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Religion Counts: What do the religious think about key election issues?

Religion Counts: What do the religious think about key election issues?

The Religion Counts team explore how religious people in Britain feel about the most important issues facing the UK at this time. 12/06/2024

In our previous briefing papers in the Religion Counts series, we have explored turnout, voting intention, civic engagement, and social and political values by religious identity. In all four, we have found that religion – and particularly religious practice – played a role in shaping behaviours. In this briefing paper, we explore how religious people in Britain feel about the most important issues facing the UK at this time.

Since November 2022, according to most polls, the top three of these most important issues have been the economy, the NHS and immigration. The analysis in the article integrates data from waves 23 and 25 of the British Election Study (BES), with all information on public opinion regarding the economy, the NHS, and immigration coming from the latest wave collected in May 2023. All the data presented here are predictions that control for demographic factors like age, gender and education. More information is available in the notes on the data below.

Most religious voters – like the country at large – think that the current government has done a poor job on the cost of living, the NHS and immigration. There is a broad consensus that the income gap between rich and poor is too wide. Attitudes to immigration are however highly dependent on the kind of immigrant, as well as on frequency of religious practice. There is an overall preference for more immigration from the EU and fewer people coming to the UK seeking asylum. Muslims are most supportive of more immigration. Frequent religious practitioners systematically prefer more immigration than their never–practising counterparts.

Top 3 issues

At the time of the May 2023 wave of the BES Internet Panel, the British people were broadly in agreement about the top three issues of concern: the economy/cost of living, the NHS, and immigration. Overwhelmingly, they tend to think that the current government has been handling these issues poorly. This is consistently the case in opinion polling.

In the BES, it is overwhelmingly clear from the data that fewer than 1 in 10 (8%) respondents think the government is doing a good job responding to the cost of living crisis. Only 1 in 20 feel think that they are handling the NHS (6%) and immigration (5%) effectively. We can therefore speak of a broad consensus on these issues.

Nevertheless, we note that Christians are marginally more positive than the non–religious about the incumbent government’s performance on these issues, with 12% (on cost of living), 8% (on the NHS) and 7% (on immigration) thinking they were handing them effectively. Muslims, at 9% were slightly more positive than any other group about the government’s handling of the NHS.

Within the Christian population, Anglicans were most optimistic about how the government had handled the cost of living crisis and the NHS: 13% thought it had handled the cost of living crisis well and 9% thought it had handled the NHS well. Roman Catholics were the most critical of the government on all three issues.

This is not an unexpected result: our previous research on voting intentions has shown that Anglicans consistently lean to the right, preferring the Conservative Party to any alternative. We would therefore expect them to rate the performance of the incumbent Conservative government higher. The same is true of Roman Catholics, whose known ‘anti–Tory sentiment’ contributes to their criticism of the government’s performance.

The economy in focus

The cost of living crisis is likely to continue exacerbating existing economic inequalities in the country. We therefore take a closer look at how the population feels about income inequality. We find few significant differences between groups, suggesting a broad consensus.

Virtually no one thinks that the income gap between rich and poor is ‘too small’. In terms of religious affiliation, Anglicans are by a small margin the least likely to think that income inequality is too high, with only 67% believing this to be the case, closely followed by Muslims at 69%.

Some 13% of the general population and 16% of Christians think that income inequality is ‘about right’. Anglicans in particular appear to be the most likely to hold this view, with one in six (17%) thinking so. Anglicans are also the least likely Christian group to think that income disparity is too high. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, are at 76% the most likely of any religious group to feel that differences in income are too high – more so even that the non–religious, at 74%.

A breakdown by religious practice nuances the picture slightly. While only 67% of never–practising ‘Other Christians’ think that income inequalities are too great, 78% of weekly practising ‘Other Christians’ think so, showing a clear ‘practice effect’ on economic attitudes. The effect is also very strong for Roman Catholics, where 87% of frequent attenders (at least monthly) think this is the case, compared with only 73% of ‘cultural’ Roman Catholics. The effect is absent among Anglicans: 68% of both never and weekly practising Anglicans think the income gap between rich and poor is too wide. This observation defies explanation given the active involvement of so many Anglican churches in poverty alleviation.

The effect is also present to a lesser extent among Muslims, where 75% of weekly attenders think the gap is too wide, compared with 70% of never attenders. However, the relationship in the data is completely reversed for other religions: while 67% of the weekly attenders of other religions think the gap is too wide, 84% of never attenders think so.

The significant difference between the views of Roman Catholics and Anglicans (62% vs 87% of monthly attenders respectively) is likely to be at least partly due to the relatively greater affluence and older age of Anglicans. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, tend to be younger, are more likely to be born outside the UK, and come from more diverse socio–economic backgrounds. However, the data here does control for age, gender and education, so that we can say with some confidence that the gap is not due to these socio–economic and demographic factors alone

Overall, then, the differences between groups on the economic issue are small, and there is a broad consensus that the income gap is too wide. While the consensus is encouraging, it is also a sign of how dire the inequality has become. The fact that even a significant majority of mostly Conservative–voting ‘cultural’ Anglicans agree that income inequality is too high should encourage candidates of all parties standing in this election to consider tackling income inequality as a policy priority.

Immigration in focus

Questions around immigration have featured constantly in the news and take pride of place in the ongoing general election campaign. And where there seems to be a societal consensus on the need to improve the NHS, the question of how to best control and manage immigration appears to be more divisive. We are therefore now taking a closer look at attitudes towards different kinds of immigration. The figures presented below show averages on a 10–point scale, where 0 means ‘many fewer’ and 10 means ‘many more’.

It is immediately clear that not all immigrants are seen in the same light by the British public. Asylum seekers is the group of immigrants that attracts the least amount of sympathy, and the only one in which on average all, with the exception of Muslims, agree that fewer should be allowed to enter the UK. Anglicans (2.80) are particularly unsympathetic to accepting more asylum seekers – much less so than Catholics (3.82). But even Muslims are not clearly in favour of accepting more asylum seekers; rather, they are divided on the issue (5.20). Religious nones also want fewer asylum seekers, but are less hostile than Christians (4.03).

The second most divisive group of migrants appears to be those coming to the UK for family reunification. Here public opinion is ambivalent, rather than leaning towards either more or less migration. Muslims remain the most supportive of increased migration for family reunification (6.44) and Anglicans the least supportive (4.16). The non–religious are only slightly more likely to welcome more family reunification (5.12), as are Roman Catholics (5.01) and other Christians (5.24).

Across the board, Anglicans want fewer migrants from all groups, except for migrants from the EU, of which they would allow slightly more. The non–religious want slightly more migration of all kinds, but not asylum seekers. And Muslims would welcome more people from all backgrounds to the UK.

Christian views on migration

Looking specifically at Christian views on immigration, it seems at first sight that their views are broadly in line with the population at large.

However, it is clear that in all groups there is a strong ‘practice effect’. There is not just one Christian view, but rather a ‘cultural’ Christian and a practising Christian view on the issue across denominations, with the former preferring fewer migrants of all kinds, and the latter welcoming more migrants of all kinds – apart from asylum seekers.

As already noted, Roman Catholic and Other Christians tend, overall, to be more favourable to immigration. Practicing Christians in these categories are consistently more open to immigration than the national average, whereas non–practicing Christians are more closed. Like the UK population as a whole, they are warmest towards EU migrants, and most opposed to seeing more asylum seekers.

RC views
OC views

Anglicans are somewhat different – although there is a strong practice effect, both practicing and non–practicing Anglicans are systematically below average in their support for all kinds of migration.

Anglican views

We now turn to look at each of the migrant categories in turn.

Asylum seekers

The practice effect exists not only for Christians, but appears in the data for all religious groups. The following section will explore attitudes towards different groups of migrants in the order in which they appear above.

Asylum seekers are, overall, the migrant group that the British are least likely to want to enter the country (3.80). Even Muslims (the group most supportive of accepting asylum seekers overall) are divided on the issue. While practising Muslims favour allowing slightly more asylum seekers to come and live in Britain (5.36), never–practising Muslims favour allowing fewer (4.60). The same is true for followers of other religions, with those who practise frequently being ambivalent (5.03) and those who never practise quite clearly in favour of allowing fewer to come to the UK (4.15).

Although, on average, no Christian group is in favour of allowing more asylum seekers to come and live in Britain, the impact of the attendance effect is largest among them. While frequently practising ‘Other Christians’ only want slightly fewer asylum seekers to be allowed to come and live in Britain (4.28), never attenders want significantly fewer to do so (2.80). The same is true for Roman Catholics, who score similarly to Other Christians, and for Anglicans, who are the least supportive of welcoming asylum seekers overall, but are likely to be considerably less hostile if they practise frequently.

In sum, never–practising Christians tend to be more hostile towards asylum seekers than the average population, whereas all frequently–practising Christians except for Anglicans are generally more welcoming of asylum seekers than the population as a whole.

Family reunification

The second form of immigration is family reunification. Since the Conservative government introduced new rules in March 2024 to restrict the ability of care workers to bring family members to the UK, this particular issue has been in the news regularly. However, as the dataset used predates this change in the law, it is likely that public attitudes towards this particular group may have shifted since the data was collected. As of May 2023, the British public was divided on the issue (4.99).

Again, among religious groups Anglicans are most opposed to allowing more people to come to the UK on a family reunification visa. However, while frequently practising Anglicans as a whole are only undecided on this question (4.99), never practising Anglicans are clearly in favour of allowing fewer family members in (3.77). Roman Catholics and other Christians straddle the middle, with the never–practising wanting slightly less family reunification (4.56 and 4.53 respectively) and the frequenting allowing slightly more (5.49 and 5.76).

Muslims are the most supportive of allowing family reunification, with frequent attenders open to allowing significantly more to come and live in Britain through this route (6.64) and never attenders open to allowing slightly more (5.86) – followed closely by other religious believers in this regard.

Many Muslims and other religious adherents in Britain are likely to have arrived in the UK as family members of someone already resident in the country – it’s not surprising that they are on average likely to be more sympathetic to family reunification. The same reason may also explain why ‘Other Christians’ are slightly more supportive of family reunification than other Christian groups.

International students

Student migration has also featured prominently in the news recently, with the Conservative government announcing a new crackdown on student visas from May 2024 – despite reports finding no evidence of widespread student visa abuse. Again, however, public opinion is cool, supporting only a very slight increase in student migration (5.29).

Anglicans are the most opposed to allowing more students to come to the UK, again with a significant difference in attitudes between never and frequently practising Anglicans: while the former are in favour of fewer international students (4.34), the latter are in favour of a small increase in the number of international students in the UK (5.22). As above, Roman Catholics and other Christians are in the middle, but this time with a clearly more supportive attitude towards international students. We also note that there is an important gap between the views of practising and non–practising Christians in both groups.

Although Muslims and other religious believers are the most supportive of allowing more students to come and live in Britain, the gap between them and Christians is much narrower here, to the point where there is some overlap between the attitudes of the two groups.

Migration from outside the EU

Attitudes towards allowing more migrants from outside the EU to come and live in Britain are at similar levels to those towards students in most respects (5.20) – the main difference being that other religious believers are the most supportive of allowing more of them in, overtaking Muslims by a sizeable margin. We note again the existence of the practice effect across the board, with frequently practising believers of all religious groups being considerably more supportive of allowing more non–EU migrants in versus their never–practising counterparts.

We also still note the persistent greater opposition of Anglicans towards increased immigration than any other group, and the fact that Christians are, overall, less in favour of allowing more people from outside the EU to come and live in Britain. But also that all frequently practising Christians, with the exception of Anglicans, are above average in their support for admitting more non–EU migrants.

Migration from within the EU

Finally, we look at migration from within the EU. While there is a near consensus that fewer asylum seekers should come and live in Britain, there is an absolute consensus that the UK could see more EU migrants (5.96). This surprising fact demonstrates that attitudes towards migration within the EU have shifted since Brexit.

People from the EU are the only group in the data where all non–practising Christian groups agree on allowing slightly more. It is the only group for which Christians (especially often practising Roman Catholics) overtake Muslims on how many more they would allow to come and live in Britain. It is also the only group of which non–practising Muslims would allow less in than the overall population.

Unsurprisingly, however, and despite overall support for accepting more EU migrants, neither practising nor non–practising Anglicans make it over the average line.


In this paper, we set out to explore whether the views of religious groups diverge from the population at large on election priority issues like the economy, NHS, and immigration.

On issues around the NHS and the economy/cost of living, we see marginal differences amongst religious groups. We see slightly more support for the incumbent Conservative government’s performance amongst Christian groups, albeit within the context of high levels of dissatisfaction.

On the hot topic of migration, one of the key issues in the current election campaign, we see quite high levels of resistance to migration amongst Christian groups, in that on average these groups were expressing a preference for fewer migrants. There is more or less resistance, depending on the category of immigration, with ‘asylum seekers’ being the least favoured category, and ‘EU migrants’ being the most favoured.

Finally, we have again shown that there is a strong practice effect amongst religious groups, and particularly amongst Christian groups. Non–practicing and practicing diverge to a considerable degree, with practicing religious respondents being more open to migration of all kinds. Again, we see that there is something in the habits of regular association that shifts political attitudes.

Notes on the data

Both the 23rd and 25th waves of the BES data were collected by YouGov from a representative internet panel using an online sample. Unless otherwise stated, all the values presented here are predicted and standardised with control variables (age, gender, education, and religiosity). Figures are weighted and variables are coded so as to be consistent with previous Theos research on religious voting patterns. Descriptive data are available for consultation on request.

This paper is divided into three main sections: the first on the top three issues of concern to the British public, the second on the state of the economy and the third on attitudes to immigration.

For the first section, we used the BES question “How well do you think the present government has handled the following issues?”, and focused on the three issues that figure at the top of most opinion polling. The response options to this question follow a Likert scale, with 5 points ranging from ‘very bad’ to ‘very good’. These categories have been dichotomised into ‘well’ (including both ‘very well’ and ‘well’) and ‘other’ (including all three other options). The values shown are predicted probabilities based on a logistic regression model controlling for the above variables.

For the second section on the economy, the variable measures whether a person thinks that ‘the difference in income between rich and poor is too high or too low’. For the descriptive analysis by affiliation, we used a 4–category variable: ‘low’, ‘about right’, ‘high’ and ‘don’t know’. This variable was dichotomised as ‘high’ versus other responses for multivariate analysis, following the same methodology as above.

Finally, for the third section on immigration, we used the question ‘Do you think that Britain should allow more or fewer of the following kinds of people to come and live in Britain?’. Response options to this question follow a 10–point Likert scale, ranging from ‘many fewer’ (0) to ‘many more’ (10). ‘Don’t know’ responses were coded as 5. As not all participants provided responses to this question – only a selected number of 4,836 people participated in this module – this section of our analysis uses a smaller sample size of 4,836 people instead of our previous sample size of 19,549. The descriptive analysis shows predicted probabilities based on a logistic regression model controlling for the same variables as above. For our analysis by frequency of communal practice, we combined those who attend communal worship at least monthly with those who attend it at least weekly to create a single ‘frequently practising’ category.


On Theos’ ‘Religion Counts’ series

This blog is part of a larger body of work including 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?

The third briefing paper: Do the religious feel like they can make a differencewhich explores political efficacy, social trust, and political trust amongst religious participants.

The fourth briefing paper: Economic and Social Values which maps the economic and social attitudes of religious groups in Britain.  

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 Yau Ming Low 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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