Home / Research / Reports

Religion Counts: Economic and social values

Religion Counts: Economic and social values

The Religion Counts team explore how the religious affiliation and practices of the British people map onto the two scales of economic and social attitudes. 29/05/2024

In our three previous briefing papers in the Religion Counts series, we have explored turnout, voting intention, and civic engagement by religious identity. In all three, religion – and particularly religious practice – played a role in shaping behaviour. In this briefing paper, we explore how the religious affiliation and practices of the British people map onto the two scales of economic and social attitudes.

While we have taken inspiration from the popular and publicly available Political Compass, a model that visually represents the political values and ideologies of groups and individuals along two axes, we have produced the graphs below using data calculated following our own methodology and must warn our readers that both are not quite comparable. Our own economic and social values scales were constructed as indices using 10 variables (5 for each index) from the 25th wave of the BES. More information is available in the notes on the data below.

Religious Britons place more emphasis on authority and traditional values (‘authoritarian’) than the non–religious. They are also on the whole more economically right–wing. Christians are the most authoritarian of all religious groups. Muslims are economically the most–left–leaning. Frequently worshipping Christians tend to be more libertarian than those who don’t practice their faith.

Christians are more socially authoritarian and economically right–wing

It is important to explain what we mean by ‘authoritarian’ and ‘libertarian’ in our particular context. This index measures respondents’ attitudes to personal freedom and respect for authority, and where they stand on the trade–off between the two. A higher degree of ‘authoritarianism’ may therefore imply a greater emphasis on respect for traditional values, obedience to authority, or on harsher penalties for breaking the law. A higher degree of libertarianism shows a preference for greater individual freedom and personal autonomy.

Similarly, the economic axis measures attitudes towards, taxation, free trade and government intervention in the economy. A shift to the ‘right’ can therefore indicate varying degrees of preference for a capitalist market economy, lower taxation, and higher levels of free enterprise. A shift to the ‘left’ indicates a greater preference for public ownership, government intervention and wealth redistribution.

It is also important to note that the political compasses shown below are all highly zoomed in. Both the social and economic indices range from –2 to +2. Consequently, when Anglicans (0.18, 0.30) appear in the upper right–hand corner of the right–authoritarian quadrant, they are not, in fact, far–right extremists. Rather, they tend to be on average slightly more right of centre economically, and slightly more socially conservative.

Political compass by affiliation

Compared to Nones, religious respondents as a whole are more socially authoritarian. Except for Muslims, they also tend to lean more to the economic right. Christians in particular gravitate slightly towards the right–authoritarian quadrant of the compass. Roman Catholics are only somewhat more economically right than the overall average; Anglicans and Other Christians are more so.

Where the other population groups follow a general pattern, Muslims are outliers: they are more economically left than any other group, but also more socially authoritarian than all but Anglicans and Other Christians.

The results here are surprising on several accounts. While we expect religiosity to play an important role in determining social preferences – and therefore expect to find religious respondents higher up the authoritarian–libertarian scale – economic preferences could easily be driven by other socio–economic variables. Instead, we find a very strong correlation between social and economic values. This finding is consistent with previous analyses of the European political landscape, which have found a strong positive correlation between the two dimensions.

However, this trend is not a hard and fast rule, as the British Muslim population shows: individuals occupy the entire two–dimensional space of the compass, and sometimes this correlation breaks down. The fact that the average political values of the Muslim population do not correspond to the most widely available left–libertarian/right–authoritarian options may contribute to their relative alienation from British politics, as noted in our previous articles in this series.

Frequently attending Christians are more socially libertarian

For Christians, high frequency of communal practice appears associated with more socially libertarian values. While this might seem counter–intuitive, the data shows that frequently practising Christians (i.e. those who attend church at least once a month) tend to be more libertarian than infrequent practising Christians, who in turn are more libertarian than nominal Christians who never practice. In other words, nominal Christians place a greater emphasis on respect for traditional values, or on harsher penalties for breaking the law than do practising Christians.

We do not observe this trend for Muslim or other religious respondents. Frequently practising Muslims are closer to the economic centre and hold more socially authoritarian views. With each incremental decrease in practice, they appear less socially conservative and more economically left leaning. The picture is different still for other religious respondents: all but the never–practising other religious cluster around the economic and social centre, while the never–practising other religious respondents are very clearly left–libertarian.

Political compass by frequency of communal practice

Despite what we noted before, the vertical downward movement, showing important changes in social values but little fluctuation in the economic attitudes of Christian respondents as the frequency of communal practice increases, is not surprising. This follows a trend previously observed across Western Europe that the impact of church attendance on social and economic values is significantly greater for social preferences than for economic preferences. [i]

The reason why nominal Christians migrate to the right–authoritarian corner, while nominal Muslims migrate in the opposite direction, can probably be explained primarily by demographics: while non–practising nominal Christians tend to be white, older, wealthier and belong to a higher social class, nominal Muslims are likely to come from poorer urban backgrounds and occupy C2DE occupations.

It is also interesting to note that none of the various never–practising but religiously–affiliated respondents are anywhere near the religiously unaffiliated (i.e. non–religious, or Nones) on the compass, or even close to the sample average: nominal Muslims are further to the left, nominal other religions are more left and socially libertarian, and nominal Christians are significantly more socially authoritarian and right–wing than anyone else. This may be because nominal affiliation is a matter of identity and does not commit the affiliated believer to more than tokenism. Active practice, on the other hand, involves a greater commitment to certain beliefs and to putting those beliefs into practice in everyday life.

Frequency of practice is relevant to the social values of all Christians  

Though religious voters – especially Anglican voters – are more likely to be more authoritarian, frequently practising Anglicans are much more socially libertarian than their infrequent or never–practising counterparts. This much we mentioned previously. However, this trend is not exclusive to Anglicans, although it is perhaps most pronounced among them: at least monthly–practicing Roman Catholics and other Christians, together with weekly–practicing Anglicans, are all more socially libertarian than the average. Additionally, monthly–practicing Roman Catholics lean more towards the economic left than the average. We also find, of course, that there is a great deal of diversity within the Christian population that was not initially apparent. However, as noted above, Christians tend to be particularly clustered in the right–authoritarian quadrant.

Political compass of Christians by frequency of communal practice


Religious identities play a visible role when it comes to political values, as we indeed expected: here, too, religion counts. Some findings are not surprising – that all religious groups place more emphasis on authority than the Nones, as reflected in their higher scores on the authoritarian scale. Other findings are surprising – that more frequently practising Christians are more socially libertarian than their infrequently or never practising counterparts.

As in our previous reports in this series, the data again highlight the importance of religiosity and religious practice, not just affiliation. But frequency of practice affects the political values of religious groups in different ways: while it affects Christians (and especially Anglicans) most in their social values, Muslims fluctuate particularly along the economic axis.

Note about the data

We used two series of five variables from the 25th wave of the BES to calculate an economic Left–Right index and a social Authoritarian–Libertarian index. The indices were generated using Item Response Theory and then standardized. Negative values on both indices indicate left/libertarian views respectively whereas positive values indicate varying degrees of right/authoritarian views.

The response options for the questions used to quantify economic values and social values utilise a 5–point Likert scale, ranging from ‘strongly disagree’ (–2) to ‘strongly agree’ (+2). The average score of BES respondents on the Left–Right index is – 0.05 and on the Authoritarian–Libertarian index is 0.01, very slightly into the left–authoritarian quadrant.

Political compass

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.

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.


[i] Daniel Stegmueller (2013) “Religion and Redistributive Voting in Western Europe”, The Journal of Politics, Vol. 75, No. 4, pp. 1064–1076.

Image by Pajor Pawel 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.


Watch, listen to or read more from Paul Bickley, George Lapshynov and Yinxuan Huang

Religion Counts


See all

In the news

See all


See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.