Religion and its Effect on Political

Party Affiliation






America faces a unique dilemma when addressing the issue of religion in a political setting.  Though it is explicit in our constitution that the separation of church and state is mandatory in the maintenance of a successful nation, religion plays an important role in politics nonetheless.  Despite legal measures to keep religious matters inside the church, the simple fact that religion plays such a significant role in the lives of most Americans should serve as an indication of the futility of notions that would eradicate its influence in public matters.  A staggering 82 percent of the American populous identifies with one religion or another.  Furthermore, when asked if they find religion to be important in society, the vast majority of respondents (79 percent) held that religion is indeed important (Wald 2003)..  Obviously, religious sentiment is so ingrained in society that its effects cannot help but be seen in the political arena.   Through interconnection as simple as the religious sentiments of those who have active roles in the creation and implementation of policy, or through the pandering of government to the special interests of different religious organizations, religion colors the fabric of American politics in a very real and sometimes alarmingly influential manner.  It has been my interest to uncover the religious make-up of the two major political parties, to find out just what religious organizations gravitate to which political party and why this is so.         


Discussion of Research Problem

As is apparent even through superficial research into the lives of most prominent politicians, their religious leanings are always brought into the public eye.  Religious belief is

either worn as a proud demarcation of their personal moral standing and virtuous character, as in

the case of the current President George W. Bush, or as a seeming character flaw to be overcome as in the case of John F. Kennedy.  Regardless of whether it is seen as a positive or negative attribute, it is never completely overlooked.  America has a seeming fixation on morality.  Morality therefore must have a benchmark, or a measurable means of assessment.  Religion then becomes this gauge by which the American people can assess the virtues of political leaders.

Clearly then, due to the American party system of election, certain polarities of religious and moral tendencies between democrats and republicans have risen out of the people’s desire to associate with those who believe similarly in both religion and public policy issues.  The problem then is which religious groups have influence in which party and why?  Why this is an important question to ask is because if religious organizations hold too great an influence over either party, the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state would not truly be fulfilled in the practice of American politics.  Often sectarian groups influence parties through major financial contributions or through grass roots movements through the organization which promise the privilege of vast electoral support.   

A good example of the powerful influence religion can have on politics is the staggering coercive efficacy of the modern Catholic church in America.  The Catholic church is, by far, the largest special interest group in America in terms of sheer number.  Even the American Association of Retired People, which boasts a hefty membership of over 300,000 , pales in comparison to the might of the Catholic church (Perry 1997).  Thus, it is important for political scientists to note the religious groups that affiliate with each party so that they may better understand the motives behind policies that may have been influenced by religious interests.

Yet another religious group that holds considerable power in American politics in terms of foreign policy is Judaism.  This group, though a minority throughout the country, has made significant strides in achieving important political status through lobbying and campaign contribution.  Jews most often associate themselves with the democratic party, and through such prominent political figures as Senator Joseph Lieberman, they have made great inroads towards political power.  Due to their religious similarities with Christianity, the most prevalent religion in America, Jews hold America’s sympathy.  It is mainly for this reason that America’s posture towards the Jewish/Palestinian conflict has been one of decided preference for the plight of the Jews.  Thus, America stands as one of Israel’s most fervent, powerful, and effective advocates.  One can see then, that religious groups can greatly effect political action even globally.

Thesis Statement

Hopefully, by now it has been made clear that there is a problem that must be addressed in American politics, and that is just how much sway should religion hold over political action.  It is my vision that through this paper and by researching the religious make-up and polarization in the political parties, future political scientists will be more capable of assessing political action by taking into consideration the religious and thus moral interests of the parties and the politicians that come out of them.  Throughout this paper, I will discuss previous scholarly research into the area of religion in politics, propose a method of researching the effect of religion on political party affiliations, and make my own assessments of the probable outcomes of such a study. 

Literature Review

   Much time and energy has been devoted to the research and hopefully to the eventual understanding of the varying effects that religion has on American politics.  In this section of the paper I will give credit to previous scholars whose work was instrumental in helping me reach my hypotheses.  One such work by  Kenneth D. Wald called Religion and Politics in the United States  states “I work to persuade my colleagues in political science that they cannot draw a complete portrait of American politics without paying attention to the religious factor (Wald 2003, xiii).”  By this statement, one can imply that religion has so great an influence on politics in this country that without understanding religious sentiment and behavior the whole political landscape could be wrongly interpreted.  Wald goes on to make a statement that encompasses the sole purpose behind his many years of researching the religion/politics debacle.  He says pointedly,  “The central argument of this book is that religion is more important in American politics than most people realize but in different ways then they imagine.  That is, religious influences are visible in all aspects of political life–the ideas about politics we entertain, the behavior of political elites and ordinary citizens, the interpretation of public laws, and the development of governmental programs (Wald 2003, xv).”  Poignant in this statement is the pervasiveness of religion in aspects of politics that are not often thought of as effected by spirituality.   It also exemplifies the distance that the American people wish to place between the political and religious spheres, however, it also points out that despite the desire for separation the two are melded so entirely that it often makes it difficult to distinguish the interests of one sphere over the other. 

Addressing the argument that the constitution indoctrinated the separation of church and state into public policy, Wald makes an interesting assessment.  He argues that this so called separation, actually made religion all the stronger in America.  Ironically, the independence of churches from government regulation or control allowed them to become powerful independent entities capable of acting in their own interests (Wald 2003).   Religion came to be such a force due to the ever changing nature of American culture.  Americans are a highly mobile and volatile people who seek change to better their respective situations.  Thus, they have always sought to seek identity through the unifying agent found in religion.  Likewise, they seek identity through political party affiliation.  These identifying characteristics give a mobile people roots.  Therefore, it seems safe to say that religion and party affiliation are undeniably linked and both are vital to understanding the foundation of the collective American psyche.  Wald’s work was critical to this paper two-fold.  By Wald’s passion for the subject, it became clear to me that this political problem is one that is important and compelling enough to incite the passion of everyday scholars including myself.  Also, his book argued the same point as I intend to following the collection of data and that is that religious affiliation greatly effects political party affiliation. 

  Another notable work that contributed a wealth of information for this paper was Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture, and Strategic Choices by Robert Booth Fowler, Allen D. Hertzke, and Laura R. Olson.  According to Fowler, Hertzke, and Olson, religious identity is instrumental in determining why people affiliate with one political party over another.  From their studies they gathered that the two religious groups that are most closely aligned with the democratic party are Jews and African American Protestants.  Second in democratic affiliation are Catholics and Agnostics (Fowler, Hertzke, and Olson 1999).  This finding firmly supports my own belief that members of formerly oppressed religious groups are more likely to by supporters of the Democratic party for reasons of its seeming sympathy for the downtrodden.  Such information should come as no surprise to anyone who has an inkling of what policies the democratic party vehemently supports, most notably public welfare, universal healthcare, affirmative action, and paid prescriptions for the elderly. 

Fowler, Hertzke, and Olson go on to remark about which religious groups are most closely affiliated with the Republican party.  Interestingly, Protestants( in the main) were split almost directly down the center, some identifying as Republican and some as Democrat. However, the one group that almost uniformly identified as Republican were evangelical Protestants.  Again the findings reiterate my notion that members of religious sects adhering to strict principles and rigid formality are more likely to associate themselves with the Republican party which supports such policies as privatization of social security, faith-based initiatives, increased defense spending, and tax cuts that reduce the amount of revenue available for social projects.  I found these tested responses heartening in that they greatly supported my logic in finding religious links to the political identity of American individuals.

 Additionally, Michael J. Perry’s work, Religion in Politics: Constitutional and Moral Perspectives, proved highly beneficial to the research process.  Perry’s text concentrates mainly on the constitutional legality of religious influence in politics as well as the effects of morality on political behavior.  Most importantly, Perry gives the logical reasoning behind the utility of religious sentiment in politics.  Pointedly, Perry says “to disfavor religious arguments relative to secular ones would violate-the antidiscrimination meaning-of the free exercise norm.  After all, included among the religious practices protected by the free exercise norm are bearing public witness to one’s religious beliefs and trying to influence political decision making on those beliefs (Perry 1997, 33).”  By this statement, one can assume that by identifying with a specific political party based on assumptions that said party is more in keeping with the religious beliefs an individual, that that individual is actually trying to influence political decision making.  Whereby, religious influence is thus sanctioned by the constitution.  Perry’s views offer a highly analytical and logical basis for the importance of religion’s effect on party affiliation.     

Without a doubt these books were invaluable to the gathering of background information and formative research methods for my own proposal, however these works did have some limitations.  The most glaring limitation was in the scope of empirical findings. These books seemed only to focus on Anglo-European religions or African American adaptations of the same.  Entirely ignored were religions from substantially different cultures such as those from Asia or the middle east.  Given the current global situation it seems that an understanding of the religious tendencies of members of these cultures and their subsequent affiliation with a particular political party would be more than a little bit beneficial to political scientists.  Culture and religion are often closely related as are the behaviors of those who belong to these.  Therefore it is especially  important to include those religions that are “different” in studies measuring the effect of religious sentiment on party affiliation.  To ignore defeats the purpose of the study altogether.          Hypothesis

  Due in no small part to research done by the previously mentioned scholars, and in spite of any weaknesses that were uncovered, these works helped me to draw my own conclusion and make assumptions regarding the effect of religion on party affiliation.  Consequently, I propose the idea that those who are members of religious organizations adhering to a more rigid. Puritanical ideology (i.e. Protestants, Methodists, Baptists, and Mormons) will conjugate to the common political affiliation of republicanism that is known for its conservative stance on political issues.  In contrast, I postulate that those who are from less restrictive religious sects, or who have historically suffered discrimination (i.e. Jews, Black Baptists, Catholics, Muslims Latino Catholics, Black Protestants, and Buddhists), tend to move toward the democratic mode of thinking that is more liberal and prone to push for change of the status quo.  Finding the answers to the mysteries of religious influence in politics may help to explain why each of the political parties platforms their respective political agendas in the manner they do.

Discussion of Method and Research Design/Data

To test my hypothesis, it is essential to establish the causal relationship between an individual’s religion and their affiliation with either major political party.  To manipulate the findings of a test to establish the causation of religion on political affiliation, it must be decided which of the elements in the study are the independent and dependent variables.  In this model, the independent, or determining variable is the religious sentiment of the respondent.  Plainly then, the dependent variable is the political affiliation of the respondent    

To gather the data needed to verify the validity of the proposed causal relationship I would form a survey in order to gather primary source information.   To get an accurate analysis of the effects religious membership on party affiliation, I would take a sampling of the entire country to get a sense of just how important religious sentiment can be when identifying oneself with a particular political party.  Necessarily, to reduce irrelevant data, I would only include the top ten religious groups in terms of membership as well as only include the two major political parties and independents.  By including the top ten religious groups I will accomplish two things. One, I will overcome the weakness of previous research by the inclusion of non-Anglo religions, as well as foster a more agreeable rapport with the intended respondents.  Most likely, the method of sampling that I would use would most likely be a stratified variation.  I would employ this method because it is careful to include various groups within a population so that they are adequately represented by the survey.  This would take into account pockets of varying religious groups, ethnic groups, income brackets, rural and non-rural communities, as well as urban communities.  By utilizing a stratified sampling, it would only be necessary to get responses from about 1,000 people.  This number will ensure a high level of accuracy but will not offer too many unnecessary responses that would cause undue amounts of extra fieldwork.

When coding my survey information, I would likely use a code-sheet with columns that represent possible responses to the questions to the questions, “what is your religious

membership?”, and “what political party are you affiliated with?”.  For the first question the information would be placed in the first column, I would randomly assign the numbers 1 through 10 to represent each of the religious groups that I am interested in.  For the second question, I n the second column, I would assign the letters R, D, and I to reduce confusion.    


Interpretation of Expected Results

Obviously, I believe my hypothesis to be one that is well thought out and therefore accurate.  Consequently, I expect that upon retrieving data some key links will be made between the religious background of the respondents and their political affiliation.  Foremost, I expect that those religions who are fairly evangelic and puritanical in their history will identify as Republicans.  Second, I expect that those members of religions that are less stringent in their teachings and/or have had a history of discrimination will make the political choice of identification with democratic party. 

Further, I expect that members of previously overlooked religions such as Buddhism and Islam will identify with the democratic party as well.  This is so in the case of Buddhists because of their firm moral standards regarding human rights and decency to all living beings.  Because the democratic party generally associates itself with policies that promote these notions, Buddhists would feel more inclined to support democratic policies and politicians.  Members of the Islamic faith are currently more likely to identify themselves with democrats simply because of the current President and Congress.  Republican sentiment in the  has put on hold a great deal of civil liberties formerly enjoyed by members of this religion.  Thus, identification as a democrat would seem the more logical of the two choices for Muslims. 

Moreover, in regards to agnostics, I expect their responses to come out mostly mixed in party affiliation.  I came to this conclusion because I contend that those respondents that state a religious preference can clearly identify qualities in either party that are better suited to their own moral standards.  Conversely, those who are agnostic must go by the sheer policies of either party, and often these policies are reminiscent of one another making it difficult to make a political choice between them. 

Conclusions and Implications

In conclusion, the results of my research will prove that religion does matter to the political identities of the American populous.  Also, religious sentiment is extremely influential in the political process.  That being said, I move on to the implications of the findings. 

Despite critiques that would dissuade religious sentiment from being involved in the political realm of public life, I think that it has a few positive effects (as well as obvious problematic ones).  As Michael J. Perry stated, it would be impossible to tout the ideals of nondiscrimination in the political process if it excluded the voices of those with religious arguments for political action.  Often times we see religion as a right wing plot to censor public life, however, where would we be if our nation squelched the voices of even one group of its citizens?  Party affiliation is simply one way that religion is unobtrusively used to influence politics and political action.  However, I do not believe that individuals who are religious radicals in their own right should have a place in public office.  Discretion is key to being a truly successful and effective leader and such religious fervor could severely damage both the credibility of the office as well as the needs of any constituency. 

Luckily, religious sentiment and party affiliation do not amount to the certain election of religious extremists.  Quite the contrary, because the religious undertones of the political parties is so covert (mostly), the parties usually try to mask its influence making it impossible to support candidate who would be overt in their religious tonality.    Thus, religion does have a role to play in politics be it only in regards to the identification of religious people with the standards of either party.  We would not be a democracy if the voices of the vast majority of this nation (82 percent) who believe that faith in a higher power is important were stifled.             


Selected Bibliography

Audi, Robert and Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 1997. Religion in the Public Square: The place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate.  Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 

Drinan, Robert F.  1991.  The Fractured Dream: America’s Divisive Moral Choices.  New York, New York: The Crossroad Publiching Company. 

Greenwalt, Kent.  1988. Religious Convictions and Political Choice.  New York, New York:   The Oxford University Press.

Guliuzza, Frank III.  2000.  Over the Wall: Protecting Religious Expression in the Public             Square.Albany, New York: The State University of New York Press.

Jelen, Ted G. 1989.  Religion and Political Behavior in the United States.  New York, New York: Praeger Publishers of Greenwood Press, Inc.

Olson, Laura and Hertzke, Allen, and Fowler, Robert Booth.  1995.  Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture, and Strategic Choices.  Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Perry, Michael J.  1997.  Religion in Politics: Constitutional and Moral Perspectives.  New York, New York: The Oxford University Press.              

Wald, Kenneth D.  2003.  Religion and Politics in the United States, fourth edition.  Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.