Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Are religious people more or less likely to support redistribution in the welfare state?

We are all familiar with many of the characteristics that distinguish people who support the welfare state and those who don't.  We might expect, for example, left-wing voters, women with children, ethnic minorities and the poor to be amongst the most consistent supporters of welfare.  But what is the role of religion?  Are religious more or less likely to support welfare measures - such as income redistribution - than their non-religious counterparts?

This is the question posed in this interesting new study in the European Sociological Review.  Before reading the paper, my intuition was that religious people would be more likely to support redistribution. This might be because religion, or more its purported values - charity, altruism, cooperation, community - seem more aligned with the kind of values associated with support for the welfare state.

However, the authors propose a different hypothesis: that religious people are less likely to support redistribution.  They suggest that this antagonism may be due to the historic transition between the church and state in the responsibility for social welfare, with the former and its devotees unhappy at the diluting of religion's responsibility for welfare.

In short, it transpires that this second hypothesis is true: religious people are significantly less likely to support redistribution than secular individuals, even after a whole host of other variables are controlled for.  The influence of religion on anti-redistributionist attitudes is equivalent to having a higher income or being more highly educated, with these latter two determinants also linked to weak support for redistribution.

I found these results surprising, but my (mistaken) intuition might say more about perceptions of religion in the UK.  Cities with strong Catholic communities - such as Liverpool and Glasgow - tend to be overwhelmingly associated with the Left.  And, as the old saying goes, Labour owed more to Methodism than to Marx.  This interesting study suggests the contrary.  The Conservatives might owe more to the Church than to Churchill.

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