Rick Santorum's Measurement Problem: The Religious Left

As our national dialogue pivots from jobs and deficits toward religion, birth control and politics, Rick Santorum has positioned himself at the center of said debate.  His claim that Obama’s beliefs represent a “phony theology” garnered significant media attention last week.  Santroum defended his statement, claiming his words were in reference to the President's environmentalism (not Obama’s religion per se).  But in 2008 Santorum made a similarly provocative statement about Obama’s Christian faith.  In an interview Santorum was asked whether Obama was a “liberal Christian.”  Santorum responded “I don’t think there is such a thing.”  He would go on to state “To take what is plainly written and say that ‘I don’t agree with that’…means you’re not what you say you are.  You’re a liberal something, but you’re not a Christian.” Santorum’s claim raises an interesting question concerning conceptualization and measurement.  In simple terms: How do we conceptualize and measure "religiousness"?  And second: How do ideology and/or party identification correlate with our measure(s) of  religiousness?

It just so happens that political scientists have some good answers to these questions.  Stephen Mockabee, Ken Wald, David Leege have authored a series of papers on this very issue (see the following, entitled “In Search of a Religious Left”).  Mockabee, Wald and Leege note that “traditional” measures of religion—such as daily prayer, reading scripture, church attendance and biblical literalism—tend to correlate with conservative ideology and Republican identification.  In this sense, Santorum may have a point (though obviously a very narrow one).  However, these authors note that the standard measures of religiosity are biased toward a particular conceptualization of religiousness (one favoring piety and individual involvement).  So for the 2006 ANES Pilot Study, Mockabee, Wald and Leege posed a different set of questions pertaining to religious doctrine and practice.  These alternatives gauged the value of sacramental beliefs, respecting church leaders and communitarianism (for example, whether “individual piety” or “helping others” was more important for one’s Christian faith).  They found clear evidence validating this alternative measure of religiosity and that it matters in terms of political ideology and party identification.  As Ken Wald noted in an interview: “We are able to uncover considerable evidence of a religious left among Christians, and the big news is that it matters electorally.  Having a strong communitarian view of faith is associated with voting for Democratic candidates.”  A longer, and more nuanced quote from their recent book chapter:

There appears to be a division of labor such that evangelical-style religiosity attends to questions of personal morality without much interest in social welfare policy, while communitarian-style religiosity addresses social welfare but gives much less priority to issues like abortion and gay rights (Olson and Carroll 1992).  Without measures of communitarian-style religiosity, scholars have not been able to trace this dialectic in American political behavior and have thus presented a one-sided portrait of religion as an inevitably conservative force.

In short, Mockabee, Wald and Leege find that religiosity is not a uni-dimensional construct, despite how we traditionally measure and talk about religion.  Rather, religiosity contains two distinct dimensions.  So when Santorum claims the there is “no such thing” as a “liberal Christian,” he’s using a particular conceptualization of religion (one based, perhaps, on biblical literalism).  But his is not the only measure available.