This week a Public Policy Polling (PPP) poll showing that 57% of republicans in the US want to institute Christianity as a national religion has been making the rounds on social media. It’s the perfect piece of viral media: scientific proof that confirms beliefs you already hold. Everyone knows that all republican politics are just a front for instituting a Christian theocracy. They have just finally admitted it. Polls like this create the perfect clickbait for liberal sites like PoliticsUSA which proclaimed with a strange lack of articles “57% of Republicans Say Dismantle Constitution And Make Christianity National Religion.”
I get it you guys. I understand the need to want to point out every little thing that republicans do and say that is wrong and ridiculous and bigoted, but can we be a little more careful and nuanced when sharing the results of surveys like this recent PPP poll?
Respondents may have been primed to respond to this question in a pro-Christianity manner.
The question about establishing Christianity as a national religion was the 17th question asked. The first 13 questions were used to gather favorable or unfavorable ratings for various men who may run in the republican primary for president plus George W. Bush and Benjamin Netanyahu (for some reason) and to have respondents rank their top choices for president. Question 14 asked if the respondent considered his/herself a member of the tea party. Question 15 asked if the respondent believed in climate change and question 16 asked if the respondent believed in evolution. Then, and only then, did they ask “Would you support or oppose establishing Christianity as the national religion?”
In other words, respondents had 16 questions where they established their identity as a conservative republican before they got to the Christianity question. Once a person is primed by establishing their identity as a conservative, they are likely to be more prone to saying they support establishing Christianity as the national religion because saying you oppose it would go against the identity you just established and likely cause some cognitive dissonance. Priming is a well-known phenomenon in psychology and likely is playing a role here. Add to this the fact that these phone surveys are quite long and mentally tiring and you likely have people that by the last question are just sort of going along with the answers they think sound at first blush like they make sense without thinking about it too deeply. Had PPP first asked questions about religious freedom and then asked the national religion question, many respondents would have likely answered differently.
Many people are probably rounding their responses.
Just a couple weeks ago I was called for a political survey. For over 15 minutes I was asked a variety of questions about my approval or disapproval of various political figures and policy initiatives. In many cases it went a little something about this:
Surveyor: Do you think the U.S. is spending too much, too little, or just the right amount on environmental protection?
Me: What types of environmental protection do you mean exactly?
Surveyor: The entire category of environmental protection.
Me: Yah, but does this only count actual spending on a program or does it also include costs of regulations.
Surveyor: Just all spending.
Me: Ok, that didn’t really answer my question. Also, where would this funding come from if we were to spend more?
Surveyor: It doesn’t matter where the funding would come from. It’s just whether you think we’re currently spending too much or too little.
Me: Well, it does matter because if we want more spending the money has to come from somewhere and I have strong feelings about certain funding sources over others.
Surveyor: The only possible answers are “too much, too little, or just right.”
Me: …you know I have a graduate degree in public policy right?
Surveyor: Can you just answer the question?
Me: *sigh* I guess my answer is “too little.”
In other words, my actual views on the issues were nuanced but I was forced to choose a straightforward response. Most humans (even republicans!) have views that are nuanced and don’t fit perfectly into political boxes. When asked questions that force you into a box, you round your answers a bit to fit.
Although many Americans say they don’t believe in evolution, when you drill down you find that a lot of people believe some moderate view between young earth creationism and evolution, like that God guided a form of evolution. When asked “do you believe in evolution?” and given only a yes or no answer, some may round to “yes” and others may round to “no,” especially if they have already been primed. The same goes for abortion where the vast majority of people who are “rounded” into the anti-abortion category when pressed say that they do believe abortion should be legal in certain circumstances.
It’s likely that something similar is going on with the establishing Christianity as a national religion question. Some respondents may want some sort of national recognition of Christianity on a purely symbolic basis whereas others may actually want laws that favor Christians or Christian ideals. This survey does not elaborate on the question in any way that would separate those that were thinking of it in a more symbolic way from those that want actionable policies. Especially considering this was the 17th question asked and there was some priming happening, it is unlikely that respondents put a whole lot of thought into the question before answering. If they were instead given a couple sentences about what exactly it would mean to establish a national religion and were forced to think more deeply about the question, many of them may have had a different answer.
So, what can we get out of this survey?
Although there was some priming happening and the question didn’t allow for nuance, it’s still pretty scary that 57% of republicans said they would support establishing Christianity as a national religion. Even if under a perfectly unbiased situation that number fell by half it would still be terrifyingly high for those of us that prize freedom of religion and church/state separation.
Saying that, can we stop acting like any time someone doesn’t like something in the constitution it means they don’t love America? The PoliticsUSA article interpreted these survey results as “57% of republicans want to dismantle the Constitution.” There are some pretty horrid things in the Constitution (need I remind you about the three-fifths compromise). Luckily for us the Constitution is a living document and we can add amendments when most of us agree it is necessary. A republican who opposes church/state separation and wants to amend the constitution to make Christianity a national religion is no more “dismantling the constitution” than I am when I state that I want to nullify the second amendment.
For those of us who want to keep our church and state separation, we only need to remember that only 26% of Americans identify as republican. Even if we accept that 57% of those republicans want to establish Christianity as a national religion that would bring us to only around 15% of all Americans (perhaps a little more if you include non-republicans). At that rate I don’t think we really need to be all that worried about America turning into a theocracy.
Featured photo is from the U.S. Archives.