself personally as at the edge of the political spectrum (i.e. very conservative or very liberal) are they more likely to place the opposing party in an extreme political position?

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Source: Religion News Service