Is God always on the right?

Holding conservative values tends to go hand in hand with being more religious, at least in the United States. Indeed, the idea that the US is divided between liberal atheists versus religious conservatives is at the heart of the country's so-called 'Culture Wars'. This has led some psychologists to suggest that there's a deep-seated link between conservatism and religiosity, such that the same innate attitudes and motivations that drive one also drive the other. A new study challenges this claim, providing evidence instead that the conservative/religiosity overlap is created largely by the contemporary political discourse, as peddled in the media. Among people who don't follow political news and commentary, Ariel Malka and his colleagues found that the typical conservative/religiosity link was largely absent.

Malka's team analysed data collected from 7,056 US citizens between 1996 and 2008. The participants answered questions about their degree and denomination of religiosity, their favoured political party (Democrat or Republican), their position on various political issues such as gun control and immigration, and their level of political engagement - for example whether they read the newspaper or followed political news.

The usual link between religiosity and conservatism was found. But crucially, this association was strongly moderated by political engagement. So, for those who were highly politically engaged, religiosity tended to go hand in hand with nearly every conservative characteristic that was measured, including party identification and views on gender roles, gun control and homosexuality. The only exceptions were immigration and the death penalty, for which religiosity predicted a more liberal view. In contrast, for people who weren't politically engaged, the religiosity/conservatism link was profoundly diminished, to just four of the twelve conservative characteristics that were measured.

Malka and his colleagues conceded that the remaining conservatism/religiosity link, even among those low in political engagement, suggests that there may be some truth in the idea of an organic link between the two belief systems. 'However,' they added, 'when considering the full range of preferences and values associated with "conservatism" nowadays, engagement with political communication seems to be the predominant factor that drives the alignment of religiosity and political orientation.'

What this suggests in simple terms is that politically engaged, religious Americans watch the news and listen to political commentaries and this leads them to shift towards more conservative values. Or, alternatively, it means politically engaged, conservative folk watch the news and listen to the commentaries, and this encourages them towards religion. Either way, or both ways, it seems these people are being swayed by the contemporary political discourse in the United States.

One final, alternative interpretation is that political engagement is affected by people's religiosity/political match-up, rather than affecting it. By this account, when people's politics and religion don't match, they choose to disengage from politics. Longitudinal research is needed to test this. 'We hope that the present analyses are supplemented with cross-national, time series, longitudinal, and experimental analyses to enhance understanding of how context of information influences the relation between these two socially significant constructs,' the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgAriel Malka, Yphtach Lelkes, Sanjay Srivastava, Adam Cohen, and Dale Miller (2011). Religiosity, political engagement, and political conservatism. Political Psychology. In Press. pdf via author website.