Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Belonging, Behaving, and Believing: Assessing the Role of Religion on Presidential Approval

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Belonging, Behaving, and Believing: Assessing the Role of Religion on Presidential Approval

Article excerpt

We operationalize three dimensions of religion-religious affiliation, religious commitment, and religious belief-to offer a detailed analysis of how religion affects presidential approval ratings. Using data from the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 American National Election Studies, we demonstrate that operationalizing religion as a rudimentary Protestant-Catholic affiliation dichotomy masks its influence on presidential approval. We find that religious affiliation, even when measured more precisely than with a Protestant-Catholic dichotomy, contributes less to models of presidential approval than do measures of religious commitment and (especially) orthodoxy of religious belief.

Keywords: presidential approval; religion and politics; evangelical Protestants; religious commitment

Until recently, scholars of religion and politics have had little to say about religion and the presidency (but see Guth 2000, 2004; Rozell and Whitney 2007a, 2007b; Walz 2001) and even less to say about religion's relationship to presidential approval (but see Guth 2000). This oversight is surprising given a substantial body of research demonstrating that religion is one of the key sociocultural factors shaping the American political landscape (Layman 2001; Leege et al. 2002; Putnam 2000; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995).

Conventional wisdom suggests that religion should play a role in structuring the ways in which citizens evaluate the president's performance in office. Religious factors have been shown to structure Americans' political attitudes and behaviors (Green et al. 1996; Kohut et al. 2000; Layman 2001; Leege and Kellstedt 1993), and religious congregations facilitate political learning and mobilization (Djupe and Gilbert 2003, 2006; Djupe and Grant 2001; Gilbert 1993; Putnam 2000; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995; Wald, Owen, and Hill 1988, 1990). Moreover, presidents frequently use religious rhetoric to appeal to various electoral and policy constituencies (Shogan 2006).

Presidential approval ratings are a key gauge of citizens' belief in the legitimacy of the American polity at a given point in time. Because religion contributes to feelings of patriotism and regime support (Bellah 1967; Bellah and Hammond 1980; Smidt 1980; Wuthnow 1988), we should expect religion also to play a role in structuring presidential approval. The extant literature does demonstrate that religious affiliation, religious commitment, and religious belief are related to partisanship and voting behavior (Kohut et al. 2000; Layman 2001; Leege et al. 2002). However, partisanship, voting behavior, and presidential approval are distinct constructs. Even though partisanship usually is the most significant predictor of presidential approval (Edwards 1983, 2003), religion (however it is operationalized) is of course no proxy for party identification.

In this study, we analyze whether and why presidential approval varies along three dimensions of religion: religious affiliation ("belonging"), religious commitment ("behaving"), and religious belief ("believing"). We will show that the Protestant-Catholic religious affiliation dichotomy traditionally used in studies of presidential approval is an insufficient measure of religion's influence on public approval of a president's performance in office. Other studies have shown quite convincingly that the Protestant-Catholic dichotomy is deficient as a measure of religion's effect on other dimensions of political attitudes and behaviors, but presidential-approval scholars have not yet taken note of this insight. We will further demonstrate that religious commitment and religious belief have more significant effects on presidential approval than does religious affiliation.

Religion and the Study of Presidential Approval

Presidents often find themselves governing within a dynamic and unpredictable political environment that can determine the amount of political support they will receive from the mass public. …

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