Changes in the Views of Religious Conservatives Fail to Mask Their Underlying Unity of Perspective

Most political analysts contend that religious conservatives are predictable and consistent, rarely changing their mind about issues. But a new survey of SAGE Cons – Christian conservatives who are politically engaged and spiritually active – indicates that their attitudes on key issues are more volatile than expected. In a study of how their positions have changed in the past two years, 12 of the 16 positions tested showed statistically significant changes, with three issues experiencing shifts of 25 or more percentage points in just two years.

Government Action with Increased Support

Overall, the survey revealed an increase in strong support by SAGE Cons for seven of the 16 government actions tested. There were two actions which received massive increases in support: ending all federal funding of abortions and increased funding for defense against terrorism. In 2014, just 55% of the religious conservatives said they would give “a lot of support” to federal efforts to stop funding abortions. Now, just two years later, that figure has jumped to 93%. Raising the budget for fighting terrorism generated “a lot of support” from 51% of the Christian conservatives in 2014 and has spiked to 82% in 2016.

A substantial increase in SAGE Cons offering “a lot of support” were also associated with restoring military funding that has been reduced in recent years by the Obama administration (up 13 percentage points in two years, from 64% to 77%). In addition, an 11-point increase in strong support was registered for providing legal recognition and benefits only to marriages that are between a man and a woman. That sentiment rose from 64% to 75% in the last two years.

Other noteworthy increases in high levels of personal support were discovered for eliminating the federal budget deficit (up eight points, from 81% to 89%); reducing the regulations and taxes on businesses (up five points, from 70% to 75%); and instituting guns laws that allow qualified citizens to purchase, own and use guns appropriately (rising from 63% to 68%).

Government Action with Decreased Support

The survey by the American Culture and Faith Institute (ACFI) also identified five positions that have changed in a negative manner compared to two years ago. The biggest decrease in support – and perhaps the most significant philosophical shift of all – is a 25-point decrease in the proportion of SAGE Cons who are willing to give a lot of support toward changing existing laws and policies to more closely reflect biblical principles related to individual moral behavior. While a casual observer might expect this to be a behavior that Christian conservatives would be excited to endorse, the survey revealed just the opposite to be true – and to an astounding degree. Overall, support for synching the nation’s morality-related laws with biblical principles plummeted from 89% in 2014 to less than two-thirds (64%) in the current survey.

Other proposed changes by the federal government that SAGE Cons were less willing to strongly support included fully implementing the Affordable Care Act (down from 8% to a mere 2%); establishing a way for illegal immigrants living in the US to become legal citizens, without amnesty (dropped from 16% to 10%); expanding regulations to reduce global warming (dipping from 10% to just 3%); and instituting academic performance standards in public schools (down from 30% to 18%)

No Real Change

There were four other policy possibilities related to which the survey detected no statistically significant change of heart among the religious conservatives. Those included reducing the federal government’s debt; reducing the federal government’s intrusion into citizens’ lives; reducing the number of federal taxes and current tax rates; and protecting religious freedom.

What Religious Conservatives Most Desperately Want

Another way of reading the ACFI data is to consider the intensity of support accorded to each of the 16 government pursuits that were evaluated by survey respondents. Such an analysis shows that SAGE Cons are quite consistent in their thinking.

At least nine out of ten Christian conservatives held a similar point of view on each of five matters of governance:

  • Opposing full implementation of the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare)
  • Opposing the expansion of regulations to reduce global warming
  • Supporting the protection of religious freedom
  • Supporting a reduction in the federal government’s debt
  • Opposing illegal immigrants who currently live in this country becoming legal citizens, without amnesty

In addition, at least eight out of ten SAGE Cons agreed on the following:

  • Support for eliminating the federal budget deficit
  • Support reductions in the federal government’s intrusion into people’s lives
  • Support increasing funding for defending the US against terrorism
  • Opposition to instituting national academic performance standards in public schools

Three out of four, or more, of the SAGE Cons were supportive of:

  • Reducing the number of federal taxes, and federal tax rates
  • Increasing military funding to previous levels
  • Providing legal recognition and benefits only to marriages between a man and a woman
  • Reducing taxes and regulations on businesses

That leaves only two of the positions tested with intense support from less than three-quarters of the SAGE Con base. Both of those options – changing existing laws and policies to more closely reflect biblical principles related to individual moral behavior, and instituting gun laws that allow qualified citizens to purchase and own guns and use them appropriately – were strongly supported by about two-thirds of the Christian conservative base.

Unexpected but Logical Outcomes

“Even though we have witnessed substantial change in some opinions among SAGE Cons, the unmistakable pattern is that this group is unusually unified in their perspective on America and governance,” noted George Barna, who directed the survey as the leader of the American Culture and Faith Institute. “Even the major changes identified are understandable,” Barna continued. “For instance, the jump in support for defunding abortion is likely a response to the revelations about Planned Parenthood selling body parts harvested from murdered fetuses. Similarly, the strong desire to restore funds for fighting terrorism can probably be traced to both increased instances of major terrorist activity as well as disgust over President Obama’s global apology tour.”

Barna sees two deeper threads woven within the responses to the survey. “SAGE Cons are deeply religious and unquestionably patriotic, but they are signaling that they are not interested in a theocracy. They recognize that it is not a government’s laws that shape a person’s heart but rather their commitment to truth and faith, and to embodying the principles of their faith. These conservatives are desirous of a nation that reflects righteous character without government-regulated morality and litmus tests.”

The other thread described by the researcher related to the current state of affairs in America. “At the same time that they want genuine, character-driven morality rather than a legalistic pursuit of government requirements, it seems that SAGE Cons have had enough of the federal bureaucracy telling them how to live, and defining morality for them. The survey data may be suggesting that religious conservatives are done playing nice and are preparing to push back against a politically correct, intrusive, and aggressive federal government,” opined Barna. “As voters determine the short-term future of the nation through the November election, the next five months promise to be very intense.”

About the Research

The survey was conducted by the American Culture & Faith Institute among 3,000 individuals whose faith views and political activity qualified them as SAGE Cons. The survey was conducted online during April 2016. The 2014 survey was conducted online among 1,200 SAGE Cons during April 2014. To avoid any design bias, the same questions were asked in both the 2014 and 2016 surveys.

The American Culture & Faith Institute is a division of United in Purpose, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. The mission of United in Purpose is to educate, motivate and activate conservative Christians related to the political process. The organization does not support individual candidates or political parties.

In the research SAGE Cons are qualified as adults who are registered voters; conservative on political matters; have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior; are active in pursuing their Christian faith; and are actively engaged in politics and government. They represent about 12% of the national adult population.

Additional information about this and related research is accessible on the American Culture & Faith Institute website, located at www.culturefaith.com.