A Religio-Sociological Survey in the Quad Cities Area

A Survey Experiment: Race, Religion, Politics, and Other Comfortable Topics
by Everett Hamner

A few weeks ago I took off my customary literary critic hat and spent nine hours wearing a sociologist costume. During the early stages of an interdisciplinary undergraduate seminar entitled “Ethnic Literatures of the United States: Race, Religion, and Election ’08,” I took my ten students to a weekend multicultural festival in the Quad Cities (IL/IA) and spent an afternoon and evening surveying attendees on Gallup questions ranging from likely choices for president to assessments of local race relations to beliefs about evolution and creation. This is not my usual gig, but after reading autobiographies by Obama and McCain, and before launching into novels about civil rights and Vietnam, I wanted my students to get outside the classroom and into conversations with others of very different racial backgrounds, political persuasions, and religious traditions. 252 such discussions later, we ended up with data that is suggestive if not conclusive, a number of eye-opening personal encounters, a broader appreciation of each other as human beings, and—to my knowledge—not a single sunburn.

I would emphasize up front that our data was drawn entirely from voluntary attendees of a multicultural festival, one which required either a $2 admission fee or two cans of food for donation to a local food bank. Bastion of red-blooded conservatism this was not, so we certainly expected the crowd to favor Obama. Even so, the actual numbers were surprisingly lopsided: 80% for Obama, 13% for McCain, and 7% other/undecided. Granted, the crowd was one-third African American and over half Democratic, but the survey was administered before the stock market lost a couple thousand points over the last few weeks. Curious about factors associated with voters’ choices, I queried our data with the help of a generous sociologist colleague, Dr. David Rohall (also of Western Illinois University).

In the end, the following categories appeared to have the most significant correlations with choice for president:

**gender (Obama drew 62% of his voters from women and 38% from men, while McCain drew 39% of his voters from women and 61% from men);

**educational attainment (McCain drew 36% of his voters from those with a high school degree or less, while only 18% of Obama’s voters fit these categories; conversely, 56% of Obama’s voters had a BA or more, while only 36% of McCain’s voters held college degrees or more); and

**attitudes toward job opportunities available to racial minorities (when asked, “do you feel that racial minorities in this country have equal job opportunities?”, 21% of Obama supporters said yes and 68% said no, but 63% of McCain supporters said yes and only 25% said no). (By comparison, in a national Gallup poll asking the same question this summer, 53% answered yes and 46% said no.)

Enough with the basics. Personally, the answers I found juiciest were those engaging attitudes toward biblical interpretation and evolutionary theory. Here the broader Gallup information is crucial for setting the context. As is regularly lamented by scholars of biology and religion alike, over the last quarter-century, anywhere between 43-47% of Americans have steadily chosen a survey response stating, “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” rather than other answers accepting evolutionary theory (one of which even allows for God’s “guidance” of that process). With this in mind, our survey’s lower measurement of only 28% identifying with young earth creationism might seem a significant drop, at least before one considers the liberal-leaning demographics of our sample. However, what fascinates me is the fact that in a crowd that was only 9% Republican, three times that percentage still denied the validity of evolution, a claim upon which modern biology places as much weight as modern physics does the notion of gravity. Not coincidentally, when asked about their views of scripture, a similar 32% of our respondents chose “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” rather than “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally” or “The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man.”

What do these numbers mean? Admittedly, in terms of “quantitative proof,” our survey is rather humble. Nonetheless, as much as I may be “reading into” the data (rather than pretending the strictly neutral, absolutely objective posture that often seems the sacred cow of quantitative analysis), a key insight seems buried beneath these figures. As Katie Lofton emphasized at an ASA panel on fundamentalism we shared last fall, academia desperately needs to counter rather than exacerbate our culture’s all-too-common equations of political conservatism with religious fundamentalism, and vice versa. Recent months have brought greater visibility to relatively liberal Christians like Sojourners founder Jim Wallis and Saddleback Church pastor and author Rick Warren (whose August presidential forum featured questions about environmental stewardship and global poverty, not just abortion and homosexuality), so this error may have become less tempting of late, but one election does not an entrenched assumption erase. Indeed in all of our disciplines, might we not do well to explore the growing number—one in five, this survey would suggest—of Americans who are not necessarily Republican, not necessarily politically conservative, but who still assume the first eleven chapters of Genesis should be read as the introduction to a scientific textbook? Rather than a culturally-mediated ancient Near Eastern effort to interpret reality in light of a God who daringly claimed superiority above all others, the flannel-board image of Genesis is amazingly tenacious. Instead of dividing people into religious believers and enlightened atheists—categories themselves highly dependent on traditional Western, monotheistic assumptions about the nature of “religion”—perhaps we need to spend more energy asking how American culture continues to transmit fundamentalist assumptions, even when individuals and groups appear untouched by groups like Focus on the Family.

A last note about the pedagogical impact of this kind of project: very time-consuming, but very rewarding. Because my students were involved at all stages of the project, from choosing the site and questions to administering surveys and analyzing responses, I think they became more thoughtful critics of the “hard data” and “fast facts” that contemporary media constantly offer. Equally importantly, they got to know me and each other in a setting where we were quite clearly all on the same team, working together toward a common goal and without a large gap between “professor” and “student.” Approximately half of my students observed in their project write-ups that the excuse of completing a survey enabled more extensive and personal conversations with members of other ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious groups than they had ever before experienced, and several even said that these experiences strongly challenged stereotypes they had unconsciously maintained. For these reasons alone—and whether our data “proves” anything or not—I’ll be attempting this kind of project again, and I’d be glad to share more with anyone interested in trying something similar.


Phil said…
Wow; an amazing experiment and cutting-edge, immersive pedagogy! The answers to survey questions were very interesting and the interdisciplinary nature of the exercise is surely priceless. I'm sure it was worth the time it took to prepare.

I'd love to hear more from you on this, and if possible more from your students about this experiment. Good work, Dr. Hamner!

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