How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity: an interview with author Michele Margolis

Featured Image Credit: Adler & Colvin

There’s no shortage of speculation regarding the effect that President Trump will have on the future of American politics. Some, however, are focusing on the effect that Trump might have on the future of American religion. Here Iwe (BK) interview Dr. Michele Margolis (MM), Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania about her forthcoming book From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity. While much attention is paid to how religion is driving politics these days, Professor Margolis argues that politics is also driving religion in return. – Benjamin Knoll

BK: This is such a fascinating topic. Where did you get the idea for the book?

MM: This may sound like a weird answer, but honestly, I became interested in the topic for this book from conversations I had with people after I answered the question: “What do you do?” When I would tell a person, sometimes who I had met just moments before, that I do research in American politics with a focus on religion, it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to end up in a lively discussion about religion, politics, or both.

Over the course of these conversations, many ended up sharing with me snippets of their own religious experiences, from which two themes often emerged. First, many people—mainly young adults—told me that they were not currently religious, despite being raised with religion. And while a few went on to explain why they are now avowed atheists, most viewed religion favorably. These people just happened to not be religious right now, and that was not necessarily a permanent decision. People would sometimes mention that they would like to go back to church or that they see themselves becoming more religious in the future.

Second, people told me about their church shopping experiences. That is, they described their (sometimes failed) attempts to find religious communities that suits their needs and works for them. From these conversations, it became quite clear that religious affiliation and religiosity are not the stable characteristics that political scientists assume them to be. This left me wondering what factors mattered in these people’s religious decisions and whether politics might be one of them.

BK: What is the main argument of your book? What are the key findings?

MM: I draw on what we know about Americans’ religious and political socialization experiences to create and test a theory about when partisanship can affect religious decision-making. In brief, the distinct timings of the religious and political socialization processes create a window during which partisanship can shape religious beliefs and behaviors. Partisan identities typically crystallize in adolescence and early adulthood, which is the time when many people have distanced themselves from religion. As young people emerge into adulthood, however, they must decide whether to remain on the outskirts of religion or re-enter the religious sphere. Partisan identity, which for many has been solidified since young adulthood, can influence these religious choices. Further, the impact of partisanship and politics on religion at this juncture reverberates for years to come, as an individual’s religious identification and practices are often stable throughout adulthood.

A large part of the book explores what causes partisans to change their levels of religiosity. I show that elite polarization on social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, as well as the close and visible relationship between religious and political leaders offer important cues to those making religious decisions for themselves and their families. These elite cues provide information about how people “like them” engage with religion.

All told, individuals’ partisan identities can shape their engagement in the religious sphere. In showing this, the book pushes back against the claim that America’s current polarization is solely the product of religious sorting into the political parties. Instead, partisans help produce this religious-political polarization, with Democrats opting out of organized religion and Republicans selecting into it.

BK: Recent surveys have shown that President Trump continues to have a high approval rating among Evangelical Christians in the U.S. Based on your research, what effect might that have for Evangelical Democrats and Evangelical Republicans?

MM: Based on findings from my book, one potential outcome is that these evangelical Democrats may end up being less frequent church attenders or less involved in their religious communities. In other words, these evangelicals—by virtue of their Democratic partisan identification—may look around the religious-political sphere and decide that religion isn’t really for them.

A second potential outcome deals with those who were raised as evangelicals but shed their nominal affiliations in adolescence or young adulthood, as religious non-identification is highest among young adults and all major religions lose members during this time in people’s lives. It is quite possible that some people who were raised as evangelicals but currently think of themselves as “nothing in particular” may not return at all, instead remaining as “religious nones.” Another way these evangelical Democrats might cope with the current political environment would be to find a different, more politically liberal, church that better suits their pre-existing political outlooks. So rather than responding by becoming less religious, they might instead find new religious homes altogether.

Evangelical Republicans, in contrast, may not feel cross-pressured. In fact, it might be the opposite. People are most likely to “return” to religion after getting married and having children. This is the time in people’s lives when religiosity and religious involvement is most likely to increase. But in addition to the normal pressures that might encourage a return to religion, evangelical Republicans have the additional push back into religion because they may think that “this is something that Republicans do.” That said, evangelical Republicans may feel uneasy in today’s political environment as well. There is a contingent of never-Trump evangelicals and some vocal evangelical leaders have been critical of Trump since before the election. These people, many of whom are on the political right, may feel tension between their political and religious outlooks that they previous have not experienced.

BK: What would be your advice for churches and other houses of worship that want to avoid this phenomenon? Based on your research, how could they best prevent attrition from young people, especially liberal-leaning young people?

MM: The sociology of religion literature tells us that adolescents and young adults fall away from religion for very benign reasons. They are not opposed to religion, but they feel like they have learned the requisite religious lessons for being a good person and are more concerned about their friends, grades, jobs, and dating lives than they are about the eternal state of their souls. This is why I, and others, have found that levels of religiosity decrease across very different types of people, including people from all sides of the political spectrum. It therefore stands to reason that churches that offer social experiences that are separate from religious experiences may be able to retain more of their younger members as they reach adolescence.

BK: Going forward, what does your research suggest about the future of the intersection of religion and politics in the United States under the Trump administration?

MM: On the one hand, you could have easily imagined Trump coming in and weakening the link that currently exists between the Republican Party and religion. Trump certainly does not have the personal credentials to be a religious president, at least in the traditional sense. And yet, Trump’s rhetoric surrounding the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, executive order that reinstated the “global gag rule” [prohibiting US funds from to organizations that use their own funds to provide abortions], and push for a return to saying “Merry Christmas” have been generally well received by many who make up his religious base, particularly white evangelical Christians.

On the other hand, some of Trump’s policy stances and rhetoric represent a clear departure from his Republican predecessors, which may change how we think about religion’s place in politics. Current debates surrounding immigration policy in general, and the Trump administration’s moves regarding building of a border wall, DREAMers and El-Salvadoran immigrants in particular, serve as one examples of this.

There are vocal groups and leaders within the evangelical, mainline, and Catholic communities who strongly oppose Trump’s policies, and his recent vulgar and offensive comments about immigrants from Haiti and African countries have only prompted more public outrage from members of this wing. And Trump’s confrontational style and willingness to attack just about anyone on Twitter, even a wildly popular Pope, raises the possibility that his words and policy priorities may shake up existing religious-political alliances.

Trump’s election and first year in office represent a real change for religion within the political sphere. But like everything in American politics today, we will have to wait and see what the long-term consequences will be.

“From Politics to the Pews” is forthcoming from The University of Chicago Press in June and is now available for pre-order here and here.

Benjamin Knoll is the John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and specializes in public opinion and voting behavior, with a specialization in religion, race, ethnicity, and politics. He is the current director of the Boyle County Exit Poll and Centre College’s Colonel’s Canvass Survey and a frequent contributor to Huffington Post and other online venues. His website is available here and he can be followed on Twitter at @benjaminknoll28.

Michele Margolis is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests are in American politics with a focus on public opinion, political psychology, religion and politics, and experimental methods. Her website is available here and she can be found on Twitter at @mfmargolis.

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