Now is Also the Best Time to Study Religion and Politics

By Paul A. Djupe and the team

[photo credit: Right Wing Watch]

Over at his eponymous blog, Tom Pepinsky just wrote that “This Is the Best Time Ever to Study Political Science,” making a strong case for disciplinary study. Political Science is well situated to address his top 10 questions (even as many of us have stood in front of classes these days and just shrugged on occasion lately).

For the same reasons, this is also the (latest) best time to study religion and politics in the US and beyond. Normally, getting to the core of how religion and politics interrelate is difficult work, forcing us to adopt creative research designs and complex statistical analyses. When a generation of people have been making the same arguments about the same issues without much change in attitudes (e.g., on abortion), it is almost impossible to sort out religious influence.

But in 2016-17, findings are everywhere, scattered on the surface for the first time in a long time, that allow us to start pulling apart the causal threads.  Take these observations and questions amassed from the team:

1) 81% of white evangelicals supported Trump despite the evangelical #NeverTrump movement. It is rare to see evangelical elites positioning themselves criticizing the Republican standard bearer. Did anyone listen? (Paul)

2) Trump was elected by people who support banning immigrants from the US, but evangelical elites from every state just put out a full page ad in the Washington Post opposing the same. (Paul)

3) Clergy in congregations appear to have had little to say in 2016 about either presidential candidate publicly. As the stakes of political disagreement grow, are clergy becoming less relevant in this polarized era? (Paul)

4) The religiously unaffiliated—whose numbers are growing by leaps and bounds—largely backed Hillary Clinton in 2016, but there are differences among this group, as self-identified atheists and agnostics were far more likely to do so than those Americans who identify as “nothing in particular.”  (Melissa Deckman)

5) The Catholic vote in 2016 was more polarized than ever, with White Catholics far more likely to back Trump than Latino Catholics. Given the liberal tenor of the papacy of Pope Francis, it will be fascinating to watch what impact, if any, he has on the political behavior of Catholics in the near future. (Melissa Deckman)

6) What role will religion play in the burgeoning leftist Tea Party-like movement that has emerged to protest the Trump administration? (Melissa Deckman)

7) Courts and legislatures are still sorting out how to balance religious liberty protections and LGBT rights, while the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to weigh in. SCOTUS’s denial to hear an appeal by Elane Photography sends a signal that they may side with non-discrimination policies. (Dan Bennett)

8) In the recent past, evangelicals seemed to be embracing the demographic status of long-term cultural decline and promoting pluralistic politics that seek to protect rights of minority groups. But with the election of Trump, will these activists stay the course or seize the current political opportunity to engage in cultural majoritarian politics, protecting only their own status and views? (Andy Lewis)

9) The politics of religious liberty in the U.S (especially in terms of religious rights vs. sexual orientation/identity rights) seems to be eroding public support for religious freedom, especially on the left. What will be the effects on people’s views about religion and the importance of this “first Freedom”? (Andy Lewis).

10) Outside the U.S., the political right is growing in strength in countries ranging from France to Brazil. Evangelical and Pentecostal houses of worship have played a part in the rise of the right. But in other countries, evangelicals and Pentecostals aren’t always on the political right—for instance, one of the top contenders in Brazil’s last two presidential elections has been a born-again Pentecostal environmentalist. Studying the mobilization of evangelicals and Pentecostals in other countries can help us understand whether conclusions based on studying the U.S. context apply in other settings. (Amy Erica Smith)

11) Seminary enrollment and residence is on the decline, in part because more clergy are being trained outside of traditional seminaries (and online). How do these educational and professional changes affect church and clergy politics? (Andy Lewis)

DATA! To complement this high leverage era in religion and politics study, we are simply awash in data to document and grapple with these new observations and questions. I can’t document them all, but a simple tour through the following should help launch a thousand ships:

1)      Association of Religion Data Archives has a treasure trove of datasets about individuals, denominations, states, nations, and elites.

2)      PRRI’s fantastic updated website has a Data Vault (usually embargoed for a year, but there’s a LOT available), and each study page or press release also links to the data. PRRI has asked much different questions than others have traditionally asked and thus serves as a source of great inspiration. Please also check out their American Values Atlas for state-level estimates from their 50,000+ yearly interviews on a very wide range of religious demographics and policy attitudes.

3)      Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life has their religious landscape study data available and has online analysis tools about world religions.

4)      I can’t not mention The American National Election Studies and the General Social Survey.

5)      It’s becoming much easier to generate concrete measures of religious communication due to rapid advances in natural language processing and social media analysis. For instance, see Ryan Burge’s posts about Presidential speech at prayer breakfasts and Trump and the prosperity gospel; see also Miles Williams’ post on evangelical and Trump tweet sentiment on immigration.

What other data sources for studying religion should be brought to our attention? What other observations are worth noting at this point? Whatever they are, this should be an enormously productive time to be studying religion and politics across the world.

Paul A. Djupe is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the former editor of Politics & Religion, and the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple). Further information about his work can be found at his website and occasionally on Twitter.


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