Thursday, August 6, 2009

Class and religious fundamentalism in red vs. blue states

In the lead-up to and just after the last presidential election, much of the quant parts of the blogosphere were talking about Andrew Gelman et al's excellent book Red State Blue State Rich State Poor State. In it, they showed that increasing income predicted increasing likelihood of voting Republican, no matter if you live in a red state or blue state. The only catch was that this trend is more pronounced in red states, and more muted in blue states.

So, despite all of the red state vs. blue state mythology that people began telling each other during the past five or so years, rich people even in liberal blue states still tended to vote fairly Republican, and working-class people in conservative red states still tended to vote fairly Democrat. In fact, the split between red and blue states increased as you went up the income scale -- it seems that the culture wars of the 1990s were mostly an intra-elite competition.

I briefly jumped on the bandwagon and showed how an interest in hunting, fishing, and watching NASCAR fit this pattern. That is, it's mostly the lower-IQ people who do these things, regardless of whether they're in red or blue states, although for a given IQ level, red staters do have a greater interest. Still, a smart red stater is far less likely to care about hunting than a lower-IQ blue stater. IQ differences matter much more than red state vs. blue state differences.

After the election, interest in this topic naturally faded, which is unfortunate because there must be plenty of other examples of red state elites looking mostly like blue state elites, in addition to voting Republican and not caring about hunting or NASCAR. Of course, aside from voting patterns, the thing that's supposed to show the widest gulf between red and blue states is religion. But since we've seen that working-class people tend to vote Democrat, even in red states, we suspect that this other part of the conventional "red vs. blue" mythology is wrong. So let's turn to the General Social Survey to see how class and religious beliefs are related in both red and blue states. *

I'm looking here at fundamentalist religious beliefs, since that was the story -- not just that elite red staters went to church more often than lower-class blue staters, but that fundamentalist beliefs pervaded red state culture, while a staunchly secular mindset characterized blue state culture. The GSS measures such beliefs in two ways -- by asking if you think the Bible is God's word and is to be taken literally, and by asking if you know God exists without a doubt (the latter might not be so fundamentalist, but it's worth looking at too). I simply found the percent of each group who agreed with each of these statements.

I measured class in four ways, just to ensure that it doesn't matter which part of class we focus on -- socioeconomic index (a measure of job prestige), real income, education level, and IQ. The SEI bins are of size 5 and range from 17 - 22 through 92 - 97, real income is measured in 1986 dollars (in $5000 bins, centered on values ending in 5 or 0), education level is simply years of school completed, and IQ is the number of vocabulary words correct on a 10-question test.

Here are the plots for how religious fundamentalist beliefs are related to these measures of class, for both red and blue states (shown with red and blue lines, resp.):

No matter which belief we look at, and no matter which measure of class we choose, the same pattern shows up: the relationship between class and fundamentalism is more or less the same in red and blue states, namely that it declines pretty steadily as we move up the class ladder. The red - blue gap is roughly the same across the class spectrum, unlike voting patterns, where there was a widening of the gap as you moved up the income scale. In all cases, the upper-class red staters are well below the lower-class blue staters in fundamentalism. So, despite all of the rhetoric about godless blue states and Bible-thumping red states, fundamentalism is mostly a class-based phenomenon.

At the same time, the red lines are generally above the blue lines, showing that when we ignore class, red states are more fundamentalist than blue states. However, this overall red - blue gap is usually under 20% at most, whereas the drop from lower-class to upper-class fundamentalism is usually at least 30%. In other words, class distinctions trump red - blue distinctions.

The two pieces that fit with the reigning mythology are easy to see -- i.e., highly secular elites in blue states and highly religious working-class people in red states. But the problem of popular stories like the red state - blue state narrative is that we only see what agrees with them, while we blind ourselves to what clashes with them. In this case, no one saw that working-class people in blue states were highly religious and that upper-class people in red states were very secular. Rather than take a narrative for granted and look for data that support it (and ignoring those that refute it), we should simply take an empirical approach and look at all the data -- only then should we come up with the story, which by that point is just a common-language phrasing of what the data say, not some grand vision of how the world is presumed to be.

* I counted the following GSS regions as blue states:

New England - Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut
Middle Atlantic - New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania
East North Central - Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin
Pacific - Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska, Hawaii

These regions are the red states:

West North Central - Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas
South Atlantic - Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida
East South Central - Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi
West South Central - Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas
Mountain - Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada

GSS variables used: bible, god, sei, realinc, educ, wordsum, region


  1. blacks are 90% dem and mostly fundamentalist. this is a major part of the effect, though not all from what i can tell (that is, i've filtered for race on these sort of questions and downscale white dems exhibit some of the same tendencies as blacks re: religion).

  2. blacks are 90% dem and mostly fundamentalist

    My impression is that there's a big gender gap when it comes to blacks and religiosity, with women being much more religious than men. Do you know if statistics bear this out?


  3. I'll restrict the results just to Whites and post it as a brief sometime soon.

    I'll do the same for whether the female advantage in religiosity is greater among Blacks than Whites.

  4. interestingly, the sex diff between males & females among blacks is *lower* than among whites. i'll put up a post on this at sb gnxp tomorrow.....

  5. The thing I don't really understand is why relatively smart and well-off people in both red and blue states vote Republican when it goes against their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). I guess they put those concerns aside as long as the Republicans pander to their economic preferences, like lower taxes. Given that intelligence correlates negatively with psychological conservatism as well, here's my new slogan for the party: Republicanism: for hypocrites and idiots. (it rhymes too!)

  6. republicans don't really walk the walk on social issues. i've had friends of mine who work in D.C. tell me that conservative senators care about economic, not social issues, and know that they won't be held to account for the social issues anyhow (i.e., supreme court will veto any changes on things like abortion, church-state, free speech, etc.).

  7. I agree your anecdotal perception there Razib, and I doubt there's a negative correlation between economic conservatism and intelligence.