New Book: Religious Identity in US Politics

By Matthew R. Miles, Brigham Young University, Idaho

Most scholars agree that religion influences political attitudes and participation via three primary mechanisms: belief, belonging, and behaving. I agree. Yet, the processes through which each of the three B’s influence political attitudes and behaviors are complex. Consider the influence of beliefs  on political attitudes. Religious beliefs are not developed in a day. Once people firmly adopt religious beliefs, they then need to cognitively link a political value or an issue with those beliefs. In some cases (like abortion) this might be fairly simple. Yet, as people become more familiar with the nuance involved in political issues, it becomes more difficult to connect religious beliefs with political attitudes.  The process through which religious belief leads to political attitudes takes time.  The influence of religious belonging and behaving implies a similarly complex process. It takes time to develop religious habits and, as such, the three B’s paradigm limits our ability to understand more dynamic influences of religion on politics.

From a psychological perspective, religious social identity has a quicker influence on political attitudes and behaviors and functions independently of believing, belonging, or behaving. In the foundational experiments on the subject, identities which had been randomly assigned had an almost immediate impact on subjects’ attitudes about and behavior toward out-group members. Furthermore, social identity is contextual. Think of your own social identities. Sometimes (like Mother’s Day) the most salient identity is that of being a parent or a child. At other times (like a national holiday) national identities become more salient. In a congregation with other co-religionists, identities which distinguish us from others often become more salient. For similar reasons, people who no longer believe in the tenets of a religion, who no longer associate with members of that faith, and do not practice that religion can identify with a religion; at times they might strongly identify with that religion.

My newly published book Religious Identity in US Politics explains why religious social identity is different from religious affiliation and applies this conceptualization of religion to a number of important puzzles in American politics. For example, the book shows that although the major political parties in America count on the support of adherents to specific religious traditions, religious identity has an influence on public attitudes about elected officials that is independent of political party affiliation. More powerfully than gender, and equally influential as race, religious identity shapes public approval of and trust in elected officials. At a time when it seems that partisanship, polarization, and conflict decisively diminish public evaluations of elected officials, religious identity motivates individuals to express trust in and approval of opposing partisans who share an identity.

In addition, I explore how religious social identity influences attitudes toward atheists in America. Putnam and Campbell report that while religious Americans may among be the most charitable, trusting, civically engaged, and tolerant, they are also the most distrusting of atheists. This is not the first attempt to explain intolerance toward atheists. However, most explanations argue that atheist antipathy results from differences in values, beliefs, morals, or worldviews. If true, this implies that reducing the gap in trust between religious Americans and non-believers requires either a change in beliefs or compromise. However, if atheist intolerance is motivated by religious social identities, these attitudes can change quite rapidly through increased social contact between those with a strong religious identity and atheists. One simple way this might occur is through partisan coalition realignment. If atheists and people with a strong religious identity were to identify with the same political party, trust between the two groups may also increase.

Another logical extension is that political identities influence religious identities, beliefs, and behaviors just as religious identities influence political attitudes and behaviors. It is a two-way street. For example, when people with a Muslim religious identity are informed that co-partisans have negative attitudes about Muslims, they become weaker identifiers with their religion or weaker identifiers with their political party, depending on the relative strength of those identities. Strong Muslim identifiers become less partisan, while weak Muslim identifiers become weaker Muslim identifiers. This perspective also explains why some people are abandoning the political parties. When political parties go against the dominant views of religious groups, those with strong religious social identities de-identify with their parties and become stronger religious identifiers. Some observational data from Pew supports this idea. Fewer strong religious identifiers also identify as either Democrat or Republican in 2014 compared to 2007, while more of them identify as Independent in 2014 than in 2007 (see the figures below).

Party Identification by Strength of Religious Identity (2007)


Party Identification by Strength of Religious Identity (2014)


In addition, partisan identities influence religious attitudes. One experiment in the book shows that Democratic members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were more likely to think that their church should change its doctrine to be more supportive of LGB individuals. Respondents were randomly assigned to a condition in which they were informed about the actual genetic heritability of alcohol dependence, compulsive gambling, or same-sex attraction. Although a genetic predisposition is not considered sinful, acting on each of these dispositions is considered sinful by orthodox church members.  When asked if these dispositions are sinful, the strength of partisan and religious identities had more of an influence on attitudes about the sinfulness of these predispositions than did information from scientific journals.

The Influence of Partisanship and Religious Identity on Attitudes about Sinfulness of Predispositions.


Thinking of the influence of religion from a social identity perspective also helps explain less extreme, yet confusing, political outcomes. For instance, many are surprised at the level of support Donald Trump receives from religious conservatives who typically support candidates who reflect their religious values. How could religious Americans support a presidential candidate who did not share their religious views or values? In my view, religious identities were simply weaker for some Republicans than they were for others. Those with a strong partisan identity followed their party rather than their religion.

Book orders placed using this form will receive a 50% discount.

Matthew R. Miles teaches political science and research methods at Brigham Young University, Idaho. His primary research agenda explores how societal arrangements and individual characteristics combine to influence political attitudes and behaviors. He has published over a dozen peer-reviewed articles exploring these interactions that you can find at his website.

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