Piety, Politics, and Convictions

Christopher B. Chapp and Paul Goren

Rift. Polarization. Red. Blue. Culture war. Political buzzwords paint a picture of a country being pulled apart over values and morality. Few would suggest that the unifying “civil religion” of the 1950s in any way defines contemporary American spirituality.

Our view is that the characterization of a nation divided along religious, cultural, and political lines is more or less accurate, but it is also incomplete in its diagnosis of the causes of societal fracturing. Accounts of political schisms in the US typically assume religion as the culprit. Religious differences, the story goes, lead to fundamentally different political worldviews, which lead to an absence of political compromise and a deficit in civility.

Rather than regarding religion as the source of this conflict, we see it as a casualty of a larger political battle raging. More specifically, many citizens are updating their religious convictions in order to be consistent with their relatively stable preferences on sexuality issues – namely abortion and same-sex marriage, which have been intensely politicized for decades. If we want today’s political buzzwords to shift from “division” to “consensus,” change needs to begin with our politics.

A Closer Look

In an article forthcoming in The American Political Science Review, we take on the question of religious and political change by examining opinion polls dating back to 1992 – the year Pat Buchanan delivered his infamous “culture wars” speech at the Republican National Convention. A key feature of our analysis is the use of “panel data,” in which the same individuals are re-interviewed years later. This allows us to examine how the same individual might change her religious and political preferences over a number of years, and, just as important, identify those preferences that are unchanging.

The assumption has long been that one’s religiosity (whether denominational affiliation or frequency of worship attendance) is relatively stable over the course of life, and serves as a foundation for political issue positions. The notion that religion is the origin of our political judgments has been advanced in numerous academic works, and is also a staple of political rhetoric. As Mike Pence remarked when he introduced himself as the 2016 Republican vice-presidential candidate, “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.”

Though no doubt some people do update their views on LGBTQ rights and abortion to mesh with their religious moorings, it is just as likely, if not more so, that the opposite happens.

Imagine a woman who, in 2008, attended worship services regularly and viewed the Bible as inerrant, but also held left-of-center attitudes on women’s reproductive rights. The data suggests that by 2016 she probably attends church a little less often, espouses a less literalist interpretation of scripture, and is more likely to identify as a Democrat, while her attitudes on abortion continue to look a lot like they did in 2008.

Likewise, a pro-life Democrat who was relatively secular in his religious practices would likely move in the Republican direction over time and begin occasionally praying before meals, while his abortion attitudes would waver less. In contrast to Pence, many of our survey respondents were likely to be conservative (or liberal) on social issues, Christians (or not), and Republicans (or Democrats), in that order.1

Why do our survey respondents typically update their religiosity to mesh with their issue preferences on sexuality? Though we can only speculate, several things are clear. First, there is something unique about the so-called “culture war issues.” We tested a range of other issues for their power to shift individuals’ religiosity. Most other issues – from economic judgments to opinions about civil rights – actually shift a great deal over time. The unique status of abortion and LGBTQ rights fits with emerging evidence in psychology that says responses to issues involving human sexuality have a biological basis.2

Partisan Persistence

Some therefore conclude that the partisan politics of sexuality is here to stay and we simply need to live with the consequences. The pressure to politicize such issues is partly due to a media environment that is increasingly devoid of countervailing signals. Political science has documented the effects of partisan echo chambers on one’s political thinking. We tend to self-select into ideologically reinforcing media markets, and dismiss dissonant information as either biased or false if we encounter it at all.

However, we suggest an alternative. Though attitudes on matters involving human sexuality tend to be quite stable over time, they need not be universally politicized.

There is likely a role here for leaders of faith communities to help abate the endemic ideological feuding in the current political climate. As many political observers have noted, the past few decades have produced more consistent ideologues who are homogenously liberal or conservative. Nearly gone are the days of the liberal Republican or the conservative Democrat. Our research suggests that religious identities have mapped onto political ones, such that it is increasingly unacceptable to be a secular “none” who is pro-life or an LGBTQ-rights advocate  who is evangelical. Religious leaders are not leading the flock to political conformity. Rather, the flock is fragmenting and finding political pastures that suit them best. If communities of faith are to remain approachable and welcoming, they need to embrace a degree of political pluralism or neutrality. The key is to avoid political prerequisites for membership.

Converts are Rare

This election season, we have seen stump speeches, talking heads, and party platforms send wellscripted signals about an unending culture war and declare where archetypal Republicans, Democrats, believers, and nonbelievers ought to land on the issues. Make no mistake: Few will be persuaded. The number of new converts to the cause – left or right – is minimal. Instead, these issue-based appeals will reinforce existing cleavages. For those interested in refocusing the conversation on shared values and pluralism, the challenge is to create a space where religious adherence and community are allowed to grow without the distraction of posturing on political issues.

Christopher B. Chapp is assistant professor of political science at St. Olaf College. He is the author of Religious Rhetoric and American Politics: The Endurance of Civil Religion in Electoral Campaigns (Cornell, 2012). Paul Goren is Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of On Voter Competence (Oxford, 2013).


  1. Readers will note that in the past decade, public opinion has shifted toward greater acceptance of LGBTQ rights, which, at first glance, is inconsistent with the claim that these attitudes are stable. We offer two explanations: First, macro-level change does not necessarily mean individual change. Part of the reason for the liberalization of LGBTQ attitudes is liberal young people are replacing more conservative older Americans in the electorate. Second, all attitudes change over time. Our data merely suggests that attitudes involving the politics of human sexuality are quite stable compared to religious belief and behavior. Clearly, this is a question that calls for additional research.
  2. We point to recent work by Koleva et al., http:// www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/ S0092656612000074, and Hibbing, Smith, and Alford, Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences (Routledge, 2013), as evidence.