Current Research April 2017

The use of vouchers in religious schooling may reveal both “good news” and “bad news” for churches, according to a recent study. The paper, presented at the recent meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture, is one of the first studies to look at the effects of vouchers on religious life, using data from ten years of Catholic parish finances in Milwaukee, a city with one of the most extensive voucher programs in the U.S. Researchers Daniel Hungerman (University of Notre Dame), Kevin Rinz (U.S. Census Bureau), and Jay Frymark (St. Joseph Parish) found that voucher expansion significantly lowered the probability of parish closures and mergers. At the same time, the authors find that Catholic parishes operating schools in their sample saw a decline in religious activity and a shift away from non-school religious expenditures (in such areas as religious staff salaries, mission support, and church maintenance), and a decline in religious revenue, when vouchers expand.

“Put differently, our numbers suggest that, within our sample alone, the Milwaukee voucher program has led over time to a decline in non-educational church revenue of $60 million,” Hungerman, Rinz, and Frymark write. The authors note that the renewed promotion of vouchers by the Trump administration may mean that they will play a critical role in determining the role of American religion. But the effect of vouchers on religion “depends upon whether one characterizes religion by the prevalence of churches or by the activities within churches.”

Evangelicals and other conservative Christians have increasingly claimed that they are facing discrimination, but how valid is that concern? A recent article in The Atlantic magazine (March 10) reports that a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 57 percent of white evangelicals think they suffer more discrimination than Muslims. Only 44 percent say there is a lot of anti-Muslim discrimination. A recent reader poll in the Catholic magazine America (March 20) finds that the concern about Christian discrimination resonates among more liberal believers as well. When asked about which religious group is discriminated against the most, 80 percent of the readers selected Muslim. But more readers identified a prominent threat to the liberty of Christians (10 percent) compared to Jews (5 percent), even though reports of rising anti-Semitism have been in the news. Writing in the online Christian magazine The Stream (March 19), sociologist George Yancey argues that both anti-Muslim and anti-Christian discrimination exist, although far less research has been conducted on the latter phenomenon.

In new research he has conducted, Yancey finds that there is a “negative framing” of “fundamentalist” Christians in the media. He found that when media personnel are presented with identical situations involving Muslims and Christians, they express more concern over hatred against the former than the latter. Yancey writes that a similar percentage of people discriminate against Christians and Muslims, though anti-Muslim discrimination tends to take place among older white males who are politically conservative while anti-Christian sentiment is held by those who are white, male, highly educated, and politically progressive. The effects of such bias and discrimination are also different: conservative white males may be more likely to engage in violence than wealthy educated progressives. Thus Muslims may suffer more damaging bias than evangelical Christians, be more at risk of religious-based violence, and have a harder time finding entry-level occupational positions. But Yancey concludes, “It’s also more reasonable to argue that evangelical Christians experience more damaging bias than Muslims. They face prejudice from the powerful cultural centers of our society.”

(The Stream,

Although there is real and perceived bias against evangelical students in American universities, those tensions can be defused through these Christians’ greater participation in campus life, although schools with highly divisive environments may have more negative outcomes, according to a recent study. In his blog Ahead of the Trend (March 20), David Briggs cites an analysis of a survey of 11,400 non-evangelical college students over three years that finds that other Christians have a fairly favorable view of evangelicals. Non-believers and Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews, however, were less likely to say that evangelicals were moral and tolerant and made contributions to society. The Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey found that even evangelicals’ harshest critics were more favorable when they had classroom and more informal discussions with such believers and participated in interfaith activities on campus. In universities and colleges experiencing more divisions where students felt that their views were silenced and there were fewer efforts to encourage productive exchanges, there were more anti-evangelical attitudes. In any event, atheist students showed the most negative attitudes toward evangelicals; only 29 percent were highly appreciative of evangelicals—the same percentage of evangelicals feeling the same about evangelicals.

The Buddhist vote is miniscule compared to Christians, but the last election shows how American Buddhists have become increasingly distinct in recent years. In one way, Buddhists resemble the growing non-affiliated population in their Democratic voting patterns, writes Miles D. Williams in the Religion in Public blog (March 17). In analyzing data from the 2016 Common Content Dataset, published by Harvard Dataverse, Williams finds that while representing just 0.9 percent of the sample, Buddhists comprise a growing number of consistent Democratic voters among the nones and religious minorities. Trump did the best among evangelicals, but as one moves to religious minorities (i.e., Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists), Clinton was the overwhelming favorite. But there are some differences with Buddhists; their support for Green Party candidate Jill Stein was the highest of all religious groups, standing at almost 10 percent. Yet Buddhists were also second after Jews among non-Christians to cast their vote for Donald Trump. Although a significant majority of Buddhists voted for Hillary Clinton (63.3 percent), the share of Buddhists who voted for the Democratic candidate was the lowest among non-Christians. In parsing the Buddhist vote according to its different denominations, Williams finds it was the Zen Buddhists who cast the largest vote for Stein. The cleavage between Asian and White Buddhists is found even in politics, with Trump receiving a substantial share (though not the majority) of Asian votes, while white, largely convert Buddhists went for Clinton and Stein.

(Religion in Public,

A recent survey find that three out of four Canadians believe immigrants should be tested for “anti-Canadian” values, with 23 percent believing that Muslims should be banned from the country. The poll, carried out by the CROP polling firm for Radio-Canada, had a large representation from Quebec (67 percent) and takes place during a time when politicians have called for testing immigrants on their appreciation of Canadian values. The Montreal Gazette (March 13) reports that despite most Canadians welcoming Syrian refugees (60 percent of Canadians, and 58 percent of Quebec residents in particular), the 23 percent who favored a Muslim ban rose to the level of 32 percent in Quebec. In asking Quebecers about which groups were the most integrated into Canadian society, Muslim immigrants polled at 42 percent, with Jewish immigrants receiving a rating of 72 percent.  A slight majority (51 percent) of Canadians said that the presence of Muslims threatened their sense of security—a figure that increased to 57 percent in Quebec.

Climate-related disasters shape religious preferences, but whether they strengthen religious identity depends on the frequency of such incidents and whether their victims are religious in the first place, according to a paper by Oscar Zapata of the University of Calgary. At the recent conference of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture, Zapata presented a paper using Canadian data from the International Social Survey Program and the Public Safety Canada survey from 1992–2012, focusing on the rate of belief in God and the intensity of religious preferences (measured by congregational attendance) and disasters related to climatic patterns. Zapata finds that when the number of disasters and their economic costs are considered, climate disasters increase the probability for the average person to be non-religious, suggesting “an erosion of religious preferences. In contrast, human losses of climate disasters intensify religious preferences among religious people.” The researcher notes that climate disasters have an effect on religious preferences not only when events happen locally (such as in the province where respondents live) but also when disasters happen in other provinces.

Political and government support of churches in Sweden make them less likely to oppose such a measure as same-sex marriages than more independent congregations, even if conservative members may be against such policies, according to a study presented at the recent meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture. In his paper, Uppsala University economist Niklas Bengtsson notes that economists going back to Adam Smith have argued that secular states can induce or even “bribe” churches to adopt less strict beliefs and practices. But it is difficult to test this idea, because it may also be the case that liberal churches are more likely to draw government funding. Bengtsson’s study circumvents this problem by focusing on the same-sex marriage conflict (a measure endorsed by the national church since 2005) and studying parishes that receive funding based on centuries-old property assignments where they cannot sell, trade, or change their property shares.

Using a data set of 1,477 Church of Sweden parishes that shows the level of subsidies church properties received (the church is no longer an official state institution, although individual church properties can receive external revenue from the government), the study finds that priests serving in income-protected parishes that draw revenue from state-sponsored property rather than from member payments are less likely to oppose same-sex marriage publicly. In contrast, Bengtsson finds no evidence that the private beliefs of local church members adjust to political subsidies. He concludes that his findings are relevant to other current religious conflicts, such as opposition to female priests and abortion, and even hints at the possibility of using subsidies to de-radicalize religious organizations more generally.

Recent claims that the Church of England is moribund and isolated from the British people may be exaggerated, writes Clive Field in the journal Theology (Vol. 120:2). The recent popular book That Was the Church That Was, stirred controversy over its portrayal of a church that was out of touch with society and mainly preoccupied with maintaining its establishment status, leading to a steady decline since the late 1980s. The leadership of successive Archbishops of Canterbury was also seen as a significant factor in the church’s decline. Through examining a wide range of past and current surveys, Brown finds that the Church of England’s decline is more long-standing, with most measures already at low ebb in 1986. Contrary to the book’s view, the church’s illiberal preoccupation with sexual issues and its establishment status did not have much negative impact on people’s views of the institution. Aside from the church’s delay in appointing women bishops and opposition to remarriage after divorce, other issues, including gay rights and the positions of various Archbishops of Canterbury, did not cause wide disillusion. Brown concludes that the “umbiblical cord attaching [the church] to the nation does not appear to have been severed just yet.”