Religion and the EU Referendum


With less than a month to go until the polls open, the broad strategies of the Remain and Leave campaigns have become fairly clear. For Remain, led by Britain Stronger in Europe their objective is to highlight the risks of leaving the EU in economic terms alone, for everything from the national economy to house prices and household finances. Leave, led by Vote Leave, are focussing on either rubbishing the claims of economic calamity presented by Remain, or on the consequences of EU migration (and even migration from non-EU members) for wages, employment and public services. The major determinants of support for EU membership, according to opinion polls and reflected in the behaviour of the campaigns, are political ideology, education and age, all of which have a bearing on how an individual perceives the potential threats from economic change or immigration.

One of the less well documented determinants, however, and which could offer substantial insight into how people will decide which way they want to vote in June, is religion. Religious concerns barely feature in media coverage of the referendum, nor of opinion polls about it (with the notable exception of Northern Ireland). This in part reflects the limited effect that religion has on political attitudes in Britain, and has had since the early 20th Century, when compared with social class, education and party affiliation (with the exception of issues such as abortion or euthanasia). When it comes to the EU referendum, however, there is evidence of surprising differences between differing denominations of Christianity which could yet have an effect on the final result and which questions our ignorance of religion more broadly as an important determinant of attitudes towards the EU.

Our own survey illustrates these differences quite clearly.[1] As Table 1 shows, those who have no religious affiliation at all are notably more likely to favour remaining in the EU than leaving. Among those who identify themselves within various denominations of Christianity, we see that Anglicans are notably more Eurosceptic, supporting leaving by a margin of 55% to 34%. They are joined by the Methodists (46% to 31%) and Baptists (47% to 31%). Presbyterians or members of the Church of Scotland are the only group more likely to back remain – and passionately so by a margin of 57% to 28% – with Evangelicals and Roman Catholics evenly split.

Table 1: Religious Affiliation and Preference in EU Referendum
Remain Leave Don’t Know
No religious affiliation 52% 34% 14%
Church of England/Anglican 34% 55% 11%
Roman Catholic 43% 42% 16%
Presbyterian/Church of Scotland 57% 28% 15%
Methodist 31% 46% 23%
Baptist 31% 47% 21%
Evangelical 42% 44% 14%

Source: Young People and the EU Referendum Survey

The temptation is to assume that these figures reflect some other trait which is correlated with religious affiliation, such as party affiliation (e.g., Anglicans are substantially more likely to identify themselves with the Conservative party), region (e.g., 80% of Presbyterians are in Scotland, where support for remaining in the EU is considerably high), or age (e.g., more than half of those who do not have a religious affiliation are under 50, and Euroscepticism is concentrated amongst older voters). However, even if we account for these traits – as well as the other major driver of support for EU membership, education (in which members of the various denominations differ little) – using regression analyses, we find that differences between the various denominations persist.[2] Those with no religious affiliation at all are shown to have a 43% chance of voting to leave the EU; this compares with a 52% likelihood amongst Anglicans, a 54% likelihood among Methodists, and a 60% likelihood amongst Baptists, all of which are statistically significant differences with the figure for the unattached. Roman Catholics are shown to be more likely to support leaving the EU than those with no affiliation, but by not so large a difference: Catholics have a 51% likelihood of supporting withdrawal. The distinction of the Evangelicals and Presbyterians is explained once the above traits have been accounted for – in the case of the Presbyterians, this reflects the fact that so many live in the most pro-EU country in the UK.

Religious affiliation should, therefore, be included in our list of traits which could have a decisive impact on the outcome of the EU referendum. As James Dennison points out in his assessment of the role of religion in EU preferences in Northern Ireland, and Margarete Scherer in her study of the link between Euroscepticism and religious history, this in turn means that support for EU membership could be as much to do with issues relating to identity as with hard-headed calculations about economic performance or the effect of immigration on public services. Nonetheless, an explanation for these differences is difficult to discern. The relative Euroscepticism of Anglicans could reflect their historic attachment to the traditional institutions of the British state and hostility to institutions which constrain its autonomy, while that of the Methodists and Baptists could originate in their history of Nonconformity and opposition to the dominance of ‘establishment’ institutions (such as the Church of England and the Catholic Church). Another possibility, argued by Margarete Scherer, is ideological predispositions within the denominations which reflects their historic relationships with the nation state and the Catholic Church. Protestantism, for example, has been associated with “a consensual relationship between Reformist churches and national political authorities, which resulted in a strong affiliation to the nation state…[and] a strong refusal of Catholic universalism and its adherence to the Pope”. Further research into the effect of religious affiliation on support for EU membership, and possibly even other political attitudes, is warranted and needed to understand these differences more fully.

Whatever the cause, however, there is clear evidence of the potential for religious affiliation to have a notable impact on the outcome of the EU referendum. It is notable that the remain and leave campaigns have so far focussed their efforts on issues relating to economics and public services, and have almost paid no attention to ‘identity issues’ such as religious affiliation. Whether they are missing an opportunity to secure victory in the final poll remains to be seen.

[1] The survey was conducted by YouGov at the beginning of March 2016. Further details available on request. The assessment is limited to various denominations of Christianity because the sample sizes relating to other religions, such as Islam, Judaism or Buddhism, were too small to give reliable estimates.

[2] Logistic regression analysis was used to predict the likelihood of supporting leaving the EU

About The Project:

The ‘Should we stay or should we go: Young People and the EU Referendum’ project is a study of young people’s attitudes towards and engagement with the EU referendum campaign. Using data from a dedicated UK-wide survey of under 30s and a wide range of publicly available data and academic research we will address four key themes.

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