Generation Gap Growing Among Religious Voters

The Young and the Faithful survey finds that young religious voters hold more progressive views than their older counterparts, writes Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite.

Young Christians attend a rally in Nashville, Tennessee. Young Catholics and Evangelicals are more likely to hold progressive views than their older counterparts, a new study finds. (AP/Mark Humphrey)
Young Christians attend a rally in Nashville, Tennessee. Young Catholics and Evangelicals are more likely to hold progressive views than their older counterparts, a new study finds. (AP/Mark Humphrey)

A new survey of young Catholic and Evangelical voters tracks a growing generation gap among Catholic religious voters. The survey, The Young and the Faithful, shows that young Catholics—defined as those ages 18 to 35—are now far more progressive in their voting preferences than older Catholics, a gap that is new since 2000. The gap between younger and older Evangelicals is not growing in terms of voting preference, but it is growing on certain values issues such as same-sex marriage, support for active government, and diplomacy abroad as an alternative to war. The new survey was commissioned by Faith in Public Life, a resource center dedicated to transforming the values debate in America, and conducted by Public Religion Research.

The findings add to the continuing research on the so-called “God Gap” and how we understand the evolving religious vote in America. In 2000, 87 percent of weekly church attendees voted for George W. Bush, and so the “God Gap” was born.

The “God Gap” assumption—that religious voters equal Republican voters—has been successfully challenged in the years since 2000. The Pew Forum on Religion continues to document that while those who worship weekly still tend to vote Republican by a large margin, this is not the only way to understand religious voters. When other measures of religiosity are added—attending church services a few times a month, belief, prayer, and Bible reading—the gap narrows significantly and even reverses.

Furthermore, the identification of the “God Gap” with the “values issues” of anti-homosexuality and anti-abortion is no longer accurate. In 2006, the Pew Research Center concluded “the biggest such issues [in previous elections], abortion and gay marriage, were not priorities for voters, ranking at the very bottom of a list of 19 issues that voters deemed important. Education, the economy, and national security issues were among those at the top.”

In addition to the generational findings, The Young and the Faithful tracks 2008 religious attendance and vote preference, adding to the growing evidence that the “God Gap” is closing, or at least narrowing. The researchers conclude, “Our analysis of religious attendance and vote preference provides evidence that the religious fault lines have changed modestly over the last four years.” The survey also finds that religious voters no longer identify only one party or candidate as “more friendly” to religion.

Abortion and same-sex marriage now rank last in a list of 10 issues that Americans rank as most important to them in this election. Yet younger and older Evangelicals and Catholics have remarkably different opinions on these two issues. Young Catholics “are considerably more supportive of abortion rights and same-sex marriage” than older Catholics. Approximately 6 in 10 younger Catholics and young adults overall say abortion should be legal in all or most cases (60 percent and 58 percent, respectively). Among older Catholics, half (51 percent) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases—a nine-point generation gap. Close to half (44 percent) of younger Catholics say same-sex couples in committed relationships should be able to marry, compared to only about a quarter (26 percent) of older Catholics, an 18-point generation gap.

Younger white Evangelicals are markedly split on these two issues. Younger white Evangelicals are as strongly opposed to abortion as are their older peers. More than 6 in 10 (62 percent) “say abortion is very important to their vote,” compared to 55 percent of older Evangelicals. On the issue of same-sex marriage, less than a majority “see same-sex marriage as a very important voting issue,” and a majority (52 percent) “favor either same-sex marriage or civil unions.” Yet, fully two-thirds of younger white Evangelicals say they would still vote for a candidate even if the candidate disagreed with them on the issue of abortion.

Unsurprisingly, the Faith in Public Life study shows that economic concerns top the list of concerns of religious voters of all groups. When asked to define “the greatest moral crisis in the world,” all religious voters surveyed, with the exception of black Protestants, ranked terrorism and religious extremism (31 percent) first, followed by world hunger (29 percent), and finally war (18 percent). Almost one-third of black Protestants say world hunger represents the greatest moral crisis, and a quarter cite the spread of AIDS (25 percent), which is more than triple the 8 percent support in the general population. Young adults overall share these top priorities.

Both young Catholics and young Evangelicals have a more pluralistic outlook than their older peers and a very different notion of the role of government both at home and in the world. Young Catholics are the most pro-government constituency of any major religious group and even more pro-government when compared to young Americans in general. Two-thirds (67 percent) of young Catholics prefer bigger government if it means more social services. This is a 26-point gap with older Catholics. Young Evangelicals favor a bigger government offering more services by a slightly lower margin—20 points over older Evangelicals (44 percent and 24 percent, respectively). A majority (56 percent) of young Evangelicals believe that diplomacy rather than military strength is the way to ensure peace, compared to only 44 percent of older white Evangelicals.

The survey’s good news for a progressive agenda is that young Evangelicals and Catholics share much of the increasingly progressive viewpoints of their generational peers. What’s more, these young religious Americans are still willing to look for common ground on points of difference with other citizens.

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Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

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