When it comes to seeing the poor as a concern for the government, those who profess the Christian religion in Ohio aren’t in the front ranks. The unchurched are.
A survey of 1,000 Ohioans jointly conducted for The Ohio Media Project/The Lima News found that people who claim no religious affiliation are more than twice as likely to see poverty and/or inequality as the top concern in the upcoming election as those claiming a Christian affiliation.
The question was: “To you personally, what is the most important issue facing the country.”
The poll found that 18.6 percent of those claiming no religion cited as their major concern issues relating to poverty and inequality, while only 8.4 percent of those claiming a Christian affiliation cited poverty or inequality.
Evangelical Protestants were least likely of all major groups to express concerns about poverty: less than 6 percent.
Some would say that casts a glare of shame on the people who are overwhelmingly Christian and claim to be motivated by love and compassion.
As the Catholic youth song title says, “They Shall Know We Are Christians By Our Love.”
Well, will they?
Amanda Hoyt, an evangelical Christian who is the Ohio director of the progressive-leaning Faith in Public Life strategic media firm, said Christians who don’t see poverty and inequality as a top priority are hypocrites.
“I would say the folks who identify as evangelical and do not cite poverty as the top issue are unchurched or not reading their Bible. They are not heeding the call to serve the least among us. Christ calls us to be in this world and not of it,” said Hoyt, of Columbus, a former chief of staff for the Ohio Senate Democrats.
“I don’t know how people can separate their personal faith and their politics. I wake up as an evangelical Christian every day. I don’t turn that off when I go to the voting booth,” she said.
“It’s hypocritical to claim they’re ‘of faith’ but they’re not serving the poor,” Hoyt said. “It’s all about putting others before ourselves.”
Challenging the poll
Mark Caleb Smith, the executive director of the Center for Political Studies at the evangelical Cedarville University near Dayton, took issue with the premise that Christians don’t care about the poor.
He said a survey like the Ohio Media Project’s doesn’t gauge the concern. It just shows that they don’t necessarily see poverty and inequality as requiring a response from the government.
“Many evangelical Protestants would argue that they care very deeply about poverty by being active in their church which cares for people who are in need or by giving money to private entities that are engaged in charitable enterprises. They may see poverty as very pressing but not something that would be dealt with through the government itself,” Smith said.
He said it may be that the non-religious put their faith in the government to improve the human condition, whereas Christians are more likely to see the human condition as constant.
“For people who don’t embrace a religious perspective, frequently their view of human nature is one that human beings are malleable, they’re changeable, [that] we can change with government policy,” he said.
Evangelicals are different
The poll was conducted in April and May by the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research in Akron for the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and has a margin of error of 3 percent.
Bliss is working with The Ohio Media Project, a collaborative effort of more than a dozen news outlets, including The Lima News, working together to represent the concerns of Ohioans in the 2016 election through polling, public conversation, and online engagement. The work can be found on the Your Vote Ohio Facebook page and http://yourvoteohio.org website.
Funding for the project comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with Bliss, the Akron Beacon Journal and the nonpartisan Jefferson Center public research organization leading the effort.
Whether poll respondents were thinking about government’s role in poverty, it’s clear that Evangelical Protestants in particular are in a class of their own, their opinions skewing the results for the entire churched population, and raising the question: What IS their top concern?
Though more evangelicals cite economic concerns than foreign policy issues, they are the religious group with the highest percentage of people concerned about foreign policy issues, such as terrorism and immigration, and least concerned with economic issues.
A total of 39 out of 235 Evangelical Protestants cited foreign policy issues, or 16.6 percent, compared with 13.7 percent of all 1,000 respondents and 9 percent of the 199 people claiming no religion.
As for economic issues, 17.9 percent of Evangelical Protestants cited those as their biggest concern, compared with 27.1 percent of all respondents and 32.7 percent of the nonreligious.
Among their Evangelicals’ solutions: “Send the foreigners away,” “Temporarily closing the borders,” “Deport the illegals,” “More security with the military and the wall.”
(Although respondents are known to the polling company, they were granted anonymity for story purposes in order to generate frank answers.)
Along with Black Protestants, they tend to also be concerned with public order issues, such as race, morals, abortion, sexuality, drugs, guns, violence.
And Evangelical Christians rank high with Roman Catholics in concern about big government, taxes, government spending and debt and health care.
Asked for solutions to public policy issues, evangelicals were more likely to say government is too big, wasting money and should be less involved in American lives:
“Go back to [the] system we had when the government wasn’t involved and everything was privatized.”
“If the government did not have so many regulations and taxes, businesses would be able to hire more people.”
“Need to stop giving away free benefits [for people] who never paid a dime in system, such as foreigners.”
One respondent — a Catholic baby boomer earning more than $75,000 a year — said, “we need jobs that are liveable.” She went on to say, as a former teacher, that “students need to be trained earlier for a specific career.”
Another respondent, a retired, member of a mainline Protestant denomination living on less than $50,000 a year, generalized from his or her own experience.
“My income is extremely limited, prices go up but income doesn’t, too many people out of work,” said the respondent.
A nonreligious voter said, “I’m one of those people. Everyone deserves a chance to have the resources for personal well being and growth.” The person identified as an unemployed Millenial high school graduate.
A mainline Protestant with an income of more than $75,000 a year and a member of the Silent Generation, said, “if lower-income families don’t have income, they cannot be consumers. It’s simply morally and ethically unacceptable that we have such an income gap. When you have that kind of economic gap the country is ripe for turmoil.”
A nonreligious, Generation X member earning more than $75,000 a year, said, “I believe that anybody who’s willing to work 40 hours should make a living wage; [you] can’t support a family on minimum wage.”
It’s well-established that Christians in the U.S. lean conservative, with evangelical Christians the most conservative and Roman Catholics interested in ending abortion, but moderate on social welfare.
Toledo-based Catholic priest and theologian the Rev. James Bacik says caring for one’s brother — or sister — was a command of Jesus and he thinks Christians ought to be more outwardly concerned with social welfare.
“It’s clear that as Christian people we have in many ways missed the social message of the Gospel,” Father Bacik said. “The essence of what Jesus was all about was love of God, love of neighbor.”
He said that many of those who call themselves nonreligious grew up in a religious tradition.
“People who say they are ’nons’ today often carry religious values that they received growing up. Part of that is the care for the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden,” Bacik said. “That’s been a great problem for the church and now we’re trying to recover it after Vatican Council II. The great hope, for me, is that Pope Francis is so strong on this.”
The disconnect between conservative values and concern for the poor surfaced starkly in the recent campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich appeared to touch a raw political nerve when he was asked at Republican town hall meetings and on televised debates about his controversial decision to expand access to the federal Medicaid program for the poor. Conservatives tended to be upset with Kasich appearing to make Ohio a willing participant of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Kasich asserted that looking out for “those in the shadows” should be a conservative value.
During one campaign event, he told a woman who had criticized his Medicaid expansion, “I don’t know about you, lady, but when I get to the pearly gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor.”
However, Kasich’s expansion of Medicaid cost him dearly among conservative voters, and his declaration of standing on religious values irritated his critics.
Smith at Cedarville College said Kasich used religion as a rhetorical tool to head off criticism of expanding Medicaid, which conservatives said was unaffordable and propped up ObamaCare.
“Whenever Gov. Kasich would use that sort of rhetoric it always comes with the assumption that it was the government’s job to do those things, and ideologically that did not play well with a lot of conservative Christians, for sure,” Smith said.
“Speaking for my own perspective, when I heard Gov. Kasich using that sort of rhetoric, it was an effort to keep people from asking those questions. You don’t like the way I expanded the Affordable Care Act’s reach in Ohio? Well guess what. I did it for religious reasons. So, what are you going to say now?’”
Hoyt takes Kasich at his word when he cited biblical reasons for expanding Medicaid or other policies that align with progressives, and she thinks that makes his critics uncomfortable.
“People don’t want to be called out on their sins. I think that Kasich has done a really good job of trying to lead a moral life,” Hoyt said. “I would say that Jesus Christ was not anti-government. Government has a role and people of faith have a role.”
Reach Tom Troy at firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6058 and on Twitter @TomFTroy.