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Adventist College Students and Politics


Spectrum asks Roger Dudley about a new survey he recently completed that sheds light on political and religious views of Adventist college students.

Question: Tell us about your recent survey of Adventist college students and their political views.

Answer: We surveyed students at North American Adventist students about their political and religious views a couple of weeks before the presidential election in November 2008. The results are published in the latest issue of Spectrum.

Question: How many students responded to the survey?

Answer: We had 1,088 respondents, and we thought that was great. We had been hoping for a thousand.

We asked all the Adventist colleges in the US to participate in the survey, and six responded: Walla Walla University, Pacific Union College, Union College, Southern University, Andrews University, and La Sierra University.

Question: Are Adventist college students primarily Democrat or primarily Republican?

Answer: The biggest share are independents, next Republican, and finally Democrat.

Question: What was the most surprising finding from the survey?

Answer: The survey looked at the relationship between religion and political issues.

The survey was done a couple of weeks before the election. We found that more students were in favor of Barack Obama than John McCain.

About 28% of students said they would vote for McCain, about 38% said they would vote for Obama. Some were undecided, and there were a few other options. But if you cut it down to just Obama and McCain, Obama got 57%. That is somewhat better than the popular vote went.

We did a mail survey for Spectrum in 2004. Four years ago Adventists voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush. The result of our survey was 44% for Bush, and only 16% for John Kerry.

A number of surveys over the years show that Adventists identify highly with the Republican party.

In our recent student survey, we asked the students how they voted (or would have voted) four years ago. 59% said they voted for George W. Bush.

So we are looking at a real shift in thinking - among Adventist students at least. Even though we found that more students consider themselves Republican than Democrat, 40% consider themselves independent. And we found that Obama got the majority of the independent vote.

The survey also asked about issues independent of voting and politics, and those answers were very interesting.

We looked at the students’ religious behavior: how often they go to church, pray, study the Bible, and work for the church. Then we are doing some cross correlations to look for patterns between religious views and public views.

Question: Why did you decide to do the survey?

Answer: We wanted to do the survey this year. Many sources show that public issues and things people are concerned about have religious underpinnings. One example would be the question of support for things like Proposition 8 in California, same-sex marriage amendments and so on. That is interesting because almost invariably those who are opposed to same-sex marriage use religious arguments. We are talking about government action and passing laws, but the political issues being promoted from a religious standpoint. You can see the connection between religion and politics.

That connection gets especially significant during presidential election years.

Four years ago Edwin Hernandez and I did a similar mail survey among Adventist church members.

In 1984 we did a major study that resulted in a book: Citizens of Two Worlds, an in-depth study of how the religious beliefs of Adventist Americans affect their stance on public policies,

So this year I wanted to do something again. I talked to Spectrum editor Bonnie Dwyer, and we started talking about mailing list - we didn’t have one. The division wouldn’t give us one, so Bonnie came up with idea of surveying college students. We asked all the North American Adventist colleges if they would be willing to cooperate, and six agreed.

Question: Did you find the views of students more conservative or liberal depending on the college they attend? Do the views depend on whether the state the college is in is a red or blue state?

Answer: We did not want to embarrass one of colleges by comparing with the others, so we did not keep track of where the respondents came from. That was one of the criteria we promised when asking the colleges to participate in the survey.

Question: Are Adventist college students politically active?

Answer: The survey asked about attitudes toward various issues, including Iraq, the economy, healthcare, the Supreme Court, the environment, human rights and justice, etc. But it is hard to determine from the survey whether they are politically active.

16% said they did not plan to vote in November (but we did not ask why – there could be a variety of factors).

Question: From a logistics perspective, was this a difficult survey to do? Did you have a team to work on it with you?

Answer: We did approach the division when we were thinking about doing the survey among the general Adventist population, but they said it was too difficult. Even though the Review & Herald has a list of members, each conference president owns control of his/her share of the list, and there are 50-some conferences. So that would have meant lots of red tape to get through.

Surveying college students meant we just had to work through each individual college. First we had to get permission from the colleges to carry out the survey. David Smith, president of Union College and head of the Presidents Council, sent an email to each of the colleges on our behalf. To carry out the survey we went through the college president’s office in two cases, and in others through someone the president appointed.

It was not a random survey, but a volunteer-type survey.

The president’s office or president’s appointee sent out our email to the students in the college, inviting them to fill out the survey. They were required to click on a link, then go through the survey and select the answers.

We don’t know how many students actually opened the email that was sent.

Spectrum's Jonathan Pichot put the survey on the web and collected the data, and Petr Cincala does the specification regressions for me. I do the writing.

Question: You have completed surveys around the world. What are some of the most interesting surveys you have worked on?

Answer: I am the director of the Institute of Church Ministry, based at Andrews University. I do research for the division - whatever surveys they are interested. We also contract for others. We have done surveys for the General Conference and the Review and for local conferences.

I have been at this for 29 years. We have probably done more social science type research than anyone else in the denomination. I study and understand statistics, but the statistical work is done by computer.

The biggest and most interesting survey we have done was our 10-year retention study, supported by the division. They wanted to find out why the church is losing young people. We designed a plan, and randomly selected 1,500 young people ages 15 to 16 spread over the division. We surveyed the young people each year for 10 years. Then we could see which kinds of things were related to people staying or leaving. It was a massive study. It took several years to organize, then the survey itself lasted for 10 years, then we had to analyze the results. It turned into a 16-year project.

Question: So why are teenagers leaving the church?

Answer: There is no one answer. It starts with home influences (parents’ faithfulness to church-going, etc), and then Adventist education, but it has a lot to do (as they get older) with the congregational climate. If young people felt they were integrated, respected, and cared about in the church, they stayed. If they felt alienated, criticized, and unwelcome, they were less likely to stay.

The book that came out of the survey, published in 2000 by the Review, has lots of personal stories. We heard from the young people every year, and soon had file cabinets full of the letters they wrote me.

No other denomination has ever tried to take a bi-national survey and do this for 10 years. Our work has been highly regarded, but when someone asks whether we will do another similar survey I have to say no - I don’t have another 16 years.

We have done two world surveys for the General Conference. One was just completed in 2008 – we submitted final results early in the year. We surveyed pastors and leading lay people from each of 109 world unions and asked them about the GC goals on spiritual life in the church, goals, and so on.

I can’t say much about the details, because the results are owned by the GC. They used the one we did in 2001 in strategic planning - to lay plans. So then two years ago they said they wanted to do it again.

Question: How did you get into statistics?

Answer: I had majored in counseling, educational psychology, and I also did statistics. When I started doing statistical studies I had already spent a career largely in youth ministry. I served in some academies (Bible teacher, principal), and worked as a conference youth leader. When I came to do my doctorate I studied at Andrews (graduated in 1977), and the professor of youth ministries here had the great idea to set up an institute where we could use social science tools to do work for the denomination.

Des Cummings started working on his idea and got permission to set up the institute, but he needed someone to help him. He thought I had done a good job on my dissertation, so he asked if I would assist.

I joined the institute officially in January 1980. At the interview they said they could just offer me a year. Des Cummings and I worked together for four-and-a-half years (and that eventually turned into 29 years). He solicited contracts, and I mostly worked to carry out research. Then in August 1984 he went to work for the hospital system and the board asked me to take over the directorship. I had originally wanted to teach, and I started out at the institute teaching half-time and working half-time at the institute. It wasn’t until I officially retired in 2000 that I gave up the teaching and just stayed as director.

We earn our whole way by providing services, and the institute has been in the black every year. We have a good relationship with various denominational entities.

The work is fascinating; I enjoy it very much, and that’s why I am still at it. I am 77 years old, and still working.

Roger L. Dudley is Professor Emeritus of Christian Ministry and
Director of the Institute of Church Ministry.

Read an article exploring the college student survey in detail in Spectrum's latest edition.

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