Income, religious attendance, and voting: recent patterns and trends since 1992

I can’t say I have much of an explanation for this, but it’s interesting:


Church attendance is a strong predictor of how high-income people vote, not such a good predictor for low-income voters.

There’s lots of talk about religion and income and voting, but people don’t always know that interactions are important.

Here are some time trends (from this paper with David Park). The graphs below show the difference in Republican vote between rich and poor, religious and non-religious, and their interaction (that is, the difference in differences), computed separately for each presidential election year:


As others have noted (although not, as far as I know, looking at interactions), it all started in 1992. We heard a lot about the Moral Majority back in 1980, but it doesn’t seem to have started showing up in voting patterns until Clinton.

You can read more about interactions in the linked article. The key points are that (a) higher-income voters support the Republicans and have done so for awhile; (b) more recently, churchgoers have supported the Republicans, (c) the difference between churchgoers and non-churchgoers is much greater for the rich than the poor.

P.P.S. I posted the top graph several months ago but the recent interest in these religiosity/income graphs and these state voting maps motivated me to repost.

7 thoughts on “Income, religious attendance, and voting: recent patterns and trends since 1992

  1. Hi Andy,

    I submitted last month an exploratory paper to Bob Erikson on whether and to what extent religiosity mediates "income-based" voting a la Meltzer and Richards. (I think Bob should still have it, or maybe he's slipped it back in my dept mail folder…). Anyway, the idea was to start exploring regional and temporal differences in income/religion interactions by fitting separate models for different regions (I used census regions) for different presidential elections from 1980 to 2004. I used two measures of religiosity: attendance, like you use, and depth of religious belief, measured by resposnses to questions about how important religion is in the respodent's life. The basic results were as follows:

    (1) There was considerable regional heterogeneity in the degree to which the religiosity was associated with voters choosing "against" the redistributive preferences that one would expect from a Meltzer-Richards type model;

    (2) Since 1980, the dampening effect of religion on income-based voting patterns is only apparent in presidential elections in 1992 and after. For these recent elections, it is reasonable to conclude that a surge in politicized religiosity has dampened the redistributive pressure that would be applied by lower income voters had they voted on their presumed material interests. But it is not evident that religion has been a persistent factor in this regard.

    (3) In any case where religiosity did have a significant mediating effect, the effects associated with religious participation and depth of belief tended in the same direction, but the effects associated with participation were usually stronger.

    Thought I'd share.

    (writing from Bujumbura, Burundi at the moment)

  2. Cyrus,

    I'm confused. We don't see a "dampening effect of religion on income-based voting patterns". It's the opposite: we see stronger income-based voting patterns among religious attenders than among non-attenders.

  3. I can think of two possible explanations:

    1. An overwhelming majority of people in the US have at least some commitment to religion. Someone who never attends religious services (and says so in a survey) is making a definite statement about their values, and in most cases the values associated with never attending are ones that would lead you to vote against Bush.

    2. Lower income people tend to vote based on material interests–higher income people can "afford" to give more weight to views on other issues (e. g., abortion, gay marriage). So the higher your income, the more religiosity matters (in terms of the graph, the gap between the three lines is larger among people with higher incomes).

    I'd incline towards (1), since the relationship between income and who you vote for seems equally strong for frequent and moderate attenders. That is, it's the "nevers" who stand out as exceptional.

  4. David W.,

    Actually, the proportion of "nevers" is pretty high, and it's been increasing in recent decades. (I can't remember the exact numbers but David Park has them.)

  5. Me and John found that both middle class and poor voters are more polarized by religion in richer countries than in poorer countries.

    In other words, how people vote tends to be affected by religiosity more in rich countries than in poor countries. In poorer countries (all else equal) religion matters less, and voting behavior is predicted by which income group a voter belongs to, not by the religious/secular identity.

    This fact is indeed compatible with the idea that voting based on lifestyle / cultural / so-called social issues is a luxury good. In rich countries, people can afford to choose a party based on their religious affiliation. In a poorer country, people have to choose the party that caters to their income group.

  6. I wonder how that dovetails with the data that show that whites are much more committed to the Republican party in the South, than in the North.

    In Mississippi, the GOP captures something like 95% of the not black vote. In New York State, the GOP gets more like 50%-55% of the not black vote.

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