The Influence of Religious-Political Sophistication on U.S. Public Opinion

Eric R. Schmidt

Political science will always have a place for scholars of religion and American politics. But there is perennial hand-wringing over the virtue of large-n survey instruments involving religion. And there is an urgent need for novel survey instruments that offer a substantial empirical payoff, and can be streamlined into the common content of election surveys.

I wrote my recent Political Behavior article partially in response to conversations with practitioners of some of our standard election surveys. Some feel that existing survey instruments on religion 1) waste valuable survey space, and 2) contribute very little to substantive understanding of religion and American politics. My position: religion-and-politics scholars need better (not fewer) instruments.

Traditional survey instruments assess religiosity in terms of identification, belief, and participation. But in my article, I suggest these measures are inadequate proxies for creedal understanding. Indeed, it is possible that “belonging, believing, and behaving” have few independent effects on public opinion – precisely because they imply little about whether respondents understand the political implications of their faith traditions. We can do better, and we do not need to abandon the sample survey in the process.

I introduce a new measure, religious-political sophistication (RPS), assessing whether respondents know their churches’ positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. (Data was collected for an Indiana University module of the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study). The RPS measure is analogous to survey instruments that ask whether respondents know the political positions of candidates for elective office.

My findings can be condensed into some key observations and conclusions:

  • For evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, RPS (mainly in combination with church attendance) dramatically decreases the likelihood of taking socially liberal positions.
  • Religious participation seems relatively inconsequential for public opinion unless accompanied by substantive understanding of church teaching on political issues.
  • RPS is as (or more) consequential than knowing politically neutral religious information (measured as knowledge of the Bible’s books and figures). This is consistent with a narrative of elite-mass persuasion in the religious context.
  • The relationship between church attendance and RPS offers a religious model of elite-mass persuasion – analogous to the canonical logic by which partisan identifiers adopt political attitudes in response to elite cues.
  • The “culture wars” account of religion and public opinion – in which religion matters primarily because it engages religious identifiers with partisan politics – is overstated. Rather, religion matters because religious denominations take political positions independently from secular partisan politics.

Note that RPS is measured as a simple dummy variable assessing whether respondents provide a generally accurate understanding of their churches’ positions (e.g. Roman Catholics that correctly note that the Catholic Church opposes abortion in all instances). This is not a complicated measure. But even using a fairly small sample, RPS offers considerable empirical and theoretical yield-from-investment.

I do not claim that my results are the last word on this subject. Indeed, I hope that scholars fine-tune my RPS instruments further. But I hope I have demonstrated 1) that the sample survey can still be used to make theoretical advances in our understanding of religion and public opinion, and 2) that new survey instruments should emphasize whether respondents substantively understand what their faith traditions teach.

I invite scholars to access my publicly available replication data, and to email me at with any questions or comments.



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