Does identifying with religion make one more civic-minded?

(RNS) — The relationship between religion and democracy is hotly debated among academics. There are elements of religious traditions that would seem to reinforce democratic ideals: engaging with a variety of viewpoints, organizing together for the common good and creating a sense of belonging among people from diverse backgrounds.

However, there are other compulsions in religion that may make democracy less likely to endure. For instance, how do lawmakers in a democracy craft policy on a sensitive issue like abortion, knowing the religious beliefs of some of their constituents will find any access to an abortion akin to murder?

These types of intractable issues are ones American democracy has faced from its very beginnings, and it’s a topic that one organization — Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, or PACE — has been trying to understand in a more detailed way through a survey of 5,000 adults that was fielded in November of 2021.

The results reveal that religious groups have widely divergent understandings of what key terms mean in the American political lexicon and value different types of political engagement.

Individuals in the survey were asked if they had a positive, negative or neutral opinion of a number of key terms related to civic engagement and democracy. Comparing the most politically conservative religious groups (evangelicals) with the most liberal group (atheists/agnostics) gives us a better sense of how the left and right of the political spectrum think about language in this arena.

“Share With a Positive View of Each Term” Graphic courtesy of Ryan Burge

It’s important to point out that on many terms, there’s a general sense of unity between evangelicals and atheists/agnostics. For terms like “bridge building,” “common good” and “justice,” there’s no statistical difference between these two groups.

However, where there are differences they are illuminating. For instance, 64% of atheists/agnostics see the word “activism” as being a positive term — that same sentiment is only shared by 42% of evangelicals. Atheists/agnostics are also more likely to express positivity toward terms like “civic engagement,” “civil society” and “democracy.” On the other hand, evangelicals are more likely to view the terms “liberty” and “patriotism” positively.

Questions about which activities respondents think are important to ensure democracy works also reveal some fascinating differences between religious groups. In many areas, including volunteering, public service, donating to causes and attending protests, atheists/agnostics are the most likely to support civic engagement.

"What types of activities do you think are important to ensure that democracy works?" Graphic courtesy Ryan Burge

“What types of activities do you think are important to ensure that democracy works?” Graphic courtesy of Ryan Burge

The gap between atheists/agnostics and those who simply say they have no religious affiliation is large, as well. For instance, 81% of atheists/agnostics say voting is very important to democracy, compared with 62% of those who claim no religion. That’s not an isolated case, either. When it comes to many activities, those with no religion are 10 to 15 percentage points less likely than atheists/agnostics to say they are crucial to democracy. This is clear evidence that all nones are not the same when it comes to areas of civic engagement.

What is also illuminating is a question on the PACE survey about the definition of the term “civic engagement.” Respondents were asked if they thought civic engagement was primarily about influencing government policy or making their local community better. They were also given the option to say it was an equal mix of both activities.

"What Does Civic Engagement Mean?" Graphic courtesy Ryan Burge

“What Does Civic Engagement Mean?” Graphic courtesy Ryan Burge

First, it’s clear a majority of Americans believe civic engagement is about both influencing government and making the local community better. But there are some groups that are less inclined to focus civic engagement on their local community. That’s the case for just 19% of atheists/agnostics and 21% of nonevangelical Protestants. On the other hand, 29% of evangelical Protestants and 27% of Catholics believe civic engagement is primarily about making local communities better.

The picture that emerges from this data is a tremendous amount of commonality. Both those who are deeply committed to a conservative religious tradition (like evangelicals) and those who actively reject religious institutions (like atheists and agnostics) have fairly similar views of terminology and activities related to civic engagement. They tend to view terms like “common good” with a positive outlook.

However, atheists and agnostics value civic engagement as a core component of a functioning democracy at a level religious groups do not. They place a particular premium on voting, protest and activism — but also lead the way in selecting almost all of the surveyed activities, with the exception of military service (where they fall behind every religious group in selecting).

PACE has also been looking at these and other questions through its initiative Faith In/And Democracy. It has mobilized over $1 million for more than 30 organizations in hopes of better understanding the ways faith and faith communities support democracy and civic life.

The most important factor going forward may be for people from different faith backgrounds (or no faith background at all) to seek to find aspects of civic society that they can agree on and work toward common goals in those areas. For instance, both white evangelicals and atheists share a positive view of the term “bridge building.” As religion continues to polarize, it will make American democracy even more tenuous. Finding common ground will be essential to ensure the continuation of the American system.

Ryan Burge, author of "20 Myths about Religion and Politics in America."

Ryan Burge. Courtesy photo

(Ryan Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, a pastor in the American Baptist Church and author of “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.” Burge partnered with PACE to share his independent analysis of the data its researchers provided. He can be reached on Twitter at @ryanburge. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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