Sunday, July 13, 2014

And that means what, exactly?

Gallup has just published figures on approval ratings for Obama on the basis of religious affiliation. They show that Muslims like him and Mormons don't.

There is something annoying about surveys like this.  More specifically, about the announcement of such findings.  The devil is all in the details and in the interpretation.  If you just read the headlines you come away with one impression; if you read the interpretation you see how the headlines can be deceiving. Gallup points this out, actually, to their credit, and people who read carefully know how to interpret the information, but you just know there are dinner parties around the country where somebody is going to toss out, "I just read that..." and give you just the headlines.

What is missing, I think, behind these figures, is that when people speak of religion, they're not speaking of religious beliefs as established by religious authority as much as they are of group identity as created and maintained by the secular social environment.  Mormons are anti-Obama not because they are Mormons, in other words, but because they are Republicans.  

In that sense, the figures lie.  They suggest there is something in the belief system when it's more about such things as whether you think government is the problem or the solution or whether you think the poor are slackers or victims.

It's similar to the confusion we spread when we speak of things that blacks say and do when what we are actually talking about is what poor or uneducated people say and do.

Blacks got a bad rap in California when Proposition 8 was approved.  Remember that? It removed the right of lesbians and gays to marry. The figures showed African-Americans supported the law in greater numbers than whites did.  But that turned out to be because a higher percentage of blacks were members of churches, the well-spring of homophobia.  It was their religiosity, not their race that was calling the shots.  And because we tend to tiptoe around not wanting to offend anyone's religion, we didn't lay the blame where it actually belonged.  The headlines fired up racist animosity when race had nothing to do with it.   I know it's complicated and you trip over such issues as how being black and religious is different from being white and religious, or how being a religious Baptist may not be the same thing as being a religious Episcopalian.  It's not easy to pull these categories apart.  But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.  

This, in turn, reveals something about the sociology of knowledge.  That is, how “knowledge” (including “belief”) spreads.  You take on the beliefs and the orientation to knowledge of your neighbors.  And that’s true about whether you believe Jesus died and came back to life as much as it is about whether you believe gays should be allowed to marry or whether you believe those little illegal alien Mexican kids should be sent back to Mexico.

The Republicans are more likely to think they should.  The Democrats, less so.

That explains why “Christians” (read: Republicans) are so quick to get tough on immigration.  Not because it’s what Jesus would do but because it’s what their politics dictate.

And while we’re at it, I wish people would stop telling us what “Catholics” believe.  There is a world of difference between the hierarchy of the church and the ordinary folk, between what the supporters of the old-boys network advocate when they get into politics, and what ordinary folks believe who identify as Catholic because they live in Catholic communities.   The bishops get on television and carry on about “religious freedom,” which is a euphemism for removing the right of women to birth control. Meanwhile, the average Catholic practices birth control, approves of same-sex marriage, supports stem-cell research - the works - same as their Protestant and Jewish neighbors do.

For that matter, while the Gallup figures show “Protestants” approve of Obama less than “Catholics” or “Jews”, those labels mask the fact that Republicans are made up of “I’ve got mine” rich folk and the information-challenged “trouble with Kansas” types who vote against their own interests.

And then we get into the problem of how to identify a Jew - by religion or by historical group affiliation.  When we say “Jews” do this and say that, we are talking much of the time about atheists and agnostics, so comparing them with “Christians” can be mixing apples and oranges. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet were once Christians but are no longer - today they identify as agnostics.  Mark Zuckerberg identifies as atheist, but he also identifies as Jewish.

Muddy thinking in them there headlines...

Muddy thinking.

When somebody tells you “Catholics are more approving of Obama than Protestants,” the proper response, it seems to me, ought to be, “Now what the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Gallup poll source