Do Religious Arguments Distort Policy Debates?

By Steven Kettell and Paul A. Djupe

At a time when right wing, religious nationalist politics are ascendant in many democratic countries around the world, including India, the United States, the UK, Poland, Turkey, and others, readers need no reminder that religion is a vigorous force in contemporary politics. While it is clear that religious involvement promotes political involvement (a necessity for democratic politics), the question of whether religion has a benign presence in public debate is much contested. In new research of ours at Politics & Religion, we explore whether religious arguments distort policy debates by inducing biased group perceptions.

The context of the debate is this. In representative democracies, the way in which government officials justify decisions is critical to sustaining legitimacy – support for the government necessary for the political system to survive. Even good policy decisions with problematic justification can have dire consequences. Political theorists have focused their attention on what they call “comprehensive doctrines,” like religion, which divide people squarely into believers and unbelievers, ingroups and outgroups. In this way, religious justifications for policies may suggest they are less for the public at large and more for a specific group, helping to unwind the democratic system as a way of peacefully resolving disputes in the public interest. Put more simply, religious arguments may be a “conversation stopper” as Richard Rorty put it, and debate is the key to democratic politics. When the talking stops, what comes next is likely to get someone hurt.

We conducted an experiment in which a candidate running for office offers a stance on assisted dying, either supportive or opposed. Each of those stances was either justified by a secular argument or a religious one. For instance, the religious argument for opposing assisted dying was, “Human beings are made in God’s image. Life is the greatest gift from God. This prohibits the deliberate ending of a human life, including our own. Legalisation would be sinful.” The secular argument was, “Research from around the world shows that legalisation would endanger the most vulnerable in our society, break the relationship of trust that exists between patients and doctors, and create pressures to expand the right to die to an ever-wider range of cases.”

Participants in the experiment (which took place at the University of Warwick, in the UK)[1] did not see the candidate similarly, regardless of the justification or policy position. Justification matters. We asked how religious the candidate was and the response depended on the policy stance and justification as the figure below shows. The candidate making the conservative argument (against assisted dying) was seen as the most religious and the secular conservative was seen as more religious than the candidate making the religious case in favour of assisted dying. Conservatism appears almost interchangeable with religiosity at this moment in the UK. But there are also differences in how religious and secular participants see the candidates. Secular participants see the conservative candidate as being more religious and the liberal candidate as less religious. That is, politics is clearly signalling religion to this sample.

Perceived Candidate Religiosity by Assisted Dying Position and Justification

Distortions seen in the religiosity of the candidate are arguably less important than the way in which their politics are viewed. The following figure shows the perceived ideology of the candidate. There are almost no differences in how religious and secular participants see the candidate (except the secular-liberal candidate), but the religious justification distorts this debate significantly. The candidate taking the liberal stance (for assisted dying) but using a religious justification is seen as more to the right than the candidate taking the conservative stance with a secular justification. In this view, religion is clearly signaling ideology to participants almost regardless of the politics of the issue.

These results show that, while religion is not the automatic bar to conversation that some have made it out to be, the use of religious discourse can nevertheless have a distorting effect on policy debates. There is considerable evidence against the claim that religious arguments are easily translatable and will have no distorting effects on public debate. Rather, seeing religious arguments triggers the universally-held stereotype that the cue-giver is conservative (almost) regardless of their actual politics.

According to the ‘public reason’ arguments, however, only the distortions that cleave the electorate are truly problematic. If religious justification separates believers from unbelievers, then democratic politics is likely to break down. But what about the case where everyone shares the same distorted stereotype? Public reason is concerned with divisive rhetoric, so when people are united in what rhetoric means (religious argument = conservative), then it does not present a democratic problem. Of course, it creates other problems – this scenario does not reflect ideal debate, where people take policy ideas seriously.

It would be wrong to simply assume that religion is a conversation stopper, but further studies are needed into the real-world effects of secular and religious language across issue areas and differing national contexts. In particular, we need to understand the contexts in which religion’s involvement in public debate plays these different roles – as partner, as heuristic distorter, and as conversation stopper.

Steven Kettell, University of Warwick, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies and a co-editor of the journal, British Politics. Further information can be found on his website.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of (posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.


1. The participants were 332 students in an introduction to politics course. The sample was remarkably diverse, not much out of line with the British population, though obviously aside from their age and education level. Critically, the proportion of religious nonaffiliates (55%) was about the same as the general population (52%). Randomization was successful on most dimensions except for race. We included covariates in our models to help even out this disparity statistically.

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