Religion and the Extension of Trust in Context

By Paul A. Djupe

Trust allows the world to run. Life would grind to a halt if we could trust no one and certainly the impersonal institutions that support modern life hinge on trust – that invested money won’t be stolen, that wrongdoers will be punished, that votes will be counted without chucking a box of them into the Chicago River. And trust matters in civil society as the grease enabling individuals to work together on collective projects, whether to organize for a new park, found a church, or lobby for railroad crossing gates.

Over at the Political Behavior journal blog, Ben Hsiung and I describe the results of our forthcoming paper, “Religion and the Extension of Trust.” We argue that religion has multivocal effects on social and political trusts depending on the values communicated. These sets of religious values, which we label religious styles, are the central products in the religious economy. Congregations adopt religious styles in word and deed that range from inclusive (open doors, low boundaries to outsiders, few requirements of insiders) to exclusive (difficult access, high boundaries to nonbelievers, and requirements of believers).

The analogy to trust is clear as these value sets inform people about the potential costs of trust as well as whether making connections is a valued activity. Those congregations that lower boundaries and encourage bridge building also implicitly promote trust in others and institutions – they are engaged in extending the radius of trust. Those congregations that emphasize the presence of evil, the high wages of sin, and religious requirements to be a good person undercut the worth of working with others who are not well known – the radius of trust is shortened.

With experimental and cross-sectional data, we provide evidence for these notions. Head over to the PoBe blog to read a description.

Exposure to exclusive messages has now been found to influence political and social trust (Hsiung and Djupe forthcoming in Political Behavior), perceived threat from and hence political tolerance for a least-liked group (Djupe and Calfano 2013 in Political Research Quarterly; see also Djupe and Mockabee 2015, chapter 7 of Religion and Political Tolerance), support for US foreign intervention policy opinion (Djupe and Calfano 2013 in Political Behavior), and opinion on immigration policy (Calfano and Djupe 2013, Chapter 8 of God Talk). It is important to note that most of these findings result from experiments, which we often validate with observational data.

But these results beg another question: why are those religious styles adopted in the first place? Surely the dominant explanation is grounded in the theology of a particular group. But congregations and clergy are also responding to community market pressures. I thought I would show some evidence for that here.

Brian Calfano and I have been asking about inclusive and exclusive religious values for about 10 years now; we also fielded them to clergy in 2009 and 2014.[1] Instead of asking if they adopt these values, we asked how often they present them in public. The presentation of inclusive values does not vary based on the degree of religious diversity around them in their state – we found the presentation of inclusion by clergy high and essentially invariant across religious groups in our 2013 Political Behavior article. Clergy presentation of exclusive values does shift as seen in the figure below, but only for non-evangelicals.

Most of the states in the sample are religiously diverse (using a herfindahl style measure for states from 2010 religious census data) and in those states (lower left in the figure) the pattern resembles what we would expect – evangelicals are more exclusive than non-evangelicals. But non-evangelicals quickly catch up in more homogeneous state environments (toward the right on the x axis – caution, this area is sparsely populated). This makes sense – as concentration among those with a similar style increases, clergy would try harder to keep hard-won members in the congregation. They also may feel pressure to make claims about the value of the ingroup, which is another facet that exclusion captures.

So, I’ll leave you with an interesting puzzle. Given the results above from clergy, a straightforward expectation is that we would see declining political and social trust when exclusive values are more likely to be presented. Instead, as shown below using data from a 2016 dataset of ours,[2] both social and political trust increase among religious attenders as religious homogeneity grows. Non-attenders have decreased trusts as religious homogeneity grows.

These are intriguing results. My initial interpretation is that they represent Tocqueville’s observation that (Christian) unity makes societal relations easier and serves to limit political aims to some agreeable set.[3] Clearly that would push the ‘religious nones’ out of civil society. Fortunately, American states are highly diverse, which helps to fuel Madison’s pluralist system of social checks by a nation of minorities. I’m sure there are other interpretations, though.

Brought back to this discussion about religion and trust, it seems clear that different levels of religion (individual, organizational, and environmental) need to be accounted for separately to fully understand how religion is linked to democratic politics. That sounds like a really productive research agenda.

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 (see his list of posts here). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.


0. Image hat tip to Dan Bennett for posting this the other day. It’s apparently a famous sign in Alabama (of all places). I wish it said, “*Stay* in church or the devil will get you.” Or at least that’s how I think the message actually resonates.

1. We asked, “How often do you present the following values about how to be a *good person of your faith* in your sermons and public speech?” on a scale that ran from never to very often (collapsed to a 0-1 scale here). Inclusive values included: “It is important to invite others to our house of worship even if it begins to change as a result.” and “It is important to “love the stranger as yourself.” Exclusive values included: “It is important to shop as much as possible at stores owned by people of our faith.” and “It is important to keep company with other people of our faith.”

2. In 2016, Anand Sokhey, Amanda Friesen, and I fielded a three wave panel through Qualtrics Panels (thus, it was not a probability sample). The first wave data, which I use here, had 2517 cases with good coverage across the US and has marginals (e.g., age, race, gender, and education profiles) quite close to national figures.

3. See Tocqueville’s chapter, “INDIRECT INFLUENCE OF RELIGIOUS OPINIONS UPON POLITICAL SOCIETY IN THE UNITED STATES.” Scroll to the second heading in that linked document.

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