Michele Margolis: For Many, Religious Beliefs Are Actually Determined by Politics

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Ms. Margolis is the author of “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity.”

by Michele Margolis

At first glance, President Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court would seem a perfect reminder of why so many religious white Americans vote Republican: to promote conservative moral values. Religious values. Their values. The values that — the story goes — devout white Protestants and Catholics want to see in Washington.

As it turns out, that narrative has it partly backward. It’s not just that our religious beliefs affect our politics — it’s that our politics affect our religious choices. We don’t just take cues about politics from our pastors and priests; we take cues about religion from our politicians.

To see this, consider that as recently as the 1970s, white Republicans were no more religious than white Democrats. Today they are nearly 20 percent more likely to go to church regularly and likewise about 20 percent more likely to believe in God.

The familiar explanation is that this religiosity gap arose because religious Americans shifted into the Republican Party while less religious and secular Americans became Democrats. Supposedly, this sorting began in response to the changing political landscape of the 1970s and 1980s, when social issues were intensely debated, religious elites like Jerry Falwell rose to prominence, and Republican politicians increasingly focused on morality and faith.

But this explanation misses a key fact: Most Americans choose a political party before choosing whether to join a religious community or how often to attend religious services.

Faith often becomes a peripheral concern in adolescence and young adulthood — precisely the years when we tend to form stable partisan attachments. Religion typically becomes relevant again later, after we have children and start to think about their religious upbringings. By that time, our political views are set, ready to guide our religious values and decisions.

This is precisely the pattern that produced the religiosity gap between Democrats and Republicans. In 1965, M. Kent Jennings and Richard Niemi conducted a survey of over 1,500 American high school seniors, and then followed up with those people when they were in their 20s and 30s, and at 50.

Analyzing these data, I find that twentysomething Democrats and Republicans were equally secular: Most had pulled away from religion after high school, and Democrats and Republicans did so at similar rates. But nine years later, Republicans had become much more likely to attend church than their Democratic counterparts. In contrast, even those who bucked the secular trend and remained religious in their 20s were no more likely than less religious members of their cohort to join the Republican ranks in their 30s.

In other words, those who were already Republican sought out kindred political spirits at church, while Democrats opted to spend their Sundays elsewhere.

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SOURCE: The New York Times

Michele Margolis is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity.”