Consequences of Drawing Lines in the Faith Sand

By Paul A. Djupe

Last week I investigated whether US Protestants were intolerant of political diversity within their ranks and found that such line drawing was common, especially among Republican Protestants. Then sociologist and all-around great guy Art Farnsley replied on Twitter:

He’s potentially right. While I showed that intolerance for political diversity was linked to Christian nationalism (a highly exclusive worldview) as well as religious exclusivity, I did not show definitively that narrow definitions of being a “good Christian” are linked to negative feelings toward the other side. So, let’s take a look and then continue thinking about the consequences of religious intolerance for political diversity.

Overall in this sample of Protestants that I gathered with Ryan Burge in Fall 2019, there was no link between intolerance for political diversity and affective partisan polarization. (I measured polarization by taking the difference between their feelings toward Democrats minus their feelings toward Republicans and then taking the absolute value – higher on the scale means more polarized, where they like one party more than the other.)

However, that overall non-finding was obscuring something much more interesting, that the link between polarization and religious intolerance toward political diversity was different for different party identifiers. As the following figure shows, more inclusivity (more tolerance) for political diversity drives down polarization for Republicans, which is what we expect to see. The least inclusive Republican Protestants had a polarization score of 77, while the most inclusive were far less polarized (~30 points less).

For Protestant Democrats, the relationship was the exact opposite – more inclusivity of political difference is associated with more polarization. While this was not what I expected to see, there is a logic to it that is at the heart of partisan differences. Democrats have a different style of doing politics than Republicans that the 2016 and 2020 elections make clear. Democrats in 2016 defended the groups that Trump kept attacking – immigrants, Muslims, women, hispanics, the disabled. Democratic pursue a politics of tolerance and inclusion. In 2020, Trump and Republicans are trying to make hay out of so-called “cancel culture” and are stoking fear about minorities moving to white communities and banning Christianity. The difference in their politics is not ideological, except to the extent that government is a tool for inclusive equality or narrow group interest. But is instead fundamentally concerned with tolerance for diverse groups.

If the partisan link is clear, whether there is a link to religion is less so. That is, Christian inclusion of political difference could simply be mirroring a partisan style and may not have a religious corollary. To see, we asked a battery of questions (see this note for the full text of the questions) whether churches should be involved in politics or stay out, which scaled well together (alpha=.77). The following figure shows how religious inclusion of political difference is linked to church political involvement by partisanship.

It turns out that the same basic pattern can be found in preferences about religious/church involvement in politics. The more inclusive that Republicans are in their definition of who can be a good Christian, the less they want church involvement in politics. On the other hand, the more that Democrats and especially independents are inclusive of political diversity, the more they want the church involved in politics. To me, this confirms that partisan styles of doing politics have roots or at least parallels in different church cultures. Liberal church culture is inclusive, which promotes a preference for inclusive politics. Conservative church culture is both, to be fair, but has a much higher degree of exclusion, which the Republican Party feeds on and amplifies. When these align, people want their religion involved in politics and have little warmth toward those pursuing different political styles.

Across these two posts, I’ve found that Christian inclusion of political difference is not high, especially among Republican Protestants. It is linked to religious values promoting exclusion as well as the political exclusionary worldview of Christian nationalism. This is not a private belief with no public consequences – this is not a throwaway “bless your heart” viewpoint. Religious exclusion of political diversity is linked to greater polarization and greater desire for church involvement in politics among Republicans, while religious inclusion is linked to greater polarization and desire for more church involvement among Democrats. The results point to a vertical integration of religious values and political styles that combine to define a chasm between the political parties.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the book 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.


The battery of church involvement in politics asked, “Please indicate which statements are closer to your opinion by choosing a dot closer to the statement you agree with. Each statement completes the sentence: “Churches and other houses of worship should…” The pairs of statements were (each on a 5 point scale):

Express their views on political questions….Keep out of political matters.

Come out for or against candidates….Not express opinions on candidates.

Help register people to vote….Not help register people to vote.

Provide forums for political discussion….Avoid political discussion.

Actively support good government practices….Let government succeed or fail on its own.

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