Dr. Wolf’s column “Politics as Religion” in the April 21 issue of this newspaper is seriously flawed. It is based on a recent Gallup poll about religious affiliation and participation in the United States.
One must be very careful with polls. They are much easier to get wrong than right. Polls depend on several things, two of which are sample size and sample selection. The larger the sample, up to about 1500, the better, but the sample must be an accurate reflection of who is being studied. Registered voters and likely voters are not necessarily the same people.
The wording and order of questions are also important. Preliminary questions can be structured to create a positive or negative frame of mind but are not usually included in the results. Illustrations would be, “Are you aware that Joe Biden’s young wife and baby daughter were killed in an automobile crash several years ago?” and “Are you aware that Donald Trump has been divorced twice and married three times?”
Context is very important. Are there recent events that might skew the results? When and how are the respondents contacted? By landline during the day? That will omit those who have only mobile phones and work away from home during the day.
Also, how are the findings interpreted? If 2% of X and 4% of Y believe Z, do we say Y is twice as likely as X to believe Z or that X is half as likely to believe Z as Y, or that only a handful of both X and Y believe Z? Finally, who is paying the bill? Remember the Bluegrass polls commissioned by the Courier-Journal that predicted Grimes would defeat McConnell by a large margin.
According to the noted statistician Nate Silver, the accuracy record of Gallup is mixed at best and, in the 2012 presidential race, it was the worst of all (https://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/10/which-polls-fared-best-and-worst-in-the-2012-presidential-race/). That makes me skeptical of any Gallup poll.
At the beginning of his column Dr. Wolf goes back and forth between attendance at church services and church membership and treats them as equals, but they most definitely are not equals. Every church has a portion of its membership that is inactive for various reasons (moved away, bad health, etc.). There also is a smaller portion that attends but does not join.
At this time, however, it is inappropriate to draw any conclusions about declining church attendance in our country, or attendance at anything else, due to the COVID pandemic. In response to the pandemic, many churches livestream their services online via YouTube and Facebook, and many people are watching them. Some of those may never return to in-person attendance but that does not mean they have embraced apostasy or become political activists. Likewise, many Sunday School classes and other small groups meet via Zoom; this has its pros and cons but does not constitute a “startling 20-year decline in church membership,” as Dr. Wolf asserts.
In its April 30, 2021 issue, the Wall Street Journal published a column by Orthodox rabbi Ari Lamm on this same Gallup survey in which he concluded that “the prospects of American religion have never been brighter.” He says the problem is that “worshipers hear too much about climate change, systemic racism and transgender rights and not enough about Abraham, Sarah and Isaac or Luke, Matthew and John.” Good point.
The “new religion and politics” link is even more spurious. It commits what is known as the “ecological fallacy” (W. S. Robinson, “Ecological Correlations and the Behavior of Individuals,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Jun., 1950), pp. 351-357). This is “the drawing of inferences about individuals based on aggregate level data.”
Dr. Wolf goes on to say “voter suppression efforts suggest … many Republicans see Democrats, especially black and poor ones, as worthy of ‘excommunication’ from our society.” That is a cheap shot. To equate the promotion of election integrity with the implied desire to exterminate black and poor people is outrageous and offensive. Many Republicans? How many Republicans do you know personally, Dr. Wolf?
We should be careful with the word “suggest.” The only voters I want to suppress are the deceased, noncitizens, those who do not live in the given political jurisdiction and those who want to vote multiple times. Dr. Wolf’s column suggests that he, like other leftist commentators, has not read the bill recently adopted by the Georgia legislature but has, rather, allowed the New York Times to do his thinking for him. That’s a pity.
Winfield H. Rose taught political science at Murray State University for 39 years and is now retired. He is active in the Calloway County GOP, but speaks here as an individual and not as a representative of either of these organizations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of the Murray Ledger & Times.