Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Political Participation: Does Religion Matter?

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Political Participation: Does Religion Matter?

Article excerpt

Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) posit that variation in ethnic group political participation, while related to socioeconomic differences among them, is derived from the acquisition of civic skills through their associational memberships and, in particular, from their experiences in church. Catholic and Protestant churches were hypothesized to develop different levels of such skills, and Verba et al. suggested that the relatively low level of Latino political participation was explained by their predominantly Catholic affiliation. If Verba et al.'s argument is true, then we should see participatory differences within ethnic groups by denomination. An alternative hypothesis is that churches matter through their role as civic associations. In that case, denominational differences should not matter, but churchgoers should be more active than non-churchgoers. Examining the 1989-90 Latino National Political Survey and the 1990 ANES, we find that while denominational differences have some limited explanatory power for Hispanic political participation, it is in the opposite direction than that hypothesized. By far the more important contribution to an explanation of political participation is made by churches' central civic associational roles.

Among the most consistent findings in the American politics literature is that a person's degree of political participation is highly correlated with his or her socioeconomic status (SES).1 Holding socioeconomic factors constant, many of the differences in participatory behavior melt away2 However, this account has several major problems, which have been recognized for some time. While the SES model highlights some variables highly correlated with participatory behavior, it does not provide a causal explanation for this behavior. The findings are powerful, but do not go far enough in explaining how and why people participate. The consistency of the SES findings masks the fact that there has not been a fully adequate explanation for these differential rates of participation.

There have been some recent attempts to re-think socioeconomic accounts of political behavior and build a more complete causal model. One important contribution in this vein has been Verba, Schlozman, and Brady's Voice and Equality (1995). Verba et al. posit that the differences in participation rates between ethnic groups, while related to socioeconomic disparities among them, are derived from the acquisition of civic skills through associational memberships, particularly experiences in church. Catholic and Protestant churches were hypothesized to develop different levels of such skills, and Verba et al. suggest that the relatively low level of Latino political participation was explained by a predominantly Catholic affiliation.

If Verba et al.'s argument is true, we should see participatory differences within ethnic groups by denomination; e.g., Latino Protestants should be more active than Latino Catholics, and Anglo Protestants should be more active than Anglo Catholics. An alternative hypothesis is that churches make a difference in political participation through their role as civic associations. In this case, denominational differences should not matter, but participation in church should: churchgoers should be more active than non-churchgoers.

This study tests these theories with data from the 1989 Latino National Political Survey and the 1990 American National Election Survey It shows that while denominational differences have some limited explanatory power for Hispanic political participation, it is in the opposite direction than that hypothesized by Verba et al. By far the more important contribution to an explanation of political participation is made by churches' central civic associational role. This finding helps account for some of the differences between Latino participation and that of other ethnic groups, and also helps explain participatory behavior more generally. …

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