Religious Communication and Political Behavior

By Paul A. Djupe and Jacob R. Neiheisel

The surge of Christian nationalism in the United States has given rise to a serious debate about the role of congregations in helping the worldview spread, seemingly at the behest of Donald Trump. There is no doubt that there are Christian nationalist churches out there – Robert Jeffress’s First Baptist in Dallas is one, and so is the St. Louis suburban church profiled on Vice. But academic research makes it seem like frequent attenders are less Christian nationalist because attendance often takes a different statistical sign compared to Christian nationalism. While there’s a methodological reason for that, the broader point is that we cannot assess religious influence without capturing what people are exposed to and assessing what positions they adopt as a result. In this case, it is entirely possible that most congregations do not aid and abet Christian nationalism but enable it through a sin of omission (not confronting it). That is a very different story than thinking that most congregations are training grounds for the conflation of national and religious identities. So, which is it?

The only way to sort this out is to assess what arguments are in the air and from which sources. That is, we urge researchers to attempt to capture communication dynamics in order to understand religious influence. We have been urging this path for years and now have a fairly comprehensive review of how that work has been done and what it finds. Efren Perez and Stephen Nicholson invited us to write about our religion and politics research and the result is “The Religious Communication Approach and Political Behavior.” Due to a deal with Ohio universities, it is available Open Access from Wiley. In this short post we highlight what we believe are several takeaways from the religious communication approach that illustrate how it helps to shape our understanding of the intersection of faith and politics in a way that adds considerable nuance to the overall picture.

A considerable amount of religion and politics work takes as its inspiration the rise of the religious right in the 1970s – when political actors worked to shift Southern Democrats to the Republican Party through culture wars issue advocacy. The religious communication approach, by contrast, starts earlier to consider what happened to the mainline in the 1960s when many clergy engaged with civil rights and the Vietnam War. As a result, many churches lost donations and members and the big slide of the mainline began. As best as we can tell, political engagement actually increased after that point, however. And recent research finds that political engagement is something that highly active congregations offer to their members as a matter of course. This, of course, is a very different lesson than one gets elsewhere, wherein top-down processes (e.g., overtures from GOP elites) are central to the overall narrative rather than bottom-up, “demand side” understandings rooted in a view of religious institutions that care deeply for matters of organizational maintenance – matters that confront many groups, religious and secular alike.

At the same time, a growing literature finds that politics drives religious decisions (such as by Hout and Fischer and Michele Margolis). If the Christian Right’s politics is increasing the number of religious nones, considering exposure is crucial to understanding why and which people are leaving churches and religion. Liberals are not exposed to Christian Right-style politics in congregations, conservatives are, so it is not surprising that conservatives who are not on board with the Christian Right were more likely to leave their congregations. We also find that leaving religion is a two-stage process. People disaffiliate first and then reconsider their identity once they have left. In the panel data we considered, there was not a single case of the opposite. We also consider the importance of salience of politics. Political disagreement is likely to be present in congregations but dormant until some event makes it salient – clergy, denominational conflict, a political campaign, etc. We find that state rates of the religious nones increased when the Christian Right was visible and there was a ballot measure that made their politics salient.

It has become an article of faith that liberal shifts in same-sex marriage attitudes have been causing the decline of religion, which by and large opposed the practice at the time, as Sean Bock shows. However, in our recent paper in American Politics Research that follows the religious communication approach, we find that people were changing their opinion in both directions (though somewhat more liberal in total) for and against same-sex marriage from 2006 to 2012. As a result, people in a once-comfortable congregation found themselves newly in disagreement and were more likely to draw down their attendance and leave the congregation as a result. This means 2006 liberals who shifted more anti-same sex marriage and 2006 conservatives who shifted more pro-same sex marriage (yes, these both exist in sizable numbers) were more likely to move away from their 2006 congregation.

In political participation research, researchers often treat congregations as vending machines of civil skills – people pay in group involvement and get fungible leadership skills in exchange. This suggests congregations are the great equalizers in democracies beset by inequalities in educational and professional access. It is not wise to ignore the fact that congregations are composed of people and that organizations have imperatives to survive. The implications, we show across multiple papers, is that religious groups prioritize people with existing leadership skills to run groups, which has a deleterious effect on women’s civic skill development and means congregation-gained skills are often redundant. Taken together, congregations often aggregate the biases of their members, which also means that congregations may be the sum of community relationships without adding to it, as we find in a piece about the political activity of Latinos.

There is a lot more to the piece and to the religious communication approach, in general. As we argue, the religious communication approach is portable across time, contexts, and even travels well to other faiths – particularly those within the Abrahamic tradition. Crucially, it also holds the possibility for illuminating the mechanisms that connect religion with political behavior. Analytic strategies that primarily focus on denominational families or church attendance merely enlist proxies for the goings-on inside houses of worship. They can tell us, for instance, that Christian nationalism is widespread among evangelicals, thereby identifying the locus of this distressing worldview that appears to be gaining steam among many on the political right. They cannot tell us, however, whether this is a causal relationship – that evangelical religious elites and evangelical churches more generally are actively inculcating such a belief system – or is simply a correlation, with significant overlap between certain denominational affiliations and support for Christian nationalism coming as a result of other shared features (e.g., geography or partisanship). Examples such as these make it clear that there are further avenues of research to explore that take seriously religious communication and the communities in which that happens.

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

Jacob R. Neiheisel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and a faculty affiliate with the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program at the University at Buffalo-SUNY. Additional information about his research can be found on his website.

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