Theos have published a fascinating report analysing the role of religion in voting behaviour and political attitudes. I’ve provided an overview of the main findings elsewhere, and following a briefing last week when I, along with others, got the chance to question the authors I’ve now consumed the full report.
The headlines of the report are that Anglicans are more likely to back the Conservative Party and Catholics support Labour, minority religions generally vote Labour except for Jews who support the Conservatives and Buddhists who back the Liberal Democrats.
Firstly, this is a report full of really interesting data and there are literally hundreds of findings worth pulling out, weighing and considering. Secondly, there is a lot the report doesn’t do. Repeatedly during the briefing Nick Spencer and Ben Clements, who wrote the report, had to apologise that they didn’t have the answers to the plethora of fascinating supplementary questions many wanted answering. Thirdly, this is not a report that considers causality, it doesn’t tell you why someone voted one way or an other, or why they might take a particular view on welfare, censorship or the death penalty.
What it does provide is an indication of association, so for example, among the most interesting findings is that attendance at services matters a lot, but even if you don’t attend it matters what label you give yourself. Those who nominally hold a religious identity (any) but never attend services are likely to be more authoritarian in their outlook than any other group. Likewise, those who do attend services are likely to be more proud of the welfare state and support higher benefits even if their taxes go up.
There are findings that are surprising and those that are patently obvious. The look on an Anglican official’s face when the graph showing support for the death penalty revealed as Anglicans consistently the most supportive was priceless. When the data is subject to more detailed scrutiny it sometimes allows our shock to recede, as in this case where nominal Anglicans distort the figure with their high support while frequent attenders are much less likely to back capital punishment. On other occasions it reinforces the picture presented at first sight. For example, the support for the Conservative Party among Anglicans is not undermined when it is looked at by age groups, 42 per cent of voters under 30 voted Conservative and only 26 per cent Labour.
Other findings that are understandable but surprising all the same include the very high level of support for the Labour party among minority ethnic groups. In 2005 the lowest supporting group were Hindus with 68 per cent, and all though this dropped to 49 per cent in 2010 all other groups still exhibited high levels of support with over four out of five black Pentecostal Christians supporting Labour.
What struck me with greatest force when the report was released was not any of these findings, it was not the very small number of Christians who considered morals or a lack of family values as the most important issue at the 2010 election. Instead it was the reaction to the findings, and in particular the idea that Anglicans tend to support the Conservative party.
There was a wave of astonishment across twitter, ‘what!’ they cried, ‘that can’t be true, I’m a Christian and I vote Labour. And so do all my friends’. Of course the immediate response is that in the Anglican church there are many who voted for the Labour and Liberal Democrats, as too are there Catholics who voted Tory (especially those over 65). The second response is to wonder why this provoked such a shock.
Is it because the Church of England, and particularly through their Bishops in the House of Lords and their public statements make it seem that the official position of the church is on the left of politics? Is it the echo of dissent from Margaret Thatcher’s policies of the 1980s heard through those now in lofty positions detached from the views of the congregations in their pews? Is there actually a silent majority of right wing Anglicans failed by their leadership?
The support for welfare policies among those who attend frequently paints a more complex picture, and the individual statements which are used to plot the position a group on the three axes (left-right, libertarian-authoritarian and welfarist-individualist) also support this more complex picture but Anglicans still often come out with what would be considered positions more aligned with the Conservatives.
The report doesn’t provide evidence for the Conservative party to target their next election at the Church of England to lock up their chances of election. The support is simply not that significant, there are still plenty who vote otherwise. But perhaps it is slightly more salutary sign to the church to listen a little harder to what the views of their congregations are.
One aspect of this debate over political affiliation of Christians has struck me recently and been reinforced by the response to this report, why do left wing Christians feel more able to be public about their views while right wing Christians keep quiet? Could it be a response to the reputation of Republican Christians in the States, and a fear that if they come out as Conservatives they will be branded likewise? Is their a norm of acceptable views among Christians that leave some feeling as though their support for one political party is something they should hide?
These are only questions, but the silence of Christians on the right and the protest from those on the left was the most notable feature of this report’s publication. With a General Election a little over a year away Christians will be thinking more and more about politics, and across the church there needs to be a space for Christians to explore how they will vote and consider the way their faith impacts their politics. It’s a task for the church to set itself to, it’s a task that requires maturity and respect for a range of political opinions. And a task that requires sight on the bigger vision of a kingdom.