From Politics to the Pews, by Michele F. Margolis

Exploring what comes first, religion or politics, can help us understand societal divides in the US, says Angelia Wilson

October 4, 2018
Ice protest in front of a church in Philadelphia, US
Source: iStock

Some questions are provocative whether one finds oneself in the calamity of politics or the calm of the pews: what values determine our politics? When do we acquire those values? Is there a distinction between our political values and our religious beliefs? And which comes first, our religion or our politics?

At some point around the 1980 presidential election, which pitted Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter, American voting patterns began to split along the lines of religious affiliation. Today, the non- or less religious tend to vote Democrat, while more religious voters, particularly white evangelical Protestants, will almost certainly back the Republicans.

Considerable political science research has mined this deep division in the American polity.

For the most part, these investigations have concluded that religious beliefs and values inform voting behaviour and party affiliation.

The evidence seems to reflect the culture war-fuelled politics ignited by the Christian Right. Following the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade legalising some abortions, the predominance of moral wedge issues in political discourse appeared increasingly to determine political behaviour.

Normally, we assume children raised in religious homes may rebel in their teens, only to return to the church when they start a family. They may go through a phase of being more adventurous or politically more radical, but they settle back once they grow up, becoming more conservative in both religion and politics. In From Politics to the Pews , Michele Margolis turns that reasoning on its head by arguing that it is political affiliation that has come to determine religiosity.

Making use of the longitudinal Youth-Parent Socialization Panel Study, she finds that when they marry and settle down, people follow partisan routes. Focusing on this “political life course”, she argues that the impressionable years of adolescence and young adulthood mark the time when partisan identification becomes crystallised. After this point, you will likely choose to return to church, if a Republican, or not if a Democrat.

Of course, Margolis is not the first political scientist to argue that politics can inform religious behaviour. Michael Hout, Claude Fischer, Stratos Patrikios, even David Campbell and Robert Putnam and a few others established this direction of travel. However, her range of evidence and compelling analysis guide the reader expertly along this thought-provoking path.

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? In posing this question one is usually demonstrating the futility, or complexity, of any answer.

Margolis clearly believes politics informs religion. If this is the case, partisan-induced social cleavages help us explain the religiosity gap, as well as the Trumpvangelicals, at the heart of American polarisation. If, as Margolis suggests, politics is a key determinant in religious behaviour, then widespread, non-partisan civic education has a huge role to play. Maybe that is why American evangelicals baulk at its suggestion.

Europeans, especially the British, will not be shocked that politics can determine religion. Henry VIII proved that long before Margolis. But both sides of the Atlantic would do well to avoid binary cause and effect approaches to explaining the complex determinants of values – religious, political or otherwise.

Angelia Wilson is professor of politics at the University of Manchester.


From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity
By Michele F. Margolis
University of Chicago Press
336pp, £71.50 and £24.50
ISBN 9780226555645 and 9780226555782
Published 10 September 2018

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