Academic journal article Review of European Studies

Politics, Religion, and Society: Is the United States Experiencing a Period of Religious-Political Polarization?

Academic journal article Review of European Studies

Politics, Religion, and Society: Is the United States Experiencing a Period of Religious-Political Polarization?

Article excerpt

Abstract

This study investigates the effect of religious identity on U.S. Presidential voter choice in order to determine whether this relationship changed over time. The research literature is divided on this question with several investigators finding a positive trend in religious-political polarization since 1980, and others finding no polarization. The study further addresses a putative link between social inequality and religious politics by identifying the race, class, and gender location of religiously influenced voters, using multiple cross sections from the General Social Survey to empirically model Presidential voting over the period 1980 to 2008. The findings demonstrate that religious identity influenced voter choice, and that this influence increased significantly and substantially across the study period. Second, that upper class whites are the source of religious partisan polarity, and upper class whites became more polarized over the period 1980 to 2008. The effect of gender on partisanship is less pronounced, and overshadowed by social class and religious identity. The study findings demonstrate that religiously influenced Presidential voting reflects the political behavior of a relatively privileged component of the electorate.

Keywords: religious identity, politics, social stratification, ideology, race, class, gender, US presidential voter choice

(ProQuest: ... denotes formula omitted.)

1. Introduction

Social science research indicates that religious identity is a driver of political behavior within the United States. This finding is broadly confirmed, for example in empirical investigations of Presidential voter choice conducted since World War II (Converse, 1964; Greeley & Hout, 2006; Knoke, 1974; Manza & Brooks, 1997; Regenerus, Sikkink, & Smith, 1999; Sherkat & Ellison, 1999). There are multiple interpretations of this empirical relationship, perhaps because it is not obvious why, or how, voter choice is subject to religious identity, the former defined by the here and now, the latter by the hereafter (Billings & Scott, 1994; Woodberry & Smith, 1998). It is also the case that prominent European founders of social science predicted the demise of religion in favor of secular worldviews. Because comparative analysis indicates that religious beliefs and practices are more pervasive within the United States relative to most European nations (Inglehart & Baker, 2000), it is tempting to view Weber's (2004) and Durkheim's (2001) predictions of secularization as a product of their European experience. At least for the case of U.S. Presidential voter choice, the influence of religious identity appears not to have diminished.

In this study we investigate the trend line in the affect of religious identity on U.S. Presidential voter choice in order to determine whether this relationship has, in fact, changed over time. The research literature is divided on this question with several investigators finding a positive trend in religious-political polarization since 1980 (Gelman, Park, Shor, & Cortina, 2010; Fiorina, Abrams, & Pope, 2011:134; Layman, 2001; 1997), and others finding no polarization (Brooks & Manza, 2004; Manza & Brooks, 1997). This task is both empirical and interpretive because an empirical trend is unimportant in the absence of substantive interpretation. However in fashioning an interpretation we are confronted by difficulties related to the broad import of a research question that touches upon several areas of social science inquiry including political science, political sociology, religious studies, the sociology of religion, and social stratification. The latter is pertinent because the period in question is defined by widening economic inequality, hence a computed trend line should allow for economic differences, given that these differences were changing across the study period. Research that spans multiple areas of social science inquiry is demanding because each area has its own preference set regarding research procedures, including differing approaches to measuring religious identity. …

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