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How Adventists in Academia Would Decide the Election


Spectrum asks John Gavin of Washington Adventist University about a survey he recently completed that sheds light on the political, social and religious attitudes among Adventist college professors and staff.

Question: Why did you decide to survey faculty and staff at Adventist colleges and universities about their views on political and social issues?

Answer: We chose to survey collegiate faculty and staff because they are a slice of Adventism.  The Seventh-day Adventist thought leaders can often be found in Adventist colleges and universities.  These are places where people with good educations are expected to engage in careful study and reflective thought and dialogue.  These processes should hopefully translate into insights that are imparted and at least partially assimilated by the next generation. 

Also, Adventist thought leaders who work outside universities generally attended Adventist institutions of higher learning and are, in part, shaped and influenced by the opinions of university faculty.  Collegiate staff provide a perspective that may be less influenced by academic discipline.

Question: Why did you decide to do the survey?

Answer: Our survey replicates many aspects of a national study sponsored by Spectrum in 2004: “Religion and Public Issues Survey,” by Roger Dudley and Edwin Hernandez.  Like them, we wondered, who is the political Adventist? Does she vote?  Where does he stand on economic issues?  Does she lean right or left? If so what issues are important to deciding who to vote for?  Where do Adventists stand on the social and political issues that are part of our public discourse especially as we approach the 2012 national elections?  We decided to try to find the answers to some of these questions.

Question: How many people responded to the survey? Did people from all the Adventist colleges and universities in North America respond?

Answer: We received responses from 530 people representing viewpoints from all around the US. While the response rate was much higher from some colleges and universities, all were represented.

Question: Why not survey a sample of the Adventist population across America as a whole?

Answer: While it is possible to survey all Adventists is very expensive and time consuming.  It is difficult to get complete and accurate mailing addresses.  Many people use cell phones now and do not even have home telephones, making telephone interviews more difficult. 

Our survey, on the other hand, was a relatively inexpensive way to learn the views of a slice of Adventists. 

Question: Are the views of faculty and staff at Adventist institutions on social and political issues representative of the views of Adventists as a whole?

Answer: We cannot generalize the results of our survey to the broader Adventist population as collegiate faculty and staff do not represent the typical Adventist in the US.  The demographics of our sample, however, are similar to the 2004 cohort (in the Dudley and Hernandez survey) in terms of age, ethnicity, financial stability and education.  They are similarly second generation Adventists, but with fewer lifelong Adventists. 

Collegiate faculty and staff do represent, or in many cases influence, the thought leaders of the Adventist church.  They are educating the next generation of pastors, teachers, doctors and others. 

Question: Are Adventist professors and staff primarily Democrat or primarily Republican? Who would win the presidential election if they were the only ones voting?

Answer: In our survey, 24% of Adventists identified themselves as conservative, 50% as moderates, and 19% as liberals, with 7% other or undefined identifications.  33% identified themselves as Democrats, 22% as Republicans, and 36% as Independents, with a small number of others.  Our Adventist sample’s pattern of voter identification with political parties generally tracks US voter preferences as indicated in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in July 2012.

Our survey indicates that if collegiate faculty and staff were the only ones voting, President Obama might be re-elected.  About one-half (47%) indicated that they will vote for Obama versus 24% for Romney.  However, 25% indicated that they are undecided.  Their decisions would tip the election one way or the other.

Question: Were your respondents more liberal or more conservative on social issues? What were some of the issues you polled on, and what were your findings?

Answer: Our survey included a broad range of social issues from birth control, health care, Iran, education, and Afghanistan to jobs, gun control, healthcare, the budget deficit, abortion, taxes, terrorism, immigration, energy, and the environment.  We looked at how important the issues were to the respondents’ decisions about who to vote for as well as their positions on key social issues.  Collegiate Adventists rated healthcare, the economy, education, jobs, the federal budget deficit, and taxes as very important to their voting decisions.  These issues are among those reflected in 2012 campaign and central to the discourse leading up to the election.  The reported importance of these issues may also reflect that collegiate Adventists are in the mainstream when it comes to American concerns.

With regard to specific social issues we compared the responses to our survey and the national electorate.  There are both similarities and differences, but the overall pattern is basically similar.  Healthcare and the economy are top issues for both.  Education was the next most important issue with energy, environmental issues, national security and immigration next. 

More specifically, those in our Adventist sample favor or strongly favor: reducing the national debt through spending cuts (83%) and through tax increases (45%), Adventists running for political office, giving illegal immigrants a chance to obtain legal status, the US working closely with the United Nations, decreased military spending, government support for stem cell research, teaching “creation science” in public schools, health insurance for all citizens regardless of ability to pay, and increased gun control.

Those in the Adventist sample oppose or strongly oppose:  increasing the role of the US as police force for world affairs, indefinite hold without formal charges of persons suspected of terrorism, a law to allow churches to campaign for or against candidates for political office, elimination of the phrase “under God” from the mandatory pledge of allegiance, tax cuts for the wealthy enacted by Congress, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, expressing views on social and political issues from the pulpit, capital punishment, and government vouchers to attend religious schools.

We are still analyzing the results on a number of social issues, but we can report on the issues of poverty and the poor, abortion, and healthcare. 

Regarding poverty and the poor: over three-fourths disagree that there are boundless opportunities for the poor and an even greater percentage (81%) disagree that the individual is to be entirely blamed for his or her problems, with over half (54%) believing that changes in public policy are needed to solve problems.   Over 90% believe it is important to have equal opportunity for all people.  Such responses at least indirectly imply that personal responsibility, a key component of conservative ideology, is not always enough to help those in need.

Regarding abortion: 34% of collegiate Adventists feel that abortion is entirely the woman’s choice, with another half (52%) believing it to be acceptable in extreme circumstances.  Only 9% believe that abortion is not acceptable under any circumstances.

On healthcare, over half (54%) believe that it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage and are slightly more favorable toward the federal government’s role than the general public, which favors government involvement by a 50% to 46% margin in a recent Gallup poll.  Close to two-thirds (61%) oppose the repealing of the healthcare law. 

Question: Are Adventists becoming more liberal? More conservative?

Answer: Given that our sample of collegiate faculty and staff is not representative of the typical Adventist we cannot draw any conclusions based on comparison of the 2004 and 2012 cohorts about whether Adventists are becoming more liberal or more conservative.  The substantial differences in the viewpoints of the 2004 and 2012 cohorts are consistent with a more moderate-to-liberal political and social perspectives of the SDA faculty and staff more recently.  This may also reflect a larger proportion of women in the 2012 survey. 

Given that the cohorts have similar demographic characteristics and to the extent that they might be similar in experience and viewpoints one could say, that the views of Adventists may be becoming more moderate. 

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

Answer: There were several findings that were unexpected.  We found that despite differences in education level the responses of faculty and staff were similar on many issues, indicating that education did not make a large difference in their political and social viewpoints.

We also found that a surprising 25% were undecided in terms of voting for Obama or Romney.  Of course, those responses were in July and August and their positions may be more polarized now.  We don’t know for certain which way the vote would go. 

Finally, we found it surprising that although half of the respondents believe that less government is better, over half (54%) believe it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have healthcare coverage.  They also believe in a government role in solving problems related to poverty.

Question: How did respondents feel about the issue of religious liberty, and how does this translate into votes one way or the other?

Answer: Issues of religious liberty are often framed in terms of separation of church activities and the activities of or by the government.  Collegiate Adventists oppose or strongly oppose a law to allow churches to campaign for or against political candidates, expressing views on social and political issues from the pulpit, and government vouchers to attend religious schools.  They also oppose or strongly oppose the faith-based initiative whereby government funds are used in support of churches involved in social services.

These responses suggest that they support a strong separation of church and state.  However, they favor or strongly favor teaching “creation science” in public schools, and Adventists running for public office; suggesting a more nuanced view on religious liberty. 

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

Answer: We have not yet compared the responses by college or university.  The response rate across the institutions ranged from 1.5% to 47.8%.  Given this wide range and the relatively low response rate from several schools, such comparisons may be difficult and may not tell us much about the regional differences in viewpoints.

Question: Are Adventist college faculty and staff politically active?

Answer: Nearly 90% of Adventist faculty and staff intend to vote in the 2012 national election compared to just about 10% who do not.  To the extent that this is what it means to be politically active, yes, at the most basic level they are politically active.

Beyond voting, collegiate Adventists are not very active. When asked whether they have given money to a political candidate, party or lobbying group only 22.1% said yes.  More than three-fourths (77.9%) said no.  Only 5% indicated that they have worked on a political campaign (95% had not).  Only 7.4% have taken part in a protest, march or demonstration.  Other than voting, it would seem collegiate Adventists are not very politically active.

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

Answer: Our research team included William Ellis, a history and political studies professor at Washington Adventist University, Curtis VanderWaal, who chairs the social work department at Andrews University, Edwin Hernandez, a prominent researcher whose important work was a basis for our study, and Monte Sahlin, Director of Research for the Ohio Conference and a well known researcher and author on social and religious issues.

The most difficulty we had was locating, through publicly available websites, the email addresses of those we invited to participate in the survey.  We were aided by the Provosts or Presidents of Andrews University, Washington Adventist University, Union College and Kettering College who gave permission for the invitation to be sent via their listservs to all their faculty and staff.

Question: What do you do in your work at Washington Adventist University? What are some of the most interesting surveys you have worked on?

Answer: I am chair of the Social Work Department and the director of the Center for Metropolitan Ministry.  In 2009 I completed a study on the future of Adventist education in the Baltimore Washington Metropolitan Area.  I have also conducted research on Adventist involvement in social issues, the community services and ingathering programs of the church, and am researching for a book about the history of Adventist social action.

See the next issue of Spectrum, Autumn 2012, when it is published, for a more complete article on John Gavin’s findings about Adventist collegiate political attitudes.

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