Why we really use religious tradition

By Tobin Grant

Paul Djupe’s post on traditions is provocative. At its core is an argument that religious tradition (reltrad) was created as a proxy for the measure of political messages and that, as such, it sucks. In its place, we need more experiments and measures of local congregational context.

My argument is that it is simply untrue that “the reltrad measurement scheme was designed to make assumptions about what people are exposed to.” This may be how Djupe sees reltrad because his research focuses on exposure. But for the originators of the reltrad classification, the goal wasn’t about exposure or even politics.

Religious tradition is a concept for identifying one religion from another. Christianity is one tradition. Hinduism is another. Within these traditions, we can have subtraditions like Reform Judaism or Sufism. In the United States, with the dominance of Christianity, “reltrad” is a classification that includes both traditions (e.g., Judaism) and subtraditions (Mainline Protestantism).

What makes one religion different from another one? This question assumes that we know what a religion is. As social scientists, we consider religion to be, well, social. It exists in groups. People are in the same religion when they share similar beliefs, practices, and values. As a result, they “do religion” together in religious communities. As someone who appreciates market theory, I would say that people of the same religion have similar preferences toward religious goods and services that they receive from their religious communities.

These religious communities could be a few people, hundreds of people, or number in the thousands. These communities could be situated within families or other kindship networks. They may be organizations like congregations or parishes.

How do we know if communities are part of a common religious tradition? One way is to identify communities that provide similar religious goods and services.

There are a million different ways to consider religious goods and services, and what may seem important to one person may not to another.

It turns out that religions are good at figuring this out for us. We don’t need to know what makes one Central Schwenkfelder congregation like another one. There are religious communities that through history have come to see themselves as Central Schwenkfelder, have organized together, have worked together, and who see each other as part of the same religious group.

As an outsider looking in, we may be puzzled at the amount of variation there may be within these organizations. There are thousands of beliefs and practices that we could examine to see why groups have come together—this is the kind of thing historians are fantastic at identifying.

The connections communities make between themselves signify their shared religion. These are often called denominations. Some groups prefer terms like associations or networks. Others use “church” to describe the larger organization. For some, the connections are informal, e.g., streams within Judaism or nondenominational evangelicals.

This is why David Searcy and I (forthcoming) argue, “All else being equal, congregations within the same denomination will be more similar to each other than they are to congregations outside the denomination (italics in original).

Does knowing that someone goes to a Central Schwenkfelder church tell you what she is hearing in a sermon or talking about in after a worship service? Not necessarily. But it does tell you that for those who go to a Central Schwenkfelder church, their religion is probably a lot like another Central Schwenkfelder church than it is like a Baptist, Catholic, or Amish community.

The big question, at least for us social science geeks, is whether and, if so, how to put these denominations together.

One could use identities and skip religious communities and denominations altogether. But for the sake of space, I’m going to skip that approach. Put simply: people identify with their current community and identify with them far better than abstract identities created by survey researchers.

Besides, we all use traditions to talk about religion. We have no problem speaking of Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus.

It’s also possible to talk about subtraditions. This can be done by examining historical development of denominations. The approach David Searcy and I have recently advocated is to use inter-faith or ecumenical organizations to group denominations and communities together.

This is what reltrad is about—grouping like religious communities together.

Djupe lists a series of recent blog posts that he considers damning (pun intended) to the concept of reltrad. My view, however, is that they demonstrate that people understand religion through their religious communities. While these communities are part of larger traditions, some of the labels we use for these traditions (“evangelical” or “mainline”) are like other elite labels that are understood only by attentive publics.

Even if reltrad—particularly its classifications of Protestants—is flawed (and like any measure it is), that doesn’t mean that it’s completely flawed. There is a lot that it gets correct. I may not see the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as similar to the United Methodists, but they see themselves as full communion partners. There is an organization called the National Association of Evangelicals that includes churches that differ on many issues, but they see themselves as part of the same movement. National Baptists, Church of God in Christ, and the African-Methodist Episcopal Church share seminaries and recognize each other as part of a historic movement of African-American churches.

But moving on, what value does reltrad have for the study of political behavior? As Djupe asks,

So, how about some productive talk? Sure. Let’s start with some guiding questions. Are religious traditions politically coherent? Do individuals agree with the politics of their congregations? Put differently, should we think of congregations as the cornerstones of groups “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest” (Madison in Federalist 10)? Or are they sites where people encounter measures of disagreement and thereby offer opportunities for deliberation? Notably we can’t ask these questions in a reltrad framework; in fact, the answers are assumed as noted above.

Put simply: this is a strawman.

Religious traditions are not defined by politics nor are they political movements. They’re often shaped by politics, sometimes directly and sometimes because their members are discriminated against (or privileged) because of their race, ethnicity or social location. Beliefs and practices can have political implications. But by definition, they are movements whose commonality is religious, not political per se.

Even on religious questions, we may find that religious groups differ greatly on what should be questions that define a group. People who identify as “atheist” should, one would think, not believe in God. But one-in-five “atheists” believe in a God or universal spirit. Among college graduates who say that they are “atheists,” one-in-ten believe in some type of deity. To be fair, a good number of Catholics and Baptists don’t believe in God. If atheists can’t agree that there is no god, and Christians can’t agree that God exists, then is it surprising we don’t see unity on narrower theological questions or on political questions like how much people like Donald Trump?

That said, the 2016 American National Election Study pre-election survey finds that there are significant (and substantial) differences on feeling thermometers toward Donald Trump across religious traditions (see figure below).


The average feeling toward Trump among evangelicals was about ten points higher than that of mainline Protestants. Those in historically black churches were, not surprisingly, colder toward Trump, as were those who said they were “nothing in particular.”

There are a lot of reasons for these differences. When we control for some of them—party identification, race/ethnicity, and gender—we can get a better estimate of the effect of belonging to a religious tradition. Evangelicals are still more positive toward Trump, even with these controls. Mormons, on the other hand, are dramatically negative.

This is a quick model, but it shows that even on what is a very partisan measure, there exist differences across some traditions.

Does this mean that there isn’t diversity within traditions? Nope. Of course, we find variation and diversity! Is there anything social scientists study that isn’t full of variation?! If I could have a dollar for every time I’ve heard a social scientist say that a group is “not monolithic.”

It’s inherent in aggregation: there is often more variation within a group than between groups.

There’s variation within the United States, then within a state, then within a county, then within a neighborhood, then within a household, and even within an individual—as Zaller noted, ask someone a question today, and she’ll give you one answer; come back in a few minutes, and you’ll get a different response.

Whether or not reltrad should be one’s measure of religious belonging depends on the research question. As a measure of exposure, some categories may be too blunt. If there were enough Latter-Day Saints in this survey to keep them as their own category, then there would likely be a strong negative rating of Trump. Work by Searcy (unpublished) suggests that Pentecostals and Baptists (who make up Trump’s evangelical advisory group) may also feel closer to Trump, while other evangelicals would not be. This may be due to exposure within the congregation, but it would also be due to following elite cues, social media, and other processes that would affect those in the same religious tradition regardless of whether or not they were in the same congregation.

We need studies of political psychology, political networks, and political information that may be focused on individuals or studied within congregations. Such studies would have measures of religion that would be more important to individuals. We also need to consider studies that study samples of the larger population, studies that would describe religion using religious tradition categories that are linked to the local religious experience but describe a broader phenomenon. We need to be able to talk about the political behavior of Sunnis, Catholics, Mormons, and other groups, and we make headway on these by using measures of belonging that include congregations that, while diverse, represent meaningful traditions.

Tobin Grant is editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and professor of political science at Southern Illinois University.

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