Religion And Politics In The United States Research Paper

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Contrasted with other developed Western societies, high levels of religious affiliation and practice persist in the United States. Although the USA has maintained a constitutional separation of church and state, its citizens’ religious beliefs and practices have often had political consequences. This research paper reviews theoretical and empirical literature about the mechanisms that link religion to American politics.

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1. Definitions Of Central Concepts

According to Durkheim, ‘religion’ is a form of collective memory for a society that projects order, stability, and predictability in social interactions on to the Divine will. Leege argues that ‘People (who) share a sacred community … develop the self-confidence to act in concert. Religion specifies what action to take, and religious beliefs (and religious institutions) create the obligation to act’ (Leege and Kellstedt 1993, p. 10). For the adherent, the political consequences of religious beliefs are that if life is not genuine unless lived in a religious way, so politics is not just unless its policies measure up to God’s law.

Culture and religion have a deep symbiotic relationship. ‘Culture’ is a template—in Geertz’s term ‘a set of control mechanisms’ (Geertz 1973, p. 49) for social relationships. When undergirded by religious values, culture establishes a moral order (Wuthnow 1987). Culture performs three central functions for a society: (a) it offers identity, (b) it prescribes norms for behavior, and (c) it maintains boundaries on relationships (Wildavsky 1987).

‘Politics’ refers to collective action. Politics resolves conflicts over social goals and the means for attaining them through collectively binding decisions (Easton 1953, Lasswell 1958). ‘Power,’ the ability to get others to do one’s bidding (Dahl 1956), is the central relationship in politics. Culture and religion are important to politics because they help to legitimate social hierarchies, set goals, and specify boundaries on political institutions.

In democratic societies, religious institutions are normally located in the civil society. ‘Civil society’ is that collection of cultural norms, social and economic institutions that compose a way of life but cannot legitimately employ the means of coercion. They range from freely chosen activities (voluntary associations, market transactions) to activities resulting from one’s station in society (class obligations). Since ‘church’ is in civil society and the ‘state’ potentially possesses the legitimate monopoly over the means of coercion (Max Weber, in Gerth and Mills 1946), Americans often stress the need for constitutional separation. A theocracy merging the two would be dangerous, but a public square devoid of humane religious standards for justice would lack transcendent perspectives and meaning (de Tocqueville 1958).

2. Role Of Religion In American Social And Political Life

Max Weber (in Gerth and Mills 1946) argued that to understand a nation’s religious world views, one should ask what its people are saved from and saved for. The American social system and its mythology reinforced a deep sense of equality and enterprise; one could become whatever one wanted through individual initiative. But how could some legitimately rule or become wealthy in a nation without a natural aristocracy? After all, the USA was settled heavily by those who had run foul of the law, escaped from conscription, would not submit to ecclesiastical order, or wanted nothing of the poorhouse. Creating a nation of such people, Leege et al. (in press) argue, would be a recipe for anarchy. However, a founding myth joining the Pilgrim covenant of popular sovereignty under God to the righteous life of Puritans would provide a legitimating moral order. Out of the welter of humanity, one could know whom to trust in economic relations or whom to invest with political power by their public righteousness. Evidence of religious commitment afforded social standing. From Thomas Jefferson to William Jefferson Clinton the test of religious commitment has been a test of fitness to rule.

Beyond its cultural function, religion persisted for three reasons, and each gave it a political character. First, contrary to the lazy monopoly that most European churches exercised (see Finke and Stark (1992) for a discussion of this thesis), American churches had to compete for adherents. In addition to dispensing the sacraments, churches developed a wide range of ministries, programs, and social services to attract and hold the loyalties of their members. Political interests evolved from efforts to maintain and extend such programs. Second, as economic development created an ever more complex society, and individualism became the dominant social philosophy, people needed an institution to provide meaning in everyday life. The church became that solace and gathering place for ‘people like us’ (see Fowler 1989). Yet urbanization and mass communication thrust people with very different cultural and religious values into proximity with each other (see Engels, in Benson (1979, p. 205) for a realization of how this process undercut a Marxian interpretation of historical stages). Often people felt compelled to seek state action to protect or extend their parochial values (see Hertzke (1993) for two illustrations of cultural populism in recent American politics). Third, a transformationist impulse ran deeply through American piety. Calvinism, the dominant cultural form of American religion, had specified that righteousness would be evident in diligent work, the acquisition of wealth, and charity for the less fortunate (Weber 1946). Nevertheless, righteousness was difficult in an unjust society. Society needed to be transformed from time to time to be a fitting vessel for God’s people. The Declaration of Independence, abolition of slavery, Civil War, prohibition, social work and welfare reform, labor rights, anticommunism, the Civil Rights movement, and current antiabortion politics—all were argued in the name of God. The myths of the righteous citizen and ‘the city on a hill’ not only fueled progressive reforms throughout American political history but also legitimated less-than-righteous foreign policies.

Finally, theorists argue that religion is relevant to American politics because of the permeability of its political structures. Its systems of federalism, division of powers, checks and balances, multitudes of interest groups, etc., all invite citizens to find the appropriate venue for success with their policy or issue (summarized in Wald 1997). For example, if religious groups cannot get an anti-abortion amendment out of Capitol Hill, and if the White House abandons them, they can turn to Supreme Court appointments, or they can argue for a shift in most abortion decisions at the state level (e.g., Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services 1989), where it is easier to mobilize a successful coalition locally. Most political careers in the USA depend on support at the micro level, and that is also where organized religion has its strength.

3. Mechanisms That Enhance Or Diminish The Linkage Between Religion And Politics

Much research in this field has addressed the political consequences of different ways of being religious (see Stark and Glock (1968) and Lenski (1963) for pioneering work on the dimensions of religiosity, and Leege and Kellstedt (1993) for more recent methodological work on American National Election Studies datasets). The most persistent theme is that the creedal dimension, i.e., what people believe, has powerful effects on politics. Through a complex model, Glock and Stark (1966) showed that the more orthodox the Christian beliefs, the more likely an American is anti-Semitic. The findings remained controversial, however, because of the measures for orthodoxy: The items tap beliefs common to the evangelical Protestant tradition but overlook beliefs that derive from sacramental/incarnational Christianity.

To avoid over-reliance on the beliefs dimension, many scholars, following the lead of Kellstedt (Leege and Kellstedt 1993, pp. 273–304) have developed indices from ‘minimal’ Christian beliefs/practices across several dimensions. Regarding the partisan and ideological consequences of religion, they conclude that the higher the level of religiosity, the greater the Republican loyalty and degree of conservatism— regardless of denomination (Green et al. 1996, especially Chaps. 14 and 15). Leege (1996), however, has shown that among Catholics generational and gender differences override the effects of either beliefs alone or multiple-measure indices of religiosity. Further, higher levels of religiosity among African-American Christians and among Jews are typically associated with some aspects of political liberalism and Democratic loyalty (see recent studies in Smidt and Penning (1997)). Scholars recognize a large unfinished agenda on the measurement of beliefs and practices, especially in the over-reporting of church attendance.

In some respects, greater progress is shown in the political consequences of religion as a group phenomenon. Churches and religious traditions are often reference groups, waxing and waning in salience for their adherents. They develop interests, seek either to protect their values from threat or to evangelize their values, or become the target of persecution. The last is particularly important to political mobilization. Converse’s (1966) study of Catholics in the 1960 election showed that Protestant Democrats not only left their party’s Catholic nominee, but that Catholic Republicans crossed over to Kennedy, and all Catholics were more highly mobilized. Those most likely to show the mobilization effects and to be drawn to Catholic Kennedy were not those who attended mass regularly but those who identified most closely with being Catholic. Social identification trumped social cohesion, i.e., regular interaction with fellow group members (see Turner in Tajfel (1982) for this distinction). Further, reinforcing group loyalties enhanced the attraction of Kennedy, e.g., Irish urban Catholics were drawn more to him than Polish nonurban Catholics. Thus, religious effects partake also of other cultural group identifications.

Nevertheless, frequency of interaction with fellow religionists can have profound political effects. In carefully controlled studies, group norms about political values and candidate selection are shown to be propagated through behavioral contagion among church attenders (Wald et al. 1988). Where fellow church members are also informal discussion partners, political views are most likely to be reinforced and turned into political actions (Gilbert 1993, Huckfeldt et al. 1993). Even if religious congregations are composed of like-minded people, Jelen (1991) has argued, religiously based political mobilization is unlikely to occur until a negative out-group, an external enemy, is identified.

Many leaders, both religious and political, attempt to define political agendas, issues, and choices in ways that will mobilize or demobilize religious adherents. This may or may not have political consequences. Earlier, Hadden (1969) warned that liberal activists among the Protestant clergy involved in civil rights and antiwar efforts were driving a wedge between their churches and their congregants. Quinley (1974) argued that the division was not universal, but that there was something of a two-party system emerging among the clergy: Liberals committed to social change addressed largely justice and peace issues, whereas conservatives addressed those moral issues having to do with sexuality, reproduction, family life, and national moral decline; still, the latter were less overtly involved in politics. An important study of the politics of clergy from eight Protestant denominations (excluding the catholic churches such as Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic) shows that the two-party division is very evident, the gap in political involvement has closed, and the values of the clergy can be traced directly to theological differences (Guth et al. 1997).

Do the laity follow the beat of these ordained drummers? That is a more complex matter. Most studies are limited to comparing the values and actions of clergy samples with the values and actions of laity samples from their denominations. Already, we observed that most of the action in American religion and politics is local; therefore, an appropriate design for assessing clerical cue-giving effects would use the parish or congregation as the unit of analysis. While the possibilities of controlled studies can be seen (e.g., Roozen et al. (1984), Leege et al. (1984–9), Jelen (1991), Olson (2000)), they are still largely at a typological development stage and offer samples of such small sizes that generalizations are difficult.

Promising hypotheses include the following: (a) the more consummatory the loyalty to a local church, the more influence its pastor has over the religious and political life of its people; (b) the deeper the theological understanding of each member, the more likely that moral values shared by clergy and congregants will guide political choices; (c) the greater the sense of oppression, threat, or status loss felt by church members in modern society—where the subjects of concern are the norms by which we should live—the more the receptivity to cues from religious leaders; (d) the smaller and more homogeneous or selective the religious body, the more dominant its leader’s political views; (e) the greater the legitimacy of corporate political involvement by the church, the more influential its leadership on a course of political action; (f) the more the issue concerns activities that individuals or families can influence (e.g., consequences of sexuality) rather than the product of impersonal economic forces (e.g. plant closings), the more religious leaders can define the political agenda; and (g) the greater the individual’s intrinsic level of interest in politics, the more he she will hear political cues when given by a religious leader. Impediments to political leadership by clergy abound: (a) separation of church and state illegitimatizes the more overt political actions by religious groups; (b) religious groups specialize in salvation, not public policy; (c) religious groups can lose tax exemptions and other privileges when they become too political; (d) within the pluralistic civil society, the church is only one of many groups competing for loyalty and influence; and (e) within the democratic political process, compromise is more characteristic than success on issues defined by churches as zero-sum.

Beyond the local level, churches engage vigorously in politics. Noting a leadership vacuum in many Republican county and state party organizations, Religious Right groups such as the Christian Coalition were able to consolidate dominance over about half of the state party central committees (Rozell and Wilcox 1997). On the policy advocacy front, Wuthnow (1988) has noted a great increase in the number of religious interest groups that are arranged across denominational divides. A number of scholars (see Hertzke (1988) as representative) have examined the organization and tactics of denominational and ecumenical interest groups in Washington. Although their official lobbies are small, they use the full range of inside-the-Beltway tactics. Given the decentralization of policymaking, the larger church bodies or coalitions have similar lobbies at the state level. Outside the Beltway, church interest groups seek to mobilize home district pressure through direct mail and fund-raising, letter writing and contacting, candidate ratings and thinly disguised endorsements, get-out-the-vote drives, and media dramaturgy.

A few studies have shown the impact of the public officials’ own religious beliefs and practices on their policy preferences and actions. The most comprehensive of these (Benson and Williams 1982) shows that substantial segments of both political conservatives and political liberals act from religious predispositions. The former affirm an individualism preserving religion and politics (emphasis on the ways laws create order and protect individuals from their own worst impulses), whereas the latter embrace a community-building religion and politics (emphasis on social transformation, justice, and peace). This study inspired later work by Leege and Welch (1989) where the same types were found in mass samples of Catholic laity, and by Guth et al.’s (1997) clergy study. Thus, religiously inspired public officials, clergy, and laity appear to have in common certain foundational religious beliefs that divide them from each other both theologically and politically. At the same time it is important to note that (a) a substantial proportion of public officials are only nominally religious, and (b) representational roles (read: the imperative to be reelected) constrain translating religious beliefs into public policy.

Finally, political elites in the USA need religious groups if they are to achieve their goals of election reelection. Religious group membership provides a useful basis for political market segmentation. Strategic politicians can mobilize religious group members by advocating policy interests, stressing group affinities (e.g., Kennedy as a modern Catholic, Reagan as an apostate Irish Catholic), or symbolically pillorying the ‘enemies’ of a religious group. Effective as mobilization is, demobilization of a religious group which composes part of a rival party’s majority coalition has the same impact on chances of victory. This is done by stressing how the rival party has deserted the religious group’s values (Leege et al. (in press) apply social attribution theory to understand this strategy). Over time, crystallized party images come to include the policy positions of religious groups and even the group itself. For example, the public associated evangelicals and fundamentalists with the Republican Party as early as 1964 and 1980, but they became central to the party image from 1988 to 1996.

Decisions to rely on churches for political mobilization are well advised. Using a resource theory of political participation, Verba et al. (1995) show that churches nurture skills that easily transfer to the political sector. Thus, minorities such as African-Americans associated with black churches participate more than a socioeconomic model would predict, while many Latinos associated with Catholic parishes not developing such skills participate less. Wald (1997) argues that the following skills are germane to politics derive from church participation in the USA: (a) social skills in listening, mediating, and leading; (b) awareness of public issues from a moral perspective; (c) encouragement to join other civic and community betterment activities; (d) a conviction that there is a sacred character to social obligations that transcends self-interest; and (e) the self-esteem that derives from practice with public assignments.

Empirical evidence, then, sustains the argument that religion has measurable effects on American politics, at the same time that certain styles of influence attempts are circumscribed. Basic problems of conceptualization and measurement, underspecified models, endogeneity, failure to anchor puzzles in strong social theory, and inappropriate samples continue to characterize this developing field of inquiry.


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