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Ask Professor Burge 6 – Income and Religious Disaffiliation, and Modern Republican Party


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/10/19

Professor Ryan Burge‘s website states: “I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science as well as the Graduate Coordinator at Eastern Illinois University. I teach in a variety of areas, including American institutions, political behavior, and research methods. My research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior (especially in the American context). Previously, I have completed an appointment as a post doctoral research fellow at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, Illinois. While there I was an adviser on issues of survey methodology and polling, as well as providing data collection and analysis.

I have published over a dozen articles in a number of well regarded peer reviewed journals including Politics & Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Review of Religious Research, the Journal of Religious Leadership, RepresentationPoliticsGroupsand Identities, the Journal of Communication and Religion, the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture and the Social Science Computer Review. 

In addition, my research has been covered in a variety of media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, Vox, 538, BuzzFeed News, Al-Jazeera, Christianity Today, Religion News Service, The Daily Mail, Deseret News, World Magazine, Relevant, and C-SPAN. I am the co-founder and frequent contributor to Religion in Public, a forum for scholars of religion and politics to make their work accessible to a more general audience.

Finally, I am a pastor in the American Baptist Church, having served my current church for over thirteen years.”

Here we talk about modern political party religious affiliation and income.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, here we are again with Professor Ryan Burge, we’ve had the Democratic National Convention. We’ve had the Republican National Convention. So, something new has to do with income in the research for you. How do the religious versus the Nones [Ed. Sorry, Indi] compare in incomes?

Professor Ryan Burge: The perception people have is individuals who have more incomes are religiously unaffiliated or those who have no religion are less likely to be poor. The image of poor hillbillies. In fact, the reality is there is no real relationship between income and disaffiliation. There is some evidence that more higher income people are more likely to be religious. You have to think about it in terms of the vertical versus the horizontal.

When people think about religion, a lot think about the vertical, which is the relationship between a higher power and you. But religion has a strong social relationship too. It’s you and other people. People who get farther in life, economically, in terms of careers and things. They tend to have large social networks. Where is the place to have the social network? It is in the church. That’s where people make connections and move things forward. People are religious tend to be plugged in.

They aren’t necessarily funding anti-abortion clinics or things like that. They put a few hundred dollars in the offering plate, and want to see and be seen, and be part of the social scene. If you own a car lot, people are more likely to buy a car from you because they think you’re reputable and know you. It is practical and want to have a good business. It’s one way to have a good business. So, yes, there’s no real association become income and disassociation.

Jacobsen: The Greatest Generation had about 75% believing in God absolutely. 35% in Generation Z, why the 40% drop, approximately?

Burge: Yes, it is generation replacement – a lot of it. I don’t want to lay things at the altar of the internet too much. The internet did have a big impact on beliefs. Because if you were a kid growing up in rural Alabama in 1950, your only opportunity to hear about Judaism, Buddhism, or Hinduism was to go to the local library and find one or two books there talking about these things. Now, a 12-year-old can go on the internet and learn about the Five Pillars of Islam in 5 minutes, or Mormonism, or Hinduism, or learn about being an atheist or a humanist. 

I think access to more and more information makes people more doubtful of the things that they currently because they see the buffet of beliefs in the world, “Maybe, I was not as right as I thought I was.” I think the internet has a lot to do with it, and secularization. We know America has become a much more secular country. Here’s what interesting: 40% of Gen Z claim themselves as religiously unaffiliated – agnostic, atheist, and nothing in particular, but only 18% hold an agnostic or atheist belief system. So, half of the people who identify from a belonging perspective as Nones do not from a believing perspective. Belief is the last thing to go. Attendance is the first thing. Belonging is the second thing. Belief is the third thing to go for most people.

Jacobsen: Why are retired atheists so prominent on social media, as in posting a lot?

Burge: This is conjecture from me. I think it’s an interesting question. I think a lot of retired atheists are retired, and bored.

 Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Burge: If you were an atheist, you grew up when 85-90% of America was Christian in the 1960s and 70s. A lot of atheists grew up in culturally conservative households and communities. They really had to navigate a difficult space, where they couldn’t say what they really were politically or religiously. Once you get to retirement age, you don’t care what people think. I think you become more passionate. You don’t worry about getting your boss mad and getting ahead.

Atheists tend to have high levels of education – more than half of them have a bachelor’s degree. A lot of them have idle time, education, and make politics their hobby. Boom! Here it goes, they have nothing to lose. They want to post about politics a lot. It is overcorrection for their upbringing, “Look how liberal I am now compared to the religious town I grew up in.”

Jacobsen: Why were so Americans before saying that American atheists were a drain on the economy?

Burge: I have a theory. I don’t have strong data to back this up, yet. The arguments people make in public are the most socially respectable version of the argument that they really want to make. So, when it comes to immigration, it is a lot better socially to say, “I am opposed to immigration because I think they take good jobs from good, hardworking Americans and drive down wages.” It sounds palatable in a lot of ways. It is not about skin color, religion, or xenophobia. It is about cold, hard economics.

If you see the data, the age group most worried about immigration are people over the age of 65, which tells you pretty clearly. It is not about economics, “They are going to take our jobs.” It is about xenophobia and fear of the other. Once you look at the data, it lays bare this reality. It is not about “taking our jobs”; it is about “we don’t like brown and black people coming to our country. People coming here should be white and Christian. We just don’t like that.” Of course, nobody is going to say that at the dinner party because people will respond, “You’re racist.”

They couch this in economic terms. But it doesn’t pan out. Evidence is clear. Immigrants don’t make the economy worse. They make it better in a lot of ways.

Jacobsen: In August, 2019, you “scraped” 58,000 tweets from all democratic primary candidates. 0.2% – 2 in 1,000 – of them contained the word “God.” It doesn’t have to do with sentences, but with a word. Why that? Why more references to Islam than to Christianity?

Burge: Because the Democratic Party has become the party of non-white Christians. 38% of the Democratic Party is white and Christian. 75% of the modern Republican Party. The modern Republican Party is one that styles itself as a party that caters to white Christian people and white Christian values. The Democratic Party has to cater to everyone else, including the Nones, and religious pluralism. “America is not a Christian country, but a country that has a lot of Christian people.” It is a lot of virtue signalling.

“Listen, we’re open to every religion. If we talk about Islam, then it looks like we’re open to all religion.” It becomes a key to speaking about all religions. You’ve got to appeal to one group while not making the other group mad. Democrats tend to not speak about God too much, except in vague terms. Republicans are more open about it because it’s their base.

Jacobsen: Why does knowing someone with COVID-19 decrease support for Trump among white Evangelicals?

Burge: It makes it real. This happened in America, especially where I live in the rural southern part of the state of Illinois. When COVID-19 broke out in March and April, it was primarily a Chicago thing. Almost all the cases in the state were in Chicago. We might have 5 cases a week, which is almost none. The resurgence of COVID-19 now happens in rural counties. More people in Illinois got COVID-19 outside of Chicago than outside of Chicago. It has become more and more real.

For a long time, a lot of people in rural America were convinced this was a hoax. A lot are still convinced by the way. When you see someone die, you realize: This isn’t a messaging campaign by Democrats, or a hoax, or a conspiracy. People are sick and dying because the Trump Administration has done a terrible job handling the pandemic in every way. The risks are high. It is not politics. It is people’s lives on the line.

Jacobsen: How has the Republican Party changed in demographics from mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, and Catholics?

Burge: Yes! This is a big shift, not a lot of Americans understand. Mainline Protestants used to be 40% of all Republicans in 1978. 4 in 10 were Mainline Protestants, e.g., United Methodists, Episcopalians, non-Evangelical Protestants or moderate Protestants who do not want higher taxes, who have higher incomes and higher levels of education. Today, they went from 41% of the Republican Party to 14% of the Republican Party. Evangelicals went from 25% to 32%. So, they’re growing, but Catholics have grown as a share of the Republican Party too.

The Catholic vote used to be a solid blue vote, especially at the national level. You can think of Kennedy, New England Catholics. Over time, they have moved towards the Republican Party, especially among white Catholics. No religion, the Nones, used to be less than 5% of Republicans. Now, 13.6% are Republican. They are a small group and growing in size. As the Nones grow in size, you will get more. You would not get all Catholics.

The modern Republican Party is 1/3rd Evangelical, ¼ Catholic, and 13-15% Mainline Protestants, then those of other faith groups, and then No Religion.  That’s what the modern Republican Party looks like.

Jacobsen: Thank you so much for your time, today.

Burge: Always a pleasure, Scott.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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