The Higher Power of Religiosity Over Personality on Political Ideology

Aleksander Ksiazkiewicz, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Amanda Friesen, IUPUI

What are the origins of political attitudes and religious orientations, and why do they correlate? For much of the history of political science, the answers to these questions involved individual socialization, elite discourse, and, sometimes, individual dispositions like personality traits. From the socialization perspective, families, historical contexts, institutions and culture drive the interest, motivations, identities, and information people learn, which in turn shape the attitudes they hold, and ideologies to which they ascribe. Alternatively, individual-level traits alter the environments individuals select and guide them to differentially perceive similar environments, thus shaping the attitudes they hold. In addition, even today personality, religion, and politics are typically studied in dyads, leading to an incomplete picture of how these domains intersect.

In this article, we used behavioral genetic methods to revisit some of these longstanding questions in political psychology research and to further understand the nature and sources of covariance between personality, religion, and politics. The foundation for this kind of research was laid in recent decades, demonstrating that each of these traits are influenced by both environmental factors and genetic predispositions. At this point, that’s old news in the study of political behavior; this is not another “hey, look what social traits are heritable” kind of paper. Instead, we moved beyond the dyadic approach in order to integrate the domains of personality, religion, and politics in order to contribute to the discussion of the mechanisms at work in some of the “culture wars” dividing democracies, paying special attention to both genetic and unique environmental effects. Though we did not have data to examine these effects over time, we relied on behavioral genetic analyses of two unique twin studies, with different age cohorts, conducted in the United States and Australia to provide a novel way to address how genetic and environmental factors can help us to understand the covariation between personality, religion, and politics in dyads and, crucially, all at once.

Personality is often considered the first mover or the foundational, stable element to an individual’s personal orientation. The data showed this may not be accurate. When it comes to politics, a desire for religious guidance accounts for far more of the variance in social ideology, even when controlling for personality. We found that religiosity shares unique genetic variance with social ideology when controlling for the personality trait most strongly related to political ideology, Openness to Experience, in the two cultural contexts. The relationship between Openness and social ideology is much weaker than the relationship between religiosity and social ideology in both countries, and the effect of Openness is reduced to non-significant levels controlling for religiosity. This is even true in the Australian context, where religion plays less of a role in politics than in the United States and despite using a relatively more reliable measure of Openness than religiosity (10-item versus four-item) in that sample. Beyond Openness, when we controlled for each of the Big Five personality traits, none of the traits fully (or even mostly) accounted for the relationship between religiosity and ideology in either national context. Taken together, these findings suggest that future research should devote more effort to examining religiosity as a potential mediator between genes and politics. In order to understand “culture wars” rooted in disagreements over social ideology, political psychologists would be well served to focus on religious beliefs and unpacking what it means that there is a genetic correlation between religiosity and social ideology in these two quite different national contexts.


In contrast to the genetic effects, the environmental effects of religiosity and Openness on ideology are entirely independent. That is, even when accounting for Openness, religiosity shares a distinct unique environmental component with ideology, although it is much smaller than the genetic component. For Openness, the pattern is the same in the United States and there is no detectable overlap in the unique environment with social ideology in Australia. This complicates the theory that personality influences ideology through genetics and emphasizes important questions: what are the life experiences that push together Openness and social ideology (at least in the U.S. context)? Why is the effect of life experiences that push together religiosity and social ideology so much larger than this effect on personality and social ideology? Moreover, contrary to past work that has focused on personality as a major pathway for genetic effects on ideology, our data suggest that personality’s unique role in ideology (i.e., net of shared variance with religiosity) could largely be through environmental influences and not shared dispositions, as the genetic effect of Openness on ideology is attenuated but the unique environment effect is not (at least in the U.S.). What is the genetic component that lies at the intersection of personality, religiosity, and ideology, and how does it differ from the unique environmental experiences that seem to play a role in dyads but not all three?

Modeling a genetics and environmental analysis of personality, religion, and politics is a helpful step in understanding how individuals develop predispositions and preferences in these domains. Extending this analysis across two cultures suggests that the strong relationship between religious salience and social ideology in Western nations persists across contexts with dramatically different levels of aggregate religiosity and politicization of religious belief; it need not have been so, it could well have been the case that genetics only explained the correlations with ideology in a national context where religion is more politically salient, but instead genes matter in both contexts. The shared genetic component of this religion-politics relationship also supports the socialization literature that finds political attitudes tied to religious beliefs are more successfully transmitted, and our evidence demonstrates this may have to do with some underlying heritable predisposition. Leveraging the explanatory power of genetic and environmental effects, we suggest that religion scholars and political psychologists are both partially correct in their assessment of the “culture wars” – religion seems to be the driving force, but its influence resides in dispositional mechanisms as much as it does socially.

We hope our tests of genetic and environmental influences of religiosity, personality, and social ideology across two age groups in two cultures will contribute to understanding across political, religious, and personality domains and encourage more scholars to attempt integrated models of these measures. Much remains to be done; unpacking the role of gene-environment interaction and covariation appear important next steps. Identifying how religious and political upbringings alter the environments into which people select, which may modify the expression of genetic proclivities, could answer many questions on how values across religious and political domains become entangled. Looking at personality traits beyond the Big Five, such as cognitive style, may provide different insights into the religion-politics link. And, of course, research in other national contexts and in new samples in the United States and Australia will no doubt add additional clarity to the relationships that we bring into focus in this research.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Political Behavior blog and appears at the request of the authors.

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