Like most Canadians, I’m tempted to follow American politics more closely than my own. There is an edge-of-your-seat dynamic to American politics not found in polite Canada. Recent months have proved no exception.
But the problem with drama is, well, drama.
Given recent narratives around “evangelical” voters, we need to know: Do America’s Christian independent schools contribute to political polarization?
Let’s look at the data.
For those unfamiliar with the Cardus Education Survey (CES), it is the largest representative sample of religious independent high school graduate outcomes in North America and Australia.
In the most recent US survey, we asked participants if they voted in the 2016 presidential election. Despite all the rhetoric you’ve heard, Protestant school graduates were the least likely to vote in 2016 of all independent school graduates—and neither more nor less likely than public school graduates—despite feeling a strong sense of duty to be involved in politics.
This obligation to vote is consistent with the findings of the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1997 (NLSY97). However, it is interesting to contrast actual voting behaviour. For the 2004 presidential election, the NLSY97 found a very strong and positive Protestant-school effect on voting. In 2008, there remained a positive voting propensity, but it was not statistically significant.
Given that Protestant school graduates in the latest CES were much more likely than public school graduates to describe their political ideology as conservative and closer to the Republican than Democrat Party, what does their lack of enthusiasm in 2016 suggest?
I’ll go out on a limb: As voters, Christian school graduates are unlikely of the populist variety. Nor are they elites.
In fact, along with religious homeschoolers, Protestant school graduates are the least likely to trust government or the media and the most likely to feel that society is hostile to their views. Protestant school graduates are also the least likely of any school sector to think they can have an impact on community and political affairs.
These findings may help explain why Protestant school graduates’ likelihood to volunteer for a political cause is trending lower than public school graduates and why these graduates are less engaged in absolute terms. When we look at both political activity and civic engagement in political affairs, we find Protestant school graduates’ participation significantly lower than public school graduates.
These findings have interesting parallels to the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002). As Cardus senior fellows Albert Cheng and David Sikkink present in a Youth & Society journal article, Protestant school students are less likely to volunteer in political organizations in high school, and eight years after graduation, their lower likelihood of volunteering in political clubs compared to public school students “becomes substantively and significantly significant.” In terms of financial donations, Protestant school graduates are the least likely to make a political contribution.
But this civic disengagement is unique to politics.
When we consider other measures of community involvement, good citizenship, and contribution to the common good, we see that Protestant school graduates are, in fact, very much engaged.
For example, despite their lack of political donations, Protestant school graduates are the most generous in their total financial giving, and they volunteer more hours than public school graduates. Although, according to 2018 CES data, this voluntarism has more to do with family background than school sector, the ELS:2002 also finds strong voluntarism for Protestant school students sustained into young adulthood, and the NSLY97 findings consistently point to pro-social orientations among Protestant schoolers.
But isn’t this due to church activity?
Yes, and it’s time we stop shying away from recognizing that religious activities are integral to the public good. Church and parachurch organizations significantly contribute to society’s welfare—from local social services to foreign aid and relief, not to mention the benefits of thick community and spiritual nourishment.
Let’s look at just the economics—what we can quantify.
Nationally, religious practice generates billions of dollars worth of public good—even for those outside church congregations—as we present in our recent study of the “hidden economy.”
And on a local level, our Halo Project research estimates the average economic benefit to the surrounding community—in terms of feeding and clothing the vulnerable, preventing crime and suicide, providing childcare space and community housing, etc.—is $4.77 for every dollar put in the offering plate.
Bottomline: Churches and religious charities overcontribute to the common good, as do Christian schools and their graduates.
Believe it or not, they also have the key ingredients to abate political polarization.
Our 2014 US data shows that Protestant school graduates are the most likely to talk about politics in church, with family, and with friends, and they are also the most likely to have taken a civics or government class in high school.
But even more important than having an informed discussion is to have a hospitable one, where we honour God by loving our neighbour.
So I’ll close with one final stat: More than any other graduates, those from Protestant schools show the greatest propensity to have an obligation to take action against wrong and injustice. This inclination gives me hope, not just for my dramatic neighbours to the south, but for the world.
Thank you David! We in the South need your fine research and findings! May God continue to bless your work! Keep sharing with us in the Sourth!
Marion Van Soelen
These findings seem to clash with what I read in the book “Jesus and John Wayne.” written by a Calvin College professor historian. That book argues (or so I read it) that in the current US political polarization US Evangelicals are an important (if not main) pillar, and how could that not be reflected in the schooling linked to them.
Thanks for your comment, Adrian. I think there are a number of questions that may help tease that out. First, what’s meant by “US Evangelicals” — who is and isn’t included in that? In this blog post, I deliberately focused on the full basket of “Protestant school graduates”. Second, what share of “US Evangelicals” are Christian school graduates? The research I presented was not of American Christians in general, but specifically graduates of Protestant Christian schools. Third, I’d like to stress the strength of the three data sets I cite — the CES, NLSY97, and ELS:2002 – which are ‘the gold-standard’ in terms of rigour. Even so, I am currently working on seeing how these data sets can be improved further. So, if any researchers have input on that score, I’d welcome input.
I attribute my education primarily to what my parents taught me themselves – by precept and example – but I also attended private schools for 12-1/2 years. Those schools were protestant in the sense that they encouraged greater reliance on scripture than on traditions.
Not that anyone cares (I’m as near to a nobody as you are ever likely to meet) but I learned enough about history to realize that danger to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can result from political ideologies that are too far to the right or the left. A too conservative ideology kept Europe in darkness for over a thousand years. A too consercative ideology resulted in consignment of religious dissenters to the stocks, the pillory, public whippings and, in a few cases, to public hangings and banishment by the separatists and puritans in New England in the seventeenth century. An overreaction to conservatism resulted in France winding up in the ditch on the other side of the road in the late eighteenth century.
At least some Christian schools in the 1950s and ‘60s were dedicated to encouraging a philosophical balance. And maybe – just maybe – that is why the graduates of some Christian schools in the recent past aren’t running off to political extremes.
I agree with the philosophy that we (society in general or Christians in particular) can accomplish more – and more efficiently – in the private sector than what can be accomplished by or through civil government. At the same time, we need to be careful about creating unholy alliances between the public and the private sector. There are things governments should absolutely not do and the blurring of the distinction makes it more difficult to maintain those prohibitions.