The Religious and the Rights: Does Religious Affiliation Influence Congressional Decision-Making?

Becca Peach has always been interested in life’s intersections. That interest is clearly evidenced in her multidisciplinary education at Anderson University (she’ll graduate with a degree in Politics, Economics, and Philosophy, along with her second degree in History and a minor in Religion). So when she began to face concerns about the community she grew up in, it led her to study those intersections for answers. 

“At the beginning [of this project], the challenge was what made me want to pursue this research. And that challenge was the cognitive dissonance that came about because of growing up in the Evangelical community. In the 2016 election it became really obvious the church was supporting certain rhetoric that led them to act very differently toward certain people than they had acted toward me,” Becca says. “I think this research was one way that I wanted to get to the bottom of that and look more deeply at how the church interacts with people because of what the church believes.”

She saw the opportunity to face this cognitive dissonance when the time came for her to write a research paper on congress for a class entitled aptly, “The Congress.”

“My professor kind of let us loose and said that we needed to do research and, as long as some part of it pertained to congress, we were free to do whatever we’d like,” she explains. Becca decided then to examine several data sets and try to answer the question of if and how religious affiliation—specifically a Christian affiliation—affects voter decisions.

While her initial intention was to study how this affiliation influences racial resentment, she quickly realized studying this question through data analysis of congressional voting patterns would be almost impossible. So instead, she turned to another topic that has arisen as a point of tension between religious groups and political decision makers: LGBTQ rights.

SEARCHING FOR SIGNIFICANCE

Becca began her research by narrowing her topic to one fundamental question: How does religion influence the way congress members vote on LGBTQ issues? In her attempt to answer that question, Becca turned to a variety of secondary sources, as well as direct research from the Pew Research Center and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). The data from Pew came from their study, the Pew Research Religion Project, which gathered data on the religious affiliation of members of the 112th Congress, while the HRC gathered data on the same congress’ friendliness toward the LGBTQ community. 

“The HRC was one of the only resources I could consult without going through every vote of the 112th Congress members myself,” Becca explains. She also noted the lack of comprehensive data on LGBTQ issues. From there, Becca began to take on the role of primary researcher, building out graphs and figures to chart these data sets together—searching for points of correlation. 

“I looked to see how each member’s religious affiliation correlated with their voting patterns on views related to LGBTQ rights and then interpreted the story from there,” Becca states. “This was my first time really interpreting data into graphs and figures and that was a really key part of my research. It was really the first time I’d ever done research on my own, rather than just reporting research someone else had done.” 

From this in-depth data analysis, Becca discovered that her hypothesis mostly held true. The statistical significance was clear that a significant relationship existed between voting patterns on LGBTQ issues and nearly every single denomination of the Christian church (as well as several other religious affiliations). 

“I had hypothesized from the research that this would occur. Religion has proven in other instances with different issues—such as abortion—to be one of the main indicators of how a member of Congress is going to vote,” Becca explains. She also examined qualitative research to support her quantitative research, focusing on statements made by members of Congress about LGBTQ issues. 

“Looking at statements…made it really obvious that there is a correlation directly between somebody’s religious affiliation and how they choose to act toward the LGBTQ community.” 

The results of this research and the statistical significance raised concerns in Becca’s mind for what this means for the current state of both the church and our Congress. 

MARGINALIZATION AND REPRESENTATION

“This is a hierarchical issue, and to me that’s really interesting to study with the church, talking about the Christian church specifically,” Becca says. “When the church first began, it was a very marginalized and insignificant group of people. Since then it has evolved to occupy almost the exact opposite hierarchical role in society.” 

“Now looking at how the church, with its more powerful role, treats people who are more marginalized in society is really fascinating to me. I think it’s a study in institutional memory, realizing that the church has gone from such an insignificant to significant role and how that influences them.” 

Becca noticed in her research, however, that while the church is a significant and powerful figure in our society today, it can hardly be called representative of the country as a whole. With 92% of Congress self-identifying under a Christian denomination, the 112th Congress is more Christian than the people they represent. 

“More practically it really comes down to an issue of representation,” Becca confirms. “Since we can see descriptively they are different than the people they represent, and through my data and data like mine we can see that’s significant for the religion disparity, it becomes an issue of disparity in substantive representation as well. Not only how

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identify, but how they act and how they vote and what kind of policy proceeds.” 

Based on this story the data tells, Becca hopes one message is heard loud and clear: 

“The church needs to realize they’re not a monolith. There are different perspectives on this even within the faith community. There are different ways that the same sort of faith and the same text can be interpreted in order to guide how they interact with people.” 

A MILLION NEW QUESTIONS

By the conclusion of this project, Becca admits that for the wealth of insights she gained on the topics, she also came out with even more questions to answer. 

“I think that was another one of the biggest challenges, just reigning in all of my inquisitive inclinations and focusing on the one answerable question that I had set out to answer,” Becca says, citing that she’d like to have looked more closely at the differences in how various Christian denominations responded to LGBTQ issues. She says even though she had to “pigeon hole” her project into one question, she was able to successfully answer that question through scaling the scope of her research. 

“That’s one of the great things about research,” Becca notes on the endless avenues for question asking. “I want to go into academia, and I think it’s great that every single time you do a project like this and you get answers, you also get a million more questions, so your work never ends.” 

After graduating from Anderson University in May 2021, Becca hopes to go on to pursue a graduate degree in political science and eventually receive her PhD in American politics and political theory. With this project, Becca is just getting started on her long term goals of dissecting and studying all the ways a variety of disciplines—like religion and politics—intersect.

“This project was helpful in understanding the way that religion informs our interpersonal interactions,” Becca says, “and that’s the way I view politics—as an interpersonal interaction. Politics is the most naturally occurring interpersonal interaction that we have. It happens really regularly, and it’s so important for people to be involved.” 

She explains the understanding that sometimes politics take a more macro interpersonal interaction, while other times it can happen at a very micro level. Regardless of the level on which politics occur, Becca’s research made it clear to her that representation, perspective, and political engagement are crucial aspects of changing our world on behalf of pressing issues and marginalized people.