Religion and the Extension of Trust

By Paul A. Djupe and Benjamin O. Hsiung

[This is a forthcoming paper at Political Behavior – the full paper can be viewed here.]

Religion has been at the forefront and at the back of social movements, at times castigated for its quiescence and at others lauded for its prophetic voice. Social scientists have long found that religion can provide institutional, attitudinal, and mobilizational bases for collective action, but of course it does not always fulfill those roles. Instead, religious effects are multivocal – they could prop up democratic politics directly, but in many cases do not. Why?

A foundational way to index the democratic role of religion is in terms of the trust that it fosters. Trust in others and trust in governmental processes are arguably necessary conditions for collective action to take place.

So, how does religion influence trust? We believe it would be a mistake to look for an unconditional link of religion to trust; indeed results over time have found a variety of links from some of the same religious tradition measures. Instead, we argue that religion effects on social and political trusts vary depending on the values communicated. These sets of religious values, which we aggregate into religious styles, are the central products in the religious economy. Congregations adopt religious styles in word and deed that range from inclusive (open doors, low boundaries to outsiders, few requirements of insiders) to exclusive (difficult access, high boundaries to nonbelievers, and requirements of believers).

The analogy to trust is clear as these value sets inform people about the potential costs of trust as well as whether making connections is a valued activity. Those congregations that lower boundaries and encourage bridge building also implicitly promote trust in others and institutions – they are engaged in extending the radius of trust. Those congregations that emphasize the presence of evil, the high wages of sin, and religious requirements to be a good person undercut the worth of working with others who are not well known – the radius of trust is short.

Using two datasets, we explore these notions in our forthcoming work in Political Behavior. The first, a cross-sectional dataset of 412 respondents from an online panel helps us assess whether elements of these inclusive and exclusive religious styles are linked to social and political trust judgments. Then we turned to Mechanical Turk to assess the degree to which these styles are flexibly implemented through a priming experiment. Participants were either shown a set of inclusive or exclusive religious style measures before responding to several social and political trust questions.

The results of the experiment, below, highlight that religious effects are dependent on continual communication processes. People need to be reminded of what their worldviews demand of them. Among religious respondents, priming inclusion activates a relationship between adopting religious inclusion and both social and political trust. When not primed, agreement with inclusion has no bearing on social and political trust among the religious. The expected opposite effect results from priming exclusion – religious respondents who adopt an exclusive style drop their social and political trust when primed. There are other distinguishable effects, but we detect nothing systematic.


Figure 1 – Interactive Effects of Experimental Activation of Inclusive and Exclusive Religious Styles on Political and Social Trust (Marginal Effects of Agreeing with the Treatments when Primed, 90% CIs)

Our intent was to highlight that there is little hardcoded in religion that would make democratic societies harder or easier to run. Instead, we should understand religion as a set of intentional communities with a range of religious styles that vary in response to people’s needs in context. People need to be reminded about the content and implications of their worldviews, which after all is the point of weekly sermons. There are other points of contact within congregations bearing on trust that are explored in the paper.

Some clear next steps involve thinking systematically about the social and political environment to understand how people from the same religious tradition can adopt quite different religious styles as a result. This variation should result in different levels of trust and hence collective engagement with society and government. Some of this work has been done in Europe (e.g., Traunmuller 2011), but the US is ripe for this sort of analysis.


Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of (see his list of posts here). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

Benjamin O. Hsiung is a 2016 graduate from Denison University where he studied Political Science and Communication. He now works in healthcare analytics at Epic Systems in Verona, Wisconsin.

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