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Religion Counts: Do the religious feel like they can make a difference?

Religion Counts: Do the religious feel like they can make a difference?

The Religion Counts team explore the question of whether people in different religious groups feel that they can make a difference. 29/05/2024

In our two previous briefing papers in the Religion Counts series, we have explored turnout and party preference by religious identity. In both, religion – and particularly how often people attend their places of worship – played a role in shaping behaviour. In this briefing paper, we’re turning to the question of whether people in different religious groups feel that they can make a difference.

To gauge civic engagement, or civic–mindedness, we have used three sets of variables from the latest 25th wave of the British Election Study (BES): political efficacy, social trust, and political trust.

Christians have a higher feeling of political efficacy than other religious groups – and Muslims have the lowest feeling of political efficacy. And although Muslims have a high level of political trust, they have a low level of social trust. Christians tend to be more trusting than the population as a whole. With the index and measures of social and political trust taken together, the Christian population in particular is strongly civic–minded.

Christians have the highest feeling of political efficacy

Political efficacy refers to the extent to which individuals feel that they can understand politics, make their voices heard and influence the political process. In essence, the political efficacy index shows the extent to which people trust and ‘buy into’ the political process.

We calculated a political efficacy index using the five following variables: “I understand the important political issues facing our country”, “It takes too much time and effort to be active in politics”, “It is difficult to understand what happens in government and politics”, “Politicians don’t care what people like me think”, and “Going to vote is a lot of effort”. More information on how we calculated this index is available in the notes on the data below.

Religious Britons in general, and Christians in particular, have greater feelings of political efficacy than the non–religious (i.e., Nones). Where Nones score –0.18 on our political efficacy index, Christians score over 0.32. Other religious respondents score just below 0.19 – above the mean score of the sample of 0.09. Muslims score well below any other group at less than –0.92. On the whole, religious believers and Christians significantly raise the average perception of political efficacy of the total sample.

While the different Christian groups all record high feelings of political efficacy, Anglicans score the highest, at over 0.32. Roman Catholics and other Christians score very similarly at around 0.25.

The Muslim population’s low political efficacy score is consistent with our earlier finding that Muslims are the least likely to turn out on election day. This score additionally reveals a comparatively low level of confidence in their ability to contribute to British politics.

Religious Britons are more politically trusting than Nones

BES participants were asked “How much trust do you have in Members of Parliament in general?”. We recognise that this question bundles together different aspects of what trust might be – trust in competence, probity, efficacy, shared interests – however we interpret this variable as a measure for political trust in the round. Scored between –3 (“no trust”) and +3 (“a great deal of trust”), the fact that all groups scored well below zero reveals a tendency towards distrust in MPs. The mean score of the whole sample is –1.46.

As with political efficacy, religious Britons score higher on political trust than non–religious respondents. Unlike for political efficacy, however, this includes the Muslim population, whose level of political trust is the second–highest (–1.19) of all faith groups, and exceeds even that of Christians as a whole (–1.22). Nones have the lowest level of political trust (–1.64) of any religious group.

Other Christians (–1.12) have the highest level of political trust of any Christian group, followed by Anglicans (–1.19) and Roman Catholics (–1.39). All Christian denominations scored higher on political trust than the mean score of the whole sample, and well above the Nones.

Christians are the most socially trusting

The third dimension of civic–mindedness is social trust, which is often regarded as the woven fabric of a healthy society. The BES asked “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”. The bar chart gives the percentage of positive responses from all groups that “people can be trusted”. Only 37%, i.e. less than two in five, of all respondents are socially trusting.

Christians are the most socially trusting of all religious and non–religious groups. With 39% of all Christians believing that “people can be trusted”, they are slightly more trusting than Nones (36%), ‘Other religious’ Britons (32%) or Muslims (19%). Muslim respondents are the least socially trusting group, although they are the second most politically trusting group.

Broken down by denomination, Anglicans (41%) are the most socially trusting, followed by ‘other Christians’ (40%) and Roman Catholics (38%) – who bring the overall level of Christian social trust down slightly.

social trust by affiliation

Of all three measures, social trust is particularly affected by controlling for demographic characteristics. The observed relationships within the data all remain the same, but the magnitude of the differences between the different religious groups diminishes somewhat. Christians still appear to be slightly more socially trusting than either the total sample or the nones. The ‘other religious’ are still below average and Muslims still score lower than any other group in terms of social trust.

As in our previous two briefing papers, we will now nuance these results by introducing frequency of communal practice.

More frequently practicing Christians have even higher political efficacy

Christians who practise their faith have a greater feeling of political efficacy. If Christians by affiliation score 0.32 on the political efficacy index, weekly attending Christians score 0.67 (versus 0.07 for never attending Christians). Weekly attending Anglicans have the highest score of 1.03 (vs. 0.11), followed by weekly attending Roman Catholics with 0.80 (vs. –0.10). Other Christians score overall lower than other Christians, with their highest scoring group, at 0.42, practising less than monthly.

Muslims with any frequency of practice have a perception of political efficacy that is well below the average for the sample (0.09) or even below that of Nones (–0.18). Nevertheless, Muslims who practice infrequently (–1.49) or never (–0.91) have much lower feelings of political efficacy than Muslims who practice at least monthly (–0.50) or weekly (–0.38).

While respondents of other religions find themselves overall in between Muslims and Christian, the relationship between attendance and political efficacy is reversed. Those who never practise have a very high feeling of political efficacy (0.86) whereas weekly–practising other religious respondents have a lower feeling of political efficacy (–0.57). However, when controlling for age and education, weekly practising believers have a considerably higher feeling of political efficacy.

More frequently practicing religious Britons are politically even more trusting

Religious Britons who practise their faith more frequently score higher on political trust.

As for religious affiliation alone, all values of political trust are still negative, with a discernible tendency to distrust MPs even among the most religiously observant Britons. However, there is also a clear trend whereby all non–practicing believers of any religion score lower on political trust than their more frequently practicing counterparts.

Overall, Christians are the most politically trusting (–0.90 for both weekly and monthly practicing), followed by Muslims (–0.90 less than monthly, –1.00 weekly and –1.10 monthly practicing) and other religious respondents (–0.88 monthly and –1.13 weekly practicing).

Among Christians, ‘Other Christians’ who practise monthly (–0.70) and weekly (–0.83) are the most politically trusting, followed by Anglicans (–0.84 weekly and –0.90 monthly practising). Roman Catholics have the lowest levels of political trust, with infrequent (–1.26 less than monthly) and frequent (–1.12 weekly and –1.28 monthly) practicing Roman Catholics scoring lower overall on political trust than Muslims.

The level of political trust among Nones (–1.64) is comparable to that of never–practising Roman Catholics (–1.62) and never–practicing other religious respondents (–1.81).

More frequently practicing Christians are more socially trusting

Christians who practise their faith more frequently are more socially trusting. While 41% of never practising Christians felt that most people could be trusted (the same as Nones), 46% of Christians who practised at least monthly felt the same. Muslims and other religious believers are still the least socially trusting – less so than Nones, 36% of whom are socially trusting – and frequency of practice does not seem positively related to social trust.

The positive relationship between social trust and frequency of communal practice, on the other hand, is particularly strong for Anglicans (41% of those who never practise are socially trusting compared with 52% of those who practise weekly) and Roman Catholics (38% compared with 51%). Among other Christians, the trend is slightly weaker, with 40% of those who never practise being socially trusting compared with 47% of those who practise at least monthly.

Christians are the most civic–minded

Taking all three dimensions together, Christians appear to be significantly more civic–minded than Nones. They score significantly higher than Nones on the political efficacy index, on political trust, and, marginally, on social trust. They also feel more inclined to look after societal needs and interests than either ‘Other religious’ or Muslim respondents.

The picture is even more striking for frequently practising Christians (i.e., those who practice at least monthly), for whom levels of political efficiency, political trust, and social trust are systematically and consistently higher. And while ‘cultural’ Christians score similarly to Nones, the gap between Nones and frequently practising Christians is all the wider.

Given the importance of feeling politically efficacious and of social and political trust for a healthy and functioning democratic society, it is significant that Christians raise the sample average on all these measures. They make an important contribution to the overall level of civic–mindedness of British society and their input should not be underestimated.

We do note that Muslims and other religious respondents also occasionally follow the trend observed for the Christian population, but not as consistently. The ‘Other religious’ who practise monthly score high on political efficacy, and are well above the Nones on political trust, but score low on social trust. The Muslim population scores very low on political efficacy and social trust, but surprisingly high on political trust. It is possible that this is at least partly due to the fact that British Muslims tend to be younger on average and more likely to have been born abroad, raising questions about language barriers and social integration. The fact that an entire section of the British population has such low levels of political efficacy should prompt us to ask how our democratic and civic institutions can be more inclusive of Muslim background citizens.

We also find that while the British Muslim population may appear to lack trust in most people in general, or feel politically disempowered, they contribute to British society in different ways: British Muslims give much more to charity than the national average, are more likely to volunteer, and are more involved in community organisations and fundraising events.

Note about the data

At the outset, wave 25 of the BES included a series of questions measuring political efficacy, enabling us to quantify this concept from various aspects (Table 1). The response options for these questions utilized a 5–point Likert scale, ranging from ‘strongly disagree’ (–2) to ‘strongly agree’ (+2). Given their diverse wording, we recoded four of them so that higher points indicate greater political efficacy across all five questions.

It is worth noting that BES respondents did show distinctive patterns when answering the questions. For example, a majority of the public does not believe that ‘going to vote is a lot of effort’, whereas they tend to think that ‘politicians don’t care what people like me think’.

For analytical purposes, we used these five variables to calculate a political efficacy index. The index was then standardized, cantered at 0, and with a standard deviation ranging between –3 and +3. A higher value of this index still indicates greater political efficacy of the respondent. The average score of BES respondents is just above the mid–point, at 0.09.

Civic engagement

Response options to the question “How much trust do you have in Members of Parliament in general?” also follow a Likert scale, with 7 points ranging from ‘no trust’ (–3) to ‘a great deal of trust’ (+3).

To the last question “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”, only 36.9% said ‘people can be trusted’. Over half (53.0%) of the respondents answered “you can’t be too careful”, while 10.8% reported “don’t know”. In the analysis, the social trust variable was dichotomized at ‘people can be trusted’ versus all other answers.

Sampling weight was applied to all analyses in this article. Variables were coded so as to be consistent with previous Theos research on religious voting patterns. Predicted and standardised values with control variables (age, gender, education, and religiosity) are available for consultation upon request.

On Theos’ Religion Counts series

This briefing paper is part of a larger body of work including other briefing papers and articles exploring the impact of religion on voting patterns in the UK.

The first briefing paper: Do the religious vote? which examines whether voters from different religions backgrounds are more or less likely to vote.

The second briefing paper: Who do the religious vote for? looks at data on party preference – which parties are people from various religious backgrounds likely to vote for?

Learn more about our Religion Counts work here.

Could you help uncover the impact faith can make in this election year by giving to our Religion Counts election appeal?

Image by HASPhotos on Shutterstock

Paul Bickley, George Lapshynov and Yinxuan Huang

Paul Bickley, George Lapshynov and Yinxuan Huang

Paul is Head of Political Engagement at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity. See more of his work here.

George is a Researcher at Theos. He holds degrees in International Relations and History & Politics from the University of Glasgow. See more of his work here.

Dr Yinxuan Huang is a Research Manager at the Bible Society. His main research interests are in sociology of religion, Chinese Christianity, East Asian diasporic communities, and survey methodology.


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