Wide Ideology Gap Evident in Religious Index

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup Poll Managing Editor

Generally speaking, political conservatives in the United States are more comfortable allowing the government to uphold the moral standards of society, while liberals are more likely to prefer letting people decide for themselves whether actions are morally acceptable. Such perspectives on government regulation of morality are probably rooted in the fact that many political conservatives tend to be religious, while those of a liberal persuasion are much less likely to be so. The 2002 Gallup Index of Leading Religious Indicators* illustrates the wide religiosity gap between liberals and conservatives in the United States.

The Gallup Index of Leading Religious Indicators is comprised of respondents' answers to eight questions asked multiple times each year. Index scores can range from 0 to 1,000. The national average among all the randomly selected Americans who were asked the questions in 2002 is 641. (See "Public Gives Organized Religion Its Lowest Rating" in Related Items.)

The 2002 Index shows sharp divisions by political ideology. The average score among self-described conservatives is 732, nearly 200 points higher than the liberals' score of 536. As on the ideological spectrum, moderates fall in between the other two groups on the Index, with a score of 617.

In general, there is only one component question of the Index on which liberals score comparably to conservatives -- a belief in God or a universal spirit. All told, 95% of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, including 97% of conservatives and 91% of liberals.

Nearly all conservatives (96%) state a preference for some organized religion, such as Protestantism, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, or Judaism. The vast majority of liberals, 85%, state a religious preference as well, though their likelihood to do so is lower than that among conservatives. Nationwide, 90% of Americans state some religious preference.

While the religious preference item shows some divergence between conservatives and liberals, the differences are even greater on the Index's other items, all of which measure religious behavior or attitudes toward religion. For the most part, the gap between conservatives and liberals is close to 20 percentage points on each item.

Religious Behavior

Despite the fact that the vast majority of liberals state a religious preference, less than half (48%) say they are members of a church or synagogue. In contrast, 73% of conservatives and 66% of moderates say they belong to a church or synagogue.

Slightly more than half of conservatives (53%) say they attended church in the last seven days, compared to just under a third (32%) of liberals. Overall, 43% of Americans say they attended church in the past seven days.

Religious Attitudes

When asked to assess the importance of religion in their lives, 71% of conservatives say it is "very important." Less than half of liberals (45%) give the same response, as do 60% of Americans overall.

Similarly, conservatives are far more likely to believe that "religion can answer today's problems" (75%) than are liberals (48%). By a 55% to 33% margin, conservatives are also more likely than liberals to express "a great deal" or "a lot" of confidence in organized religion.

Bottom Line

It is unclear whether a religious commitment predisposes one to be politically conservative in the United States, or if a conservative worldview tends to make one more committed to organized religion. But it is clear that conservatives and liberals in this country display vastly different levels of commitment to religion. That commitment affects the way they view society at large and the way they approach political issues of the day. The religious/ideological gap is one of the deepest political cleavages in the United States.

*The 2002 Index of Leading Religious Indicators was compiled from surveys of national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted throughout the year.

Because the U. S. Census Bureau does not record religious "preference" or "affiliation," The Gallup Organization, through scientific surveys, has made this important information available since the late 1930s.

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