Religion and Authority

By Paul A. Djupe

In the popular imagination, “religion” and “authority” are one in the same. If religion is about deference to a particular higher power, one can see how the assumption is born that the religious are more deferential to higher powers more generally. There are additional reasons to think this – for instance, the Bible tells followers to be obedient to authority in a number of circumstances: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21; see also Mark 12:17). Moreover, a recent, interesting post by Matt Motta on the Monkey Cage blog about the effect of the term “gay” versus “homosexual” suggested that evangelicalism and the highest levels of authority were effectively indistinguishable (though that may have been a typo). Are these claims true?

All of this raises some important empirical questions about the place and level of authority-mindedness in (American) religion. Just what does it mean to be authoritative? According to Max Weber, it is the recognition that something has the right or power to give orders and enforce obedience. Government and religion have varying degrees of holds over people by wielding the scepter and/or through attaining a sense of legitimacy. The factors defining their authority are not unique to religion or state – individuals vary in their willingness to recognize authority, as well, both in the abstract and in specific applications.

I’ll first examine the value people place on authority in religion and authority in social ties (I’m calling this “social authority”), which has long been captured obliquely by asking about parenting values. Valuing respect for elders over independence, good manners over curiosity, and being well-behaved over being considerate indicate valuing authority (this is a distant relative of the early F-scale). How different religious traditions weigh these competing considerations is shown below. The Christian groups are not distinguishable from one another and have scores in the range of 2 out of a possible 3 (the highest authority score). Jews and “religious nones” are less likely to hold to the value of social authority. Or, put differently, evangelicals are barely distinguishable from other religious groups, though they are quite different (about 13% of the scale) different from the “nones.” That gap is approximately the same size as the total effect of education. For comparison, the least educated (less than a high school degree) are 15% more authority-minded compared to those with post-graduate degrees.


One would expect that emphasizing authority in social relations is linked to valuing authority in religious organizations. Using questions about religious authority developed with the redoubtable Ryan Burge, I sought to test this notion using this set of questions:

  • Religious truth is what the congregation makes of it.
  • Religion needs to adapt to the modern culture in order to gain and keep members.
  • Religion needs to adapt to the modern culture in order to be relevant.

As we explore elsewhere, religious authority is distinct from more traditional measures of religiosity or religious orthodoxy. Moreover, as expected, white evangelicals have the highest level of religious authority – i.e., disagreeing with these items (they also hang together quite well as an index with an α=.84).

Still, the correlation of religious and social authority in the sample is a mere r=.08 (p=.01) and the link is weak, if it exists at all, across religious traditions (see the figure below which shows social authority on the y axis and religious authority on the x axis). Religious authority is not tapping the same underlying concept as social authority. Or, put differently, the mix of authority mindedness in social situations and religious institutions is more an individual set of traits rather than a fixed element of groups. This serves to confirm some of the suspicions Wald and colleagues had in their 1991 paper about evangelicals’ authority-mindedness.

authority-rav by reltrad.png

Each of these measures have political implications. For one, both are linked to being more conservative. Those with the most religious authority are two ideological points more conservative (out of 7), while social authoritarians are one point more conservative over the least authority-minded. There is no amplification effect – they are linked independently to ideology. Social authority is also linked to a number of conservative attitudes and orientations including a trustee representational style (see Barker and Carman’s Representing Red and Blue, 2012). Just how religious authority might link to such notions as representation, democratic norms, and other measures of interest will come soon in a paper with Ryan Burge and Andy Lewis. But, for now, we know that the measure is not the same thing as religious conservatism and religious authority helps explain those who identify with the emergent church. It is also inaccurate to say that religious people or even all evangelicals are high (social) authoritarians (~25% are), at least according to these measures.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

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