Religious Identification and Legislative Voting: The Mormon Case

By Cann, Damon M. | Political Research Quarterly, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Religious Identification and Legislative Voting: The Mormon Case


Cann, Damon M., Political Research Quarterly


While religion has profound effects on political behavior in mass publics, less is known about the effect of religion on political elites. This article considers the extent to which religious identification influences the roll-call voting behavior of Mormon members of the U.S. House of Representatives. While some aspects of Mormonism make it seem like a likely case for religious influence, the literature on legislative decision making provides no theoretical rationale for religious influence on legislative roll-call voting. A simple empirical test finds that Mormon representatives are no more unified in their voting behavior man are randomly selected sets of legislators.

Keywords: religion and politics; roll-call voting; Mormons; legislative cohesion

Notwithstanding the commitment to the separation of church and state in the United States, religion still plays an important role in American politics. While constitutional provisions restrict governmental involvement in many religious matters, the freedom of consciousness virtually guarantees religion will influence human behavior in the political sphere.

Religion and religious activities have been shown to have a profound effect on the behavior of citizens generally. Individuals who attend church are more likely to vote (Brady, Verba, and Schlozman 1995; Djupe and Grant 2001). Religious affiliation has been shown broadly to affect vote choice across many presidential elections (Brooks and Manza 1997). Protestants were more likely to vote for Bush in 2000, especially those who identify themselves as "born-again" Christians and those who show a high degree of religious commitment (Abramson, Aldrich, and Rohde 2002). Evangelical Christians in areas with large numbers of secularists respond to religious threat, making them even more likely to support the Republican candidate for president (Campbell 2006). Presidential candidates regularly make religious appeals that are both explicit and "coded" so as to only be recognized by a particular group (Albertson 2006).

Given that the influence of religion in the mass public is so strong, it is logical to wonder about the effect of religious affiliation on elites. Some evidence suggests that the religious beliefs of voters in a congressional district have a substantial effect on roll-call votes cast by their representative (Green and Guth 1991). If representative democracy is taken to be normatively good, an arrangement where legislators vote according to the wishes of their constituency (whether generated from their religious beliefs or from other values) may actually be desirable. Nevertheless, research on political elites across the institutions of American government suggests that elite behavior is shaped not only by the characteristics of constituencies but also by the characteristics of elites themselves (Levitt 1996; Tate 1981). The possibility thus exists that elected officials could set aside the preferences of their constituency and vote on the basis of their personal religious values. This potentiality has been a point of contention in presidential elections, where religious candidates have, at times, been characterized as having their first loyalties to their religion rather than to the nation.

Such religious influence could stem from a number of factors, including the cultural norms of a religion, adherence to a particular set of religious texts, or even the direct influence of religious leaders. The latter charge has typically been directed at candidates who affiliate with hierarchically structured religions. In particular, public concerns have peaked around Catholic and Mormon (Latter-Day Saints, or LDS) candidates such as Alfred E. Smith (1928), John F. Kennedy (I960), George Romney (1968), and Mitt Romney (2008). Regardless of the source of religious influence, it seems clear that religion has influenced some U.S. presidents (Berggren and Rae 2006; Berggren 2005). Nevertheless, influence is difficult to quantify, particularly given the small number of observations to consider in the presidential context. …

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