How Does Political Identity Influence Religious Affiliation? A Cultural Cognition Perspective

It is commonly believed that a person's religious identity influences their political leanings. If you're an evangelical Christian, there's a good chance that you affiliate with the Republican Party. If you're a Mainline Protestant, there's a good chance that you affiliate with the Democratic Party. But what if the direction of influence is, in fact, reversed? What if it's the other way around? What if the reality is that a person's political identity actually influences their religious affiliation?

Dr. Kevin S. Seybold, professor of psychology at Grove City College, examined the role of cultural cognition on current religious and political trends. He argues that cultural commitments and values, such as group membership and identity, influence the position individuals take on a variety of religious and political topics, which can then lead to polarization on these issues within the broader society.

While people might expect that religious affiliations play an important role in determining a person’s political views, his article, featured in the Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry (SHERM), seeks to identify whether the reverse is also true, namely the extent to which political views affect an individual’s religious affiliation.

Indeed, Michele Margolis in her recent book, From Politics to the Pews, provides longitudinal data to support her thesis that political motivations drive religious belief, behavior, and belonging. Margolis argues that people also align their religious involvement with their political perspectives. In other words, political partisans select into or out of religious communities based on their political outlook. They find themselves, therefore, in “politically homogeneous social networks.” Once embedded in these homogeneous in-groups, they are exposed only to political views (as well as theological perspectives) that are consistent with the in-group. Thus, the church becomes a type of echo chamber “populated by like-minded partisans.”

The "God Gap" in Politics

The term “God gap” is used to describe the fact that the more devoutly religious tend to belong to the Republican Party while the less devout are Democrats. This trend began in the 1970s and 1980s and continues today, exemplified by the white evangelical voting bloc. Why is there a close connection between religiosity and political membership? Conventional wisdom suggests that Americans rely on their religious identities to form their political judgments; they align their political identities with their preexisting religious identities.How might this alignment of religious identity with political identity look developmentally? When might this alignment take place?

To answer this question, Margolis utilizes a life-cycle theory of religion. Here, religion is typically a peripheral concern for adolescents and young adults, but other aspects of identity, such as political outlook, become much more salient during these years. When adults begin to reconsider their religious involvement, generally once they have school-aged children living at home, their religious affiliation (or disaffiliation) is driven by their already established political identifications. The longitudinal data provided by Margolis support this hypothesis. Political partisanship plays a role when religious engagement decisions are made during this portion of the religious life cycle. The empirical data show that religiosities between Republicans and Democrats diverged (the “God gap”) once people had school-aged children at home. Republicans tended to affiliate with a religious group and adopt a religious identity while Democrats generally did not.

You can read Dr. Seybold's entire article for free as part of the Global Center for Religious Research's commitment to continued exploration into uncharted and unique areas of study.

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