A National Portrait of Religious Conservative Candidates

by Melissa Deckman

In 1998, I conducted a national survey of school board candidates drawn from 300 randomly selected school districts nationwide. Of the 1,220 candidates who were contacted, 671 returned usable surveys for a response rate of 55 percent.

While the emphasis of the survey was on the campaign (and not the governing) process, it does offer a glimpse of what religious conservative candidates believed were the most pressing education issues at the time they were running for office.

I categorized religious conservatives as those candidates who identified with Christian Right organizations (as members or supporters of such groups) and who also held most of the same education views espoused by such organizations, such as support for creationism or abstinence-based sex education.

Based on these two criteria, 19 percent of school board candidates were considered part of the Christian Right. These candidates were remarkably similar to candidates who were not religious conservatives. Christian Right candidates were not more likely to win than non-Christian Right candidates, nor were they regionally concentrated in certain areas of the country. They tended to share similar socioeconomic backgrounds, and relatively few candidates received endorsements, campaign contributions or other help with their campaigns from interest groups and political parties.

Religious conservatives did differ from other types of candidates when it came to the reasons they ran for the school board. Christian Right candidates were more likely than other candidates to say that applying their religious or moral beliefs to education policy and returning schools to “traditional values” were somewhat or very important to their decisions to run for school board.

Such findings might cause school administrators some concern that Christian Right board members will be preoccupied with bringing religion into public classrooms. However, an examination of the campaign platforms of such candidates does not seem to indicate that most religious conservatives run for school board with the intention of making radical changes to school policy.

As with other candidates, religious conservatives, while running for office, stressed the need to raise student test scores, to deal with budget and revenue issues and to address the technological needs of schools far more than hot-button issues such as sex education.