Columnists > Voices

Standing in the God gap

Campaign 2008 | New study shows Republicans and Democrats alike misunderstand faith

Issue: "Why Grey matters," March 17, 2007

Not that I've heard of any such people, of course. But if, after their November "thumpin'" some smug and arrogant Republicans still suppose that God's favor rests uniquely on them as a political party, new statistical data from pollster George Barna might be a convincing silencer.

The Barna Group released a survey last week exploring the so-called "God gap" between the two major political parties, analyzing 32 different measures of religious commitment. Not at all surprising was the discovery that Republicans still attract a higher percentage of those people who Barna says qualify as being "born again"-by a 51 percent to 38 percent margin. Quite surprising was how close Democrats are on both that and a variety of other scales.

Perhaps equally surprising is how easy the Republicans make it for the Democrats to look good. The GOP, according to the Barna analysis, is a pretty nominal bunch when it comes to issues of faith.

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The Barna folks, you should know, aren't in the habit of taking "yes" for an answer. They've learned that not everyone who calls himself or herself a Christian is one. They've even learned that not everyone who adopts the "evangelical" label deserves it. So they ask respondents questions like whether they believe "the Bible is totally accurate in all the principles it teaches." They even ask whether the respondent has "explained his or her faith in Christ to someone else in the last year." For the Barna people, you have to pass a pretty stringent nine-point test to qualify as an evangelical Christian believer.

With those distinctions in mind, here's how Republicans and Democrats compared on a number of specific questions:

  • Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches
    Republican: 57% | Democrat: 40%
  • Satan is a real spiritual entity
    Republican: 33% | Democrat: 17%
  • Reject idea that good works can earn salvation
    Republican: 35% | Democrat: 23%
  • Absolutely committed to Christianity
    Republican: 61% | Democrat: 48%
  • Attended church in last seven days
    Republican: 53% | Democrat: 41%
  • Unchurched
    Republican: 22% | Democrat: 34%
  • Likely to attend Sunday school
    Republican: 25% | Democrat: 17%
  • Participate in church-related small group
    Republican: 25% | Democrat: 18%
  • Feel compulsion to share faith with others
    Republican: 34% | Democrat: 24%
  • My religious faith is important in my life
    Republican: 77% | Democrat: 67%
  • God is the all-knowing, perfect creator of the universe
    Republican: 75% | Democrat: 65%

But when it comes to issues like Bible reading, prayer, or volunteer service at church or some other charitable organization, the Barna study says that Republicans and Democrats are statistically indistinguishable. The differences were also tiny when it came to the assertion that "my life has been greatly transformed by my faith," or in claiming that "my primary purpose in life is to love God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength."

David Kinnaman, the researcher who directed the Barna study, stressed the continued importance for any political group to try to reach Christian voters. "Born-again Christians should not be underestimated," he said. "They represent half of all Republican voters, two-fifths of registered Democrats, and one-third of independent voters. As the presidential primaries gear up and both parties try to attract the broadest group of voters, it will be to their benefit not to alienate the diverse Christian segment."

True enough. But thoughtful observers need to see in the Barna data a clear indicator that neither major party comes even close to being made up of biblically instructed people. Nominalism-and, you might well conclude, practical secularism-has become the dominant religion of our American culture. And if that is any less true of Republicans than it is of Democrats, the margins are so small as to be just barely significant.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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