Religious identity shapes voters’ views

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“Religious identity matters in politics,” Thomas Hirschl says, “but its effect is contingent on the individual’s social location.” Resolving social questions like poverty and childhood hunger “may require speaking across religious and secular worldviews, and then agreeing on a course of action. Our research suggests that this should be possible given that religious, as well as secular, interpretations of society are strongly influenced by economic and social circumstances.”

CORNELL (US)—How Americans vote is strongly linked to their religious identities, but it is not an independent influence that transcends race, socio-economic class, and gender.

“Religious identity serves as a language of social and political interpretation,” says Thomas Hirschl, professor of development sociology at Cornell University and first author of a study published in the December issue of Social Sciences Quarterly.

“But this interpretation depends upon the material circumstance of the interpreter.”

The study found, for example, that “white support for Republicans is fractured by religious tradition, biblical authority, social class, and gender,” while black support for Democrats is equally strong across religious tradition, biblical authority, social class, and gender, and “in no way resembles the fractured pattern of white religious partisanship.”

In looking at social class, “wealthy interpreters see things differently than poor interpreters,” says Hirschl.

The tendency of Protestants, Catholics, and others to vote Republican increases with income, the researchers say.

Specifically, wealthy biblical literalist Protestants vote strongly Republican, while low-income biblical literalist Protestants still favor Republicans, but much more weakly.

On the other hand, biblical literalist, low-income Catholics tend to vote Democratic; and the link between wealthy Catholics and the Democratic Party is much weaker.

“We believe this reflects differing interpretations of the Bible, where lower-class Catholics, versus Protestants and upper-class Catholics, believe the Bible advocates social redistribution, and that this interpretation is associated with a preference for the Democrats,” explains Hirschl.

As for gender and religious identity’s influence on voter’s choice, men favor the Republican Party more than women.

“Women tend to want more government programs to support children, child care, and social services, but this varies by biblical belief, race, and social class,” the study finds.

“Religious identity matters in politics,” Hirschl says, “but its effect is contingent on the individual’s social location.”

Resolving social questions like poverty and childhood hunger “may require speaking across religious and secular worldviews, and then agreeing on a course of action. Our research suggests that this should be possible given that religious, as well as secular, interpretations of society are strongly influenced by economic and social circumstances.”

The study is based on the authors’ analysis of data on 5,543 individuals from the General Social Survey that covered six presidential elections, from 1980 to 2000.

Researchers from Penn State contributed to the study, which was supported by the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station.

Cornell University news: www.news.cornell.edu

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  1. Stephen W. O'Driscoll

    There is a new study out that indicates more people are “mixing and matching” their religious beliefes. Christianity and astrology, for example, or Buddism and Judism. How will this influence religious content of politics?

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