Religion and the EU Referendum: After the Poll

Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar gael yn Saesneg yn unig.

Before the referendum our post on ‘Religion and the EU Referendum’ examined how preferences for the UK’s membership of the European Union were affected by the religious affiliations of Christian voters. We found notable differences between the denominations, with Anglicans, Methodists and Baptists supporting a withdrawal from the EU, Presbyterians and those of no religious affiliation preferring to remain a member, and Roman Catholics and Evangelicals more or less split down the middle. These differences persisted even once we accounted for the other major influences on support for EU membership, such as age, party support and education. Our post concluded that religious affiliation could well play a role in determining the final outcome of the referendum, and that the leaders of the Remain and Leave campaigns could have been missing a trick by failing to appeal to the interests and beliefs of religious denominations.

Our second survey, conducted just before polling day, gives us an opportunity to not only see how members of the various denominations planned to vote on 23rd June, but to see how their preferences and engagement changed throughout the referendum campaign. The data shows that substantial differences in the preferences of the various denominations remained right up to polling day, but also that there were some notable shifts in support among certain groups. Table 1 illustrates these differences, showing support for Remain or Leave by denomination, and highlighting how support evolved throughout the campaign.

The June figures show that those with no religious affiliation remained more or less as likely to support remaining in the EU as they did in March, by a margin of 50% to 40%. Anglicans and Baptists were also largely unchanged and continued to support leaving the EU, with the Anglicans the most hostile to EU membership in the country. Roman Catholics also continued to be split more or less evenly between supporting Remain and Leave. This means that voters in the largest religious groups in the UK – Anglicans or Catholics – and those of no religious affiliation, were quite stable in their preferences for staying in or leaving the EU between the start and end of the referendum campaign. Shift in support were largely concentrated, as discussed below, among the smaller denominations.

The most sizeable shifts in support are apparent among the Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians. While there is evidence of a shift towards supporting leaving the EU among the vast majority of voters (which primarily – but not exclusively – resulted from those who didn’t know how they would vote in March making up their minds rather than a collapse in support for Remain), the shift in support among Presbyterians by comparison huge: support for Leave increased by 25% between March and June, while support for Remain declined by 15%. While this data does not allow us to pin down exactly when or why this shift occurred, and indeed we must be cautious in applying too much weight to the specific extent of the shift in light of the relatively small number of people in these religious groups in our sample[1], it is possible that the messages of the Leave campaign were particularly successful in appealing to the sentiments of Presbyterians and so persuading them to change their vote. Such an explanation is countered, however, by the fact that Presbyterians live almost exclusively in Scotland – a particular pro-EU region of the UK – and that the majority support either the Scottish National Party or the Labour Party. Both of these traits would seem to make it unlikely that such voters would be particularly receptive to the anti-immigration messages of a Conservative-led Leave campaign. The precise explanation for this shift in support among Presbyterians, therefore, remains unclear.

The changes among the Baptists and the Methodists were less dramatic than that of the Presbyterians, but still notable compared with those of members of the other denominations. They are also notable for the fact that it was support for Remain that increased throughout the campaign amongst these voters, not support for Leave: almost one in three of both Baptists and Methodists supported EU membership in March, compared with just fewer than half who supported leaving; by June, while the proportions supporting withdrawal were almost unchanged, support for Remain had increased to almost the same levels. Clear pluralities of support for Remain among Baptists and Methodists were eroded as those who had not decided how to vote in March eventually came down on the side of Remaining in the EU.


Table One: Referendum Vote Chance by Christian Denomination
March June Change
  Remain Leave DK Remain Leave DK Remain Leave DK
No religion 52% 34% 14% 50% 40% 6% -2% 6% -8%
C of E/Anglican 34% 55% 11% 36% 58% 5% 1% 4% -6%
Roman Catholic 43% 41% 16% 44% 43% 6% 1% 1% -10%
Presbyterian/ 57% 28% 15% 42% 53% 2% -15% 25% -14%
Church of Scotland
Methodist 31% 46% 23% 42% 46% 11% 11% 0% -12%
Baptist 31% 47% 21% 45% 51% 4% 14% 4% -17%
Evangelical 42% 44% 14% 43% 50% 3% 2% 6% -11%

Source: Young People and the EU Referendum surveys

As in our previous blog post, we assessed whether these differences between denominations endured even after the influence of other traits which had the greatest influence on support for EU membership were controlled for, such as age, education, region of residence and political party support.[2] The analyses showed that some of the differences above were indeed a reflection of these other traits rather than something specific to membership of a particular religious denomination, but others were not. Specifically, the heightened Euroscepticism (compared with those of no affiliation) of the Anglicans, Presbyterians and Evangelicals are at least in part a reflection of the distinctive beliefs and ideologies of those religious groups, and are not the result of other characteristics which these groups share (such as the tendency of Anglicans to support the Conservative Party). The fact that the Presbyterians’ support for leaving the EU persists even after these other influential traits were accounted for is all the more remarkable for the fact that in our previous analysis their support for remaining in the EU was more a reflection of the fact that they lived in Scotland than their religious beliefs. This analysis confirms that there was a substantial shift of opinion among many Presbyterians during the referendum campaign which saw them become significantly more hostile towards EU membership, and that this shift was likely to be a result of a distinctive experience or belief of those in the Presbyterian church.

As we discussed in our previous post, the precise cause of these differences in support for EU membership between Christian denominations are unclear, and establishing the reason will require more data and research. One possibility is that they could be a result of historic ideological beliefs, passed down from one generation to another. Anglicans, for example, were in the 18th and 19th centuries on the front line of political battles to protect the power of traditional institutions (such as the monarchy) and were firm believers in the importance of state sovereignty, which may inform their present hostility to the European Union as a constraint on the autonomy of the UK government. Catholics, on the other hand, belong to a church which for centuries was the most powerful international institution in the Western world and may consequently be more comfortable with the notion of a supranational authority.

Either way, our research confirms that religious affiliation played a small yet significant role in both shaping support for EU membership in general, and suggests that it was also important in determining how certain groups of voters shifted their preferences throughout the campaign. While certain voters within specific denominations appeared to be particularly susceptible to influences which changes their view of EU membership (particularly Presbyterians), the majority of people in the largest denominations were quite stable in their support. Other research in this project has shown that other factors appeared to be quite strongly related to shifts in support during the campaign, such as region (particularly among the under-30s). While this may simply reflect the fact that older people – who are more stable in their political preferences – are those more likely to be associated with religious organisations, it may also indicate religion acting as something of a stabilising influence on attitudes towards EU membership arising from the relationship between religious belief and ideals and political ideology. Whatever the reason, this is nonetheless yet another way in which the importance of religious belief as an influence on political engagement and participation is highlighted, and must be explored further in future research.

[1] Our weighted estimates identify, for example, more than 2,300 people with no religious affiliation, just over 1,200 Anglicans, 322 Catholics, 105 Presbyterians, 85 Methodists, 40 Baptists and 48 Evangelicals. While overall this sample can be taken as broadly representative of the UK population, therefore, caution must be exercised in examining shifts within these populations. The figures can reliably give an indication of broad trends – such as the shift in support towards Leave from Remain among Presbyterians, and from having no opinion to Remain among Methodists and Baptists – but the replication of the figures provided here and the ‘real’ population should be treated as indicative at best.

[2] Logit regression analyses with robust standard errors predicting the likelihood of supporting Leave in the referendum were used. Controls for the influence of age, gender, ethnicity, social class occupation, education, political interest and political party identification were included.

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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