John C. Green

Believe it or not: 2016 was a rather normal election year when it comes to a 'pew gap'

Believe it or not: 2016 was a rather normal election year when it comes to a 'pew gap'

No doubt about it, most mainstream pollsters thought the vote totals that rolled in during Election Night 2016 were intriguing, then stunning and, as dawn approached, almost unimaginable.

How did the chattering-class insiders miss what was clearly widespread heartland support for New York billionaire Donald Trump?

But there was one surprise left in the details of the early exit polls. In a race packed with soap-opera conflict and fiery rhetoric about personal ethics, morality and even faith, the experts looked at the role that religion played in 2016 and discovered -- to their shock -- that it was a rather normal modern election year.

"Actually, that's astonishing news," said Gregory A. Smith, who helps coordinate religion polling at the Pew Research Center. "If you consider all of the tumultuous events during this election year and how much tension there has been and all of the other stuff that's been up in the air, it's amazing that things were so steady" in terms of religion and voting, with "only a few numbers up or down a bit.

"Religious groups that have consistently supported the Republicans gave every indication they would back Donald Trump and that's how things turned out. The religious groups that traditionally back Democrats did so, but the turnout was down a bit. The religious groups that are usually divided were divided."

The so-called "God gap" (also known as the "pew gap") held steady, with religious believers who claimed weekly worship attendance backing Trump over Hillary Clinton, 56 percent to 40 percent. Voters who said they never attend religious services backed Clinton by a 31-point margin, 62 percent to 31 percent.

Concerning sex, marriage, babies, pews and the rise of the 'nones'

Researchers studying religion in America have long observed a kind of faith-based law of gravity: While young people often stray, most return to the pews after they get married and have children.

But something new is happening, especially among the "nones" -- the growing ranks of individuals who declare themselves "unaffiliated," when it comes to religious life. While researchers have dissected their political views, now it's time to focus on their actions linked to marriage and children.

"We have always known that family size is related to religiosity. The more devout people are the more likely they are to get married and have a higher number of children," said John Green of the University of Akron, a veteran researcher on faith and public life.

But Americans born after the 1960s have been shaped by storms of change linked to sexuality and marriage. For them, noted Green, contraception and abortion are normal parts of the American way of life. Cohabitation rates keep rising and people tend to marry later than in the past. Thus, they are older if and when they choose to have children.

It's time to probe the impact of these trends on religion, said Green, in a telephone interview. He was reacting to the Pew Research Center's massive 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, released on Nov. 3.

"You used to be able to say that the young would drift away from the faith of their youth, but then they would get married and have kids and that would pull them back … or maybe they would choose some other faith," he said. "The assumption was that marriage and family change people and they get more religious as they get older.

"Maybe what we're seeing now is that it's the faith component that is actually driving the actions of the young people who are choosing to get married and to have children in the first place. …