The So-Called Religion Gap —

It’s that time in the election cycle when we suffer almost daily discussions of the “religion gap,” asserting that Republicans are the party of the weekly church attenders, and Democrats are the party of the secular and unchurched. This USA Today story is just one astoundingly uncritical example. (Where have all the journalists gone?) I could google many more. I have yet to see or hear any of these stories address the fact that survey respondents exhibit a well-established bias toward making themselves look good — the “social desireability” bias. Teens underreport sex and drug use; adults underreport infidelity. And guess what: Americans OVERREPORT church attendance (thanks, A., for mentioning the study!). Here’s an excerpt:

After the first wave of scholarly discussion, Hadaway et al. returned to Ashtabula County to measure Catholic attendance. They counted heads at all of the regularly scheduled masses in the county-38 in 13 parishes-over a several-month period. Based on the count, they projected an average weekly attendance of 24 percent of the Catholic population (a figure not far out of line with numbers reported by many Midwestern Catholic dioceses based on their own head counts). They then polled a scientifically valid sample of Ashtabula County residents by telephone. Fifty-one percent of Roman Catholic respondents said they had attended church during the past week.

Thus the “overstatement gap” snapped into focus. In the United States, the difference between attendance levels of 20 and 40 percent is immense-a swing of at least 50 million people. Institutional religion, far from being stable and vital in the United States, might well be weakening under the cover of misleading poll data. Any way one looks at it, there was a substantial religion news story to cover.

Come on, crackerjack news writers! If you’re a working journalist, you probably went to college. If you went to college, you took a sociology or psychology class that told you all about this tendency and how it affects study results. Remember? Granted, it applies to humans in general, which means that, theoretically, a Democrat is as likely to overstate attendance as a Republican. But – social desireability bias, again – Republicans KNOW they’re supposed to be reporting high church attendance to fit their party profile.

Maybe there’s a “Dewey Beats Truman” lining in this cloud: Maybe the same people who are lying about where they were last Sunday are also lying about what they’ll be doing on the first Tuesday in November…

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