Overview:

Does religion drive politics or politics drive religion? How do religious and "backlash" conservatism relate? How deep do they go?

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A Washington Post opinion piece titled America’s religious divide isn’t really about religion” looks at the intersection of politics and religion—much of what we concern ourselves with here at OnlySky—and how, given how “religious” and evangelical politics has become, it’s easy to lose sight of “authentically religious voices.”

The relationship between religion and politics is interesting, one that has provoked sociologists to spend some time and effort investigating.

When it comes to political conservatism and evangelical religious conservatism, the two were first brought together more overtly after the US Civil Rights Act when white evangelicals who were previously conservative Democrats were welcomed into the Republican Party.

Where we might see a difference between religious conservativism (concerned with abortion and other social-moral mores) and fiscal conservatism (concerned with conservative economics that is quite often simply free-market and/or pro-big business economics), the article adds “backlash conservatism” into the mix. WaPo’s EJ Dionne Jr. describes this as a “harder-edged, more focused on crime, race and immigration” form of conservatism.

This appears to be borne out by the data when looking at something called “church shopping.” It now seems that people will leave a church (or even religion) based on a political disagreement with the church or fellow congregants.

Roe v. Wade and its subsequent reversal have provided such a backlash of its own across the parties, most obviously with Democrats and women in general, that religious conservatism has taken a back seat in the midterm campaigning. Rather than being a driving political issue, abortion has now become a caustic one, a hot potato that Republicans realize can burn political hands and scupper political candidates.

Instead, backlash conservatism has returned. Immigration and crime, race and borders are on the cards.

There is however a blurring of the lines between religious conservatism and backlash conservatism, perhaps due in large part to the rise and rise of Christian Nationalism. As Dionne points out, this has been seen successfully advancing itself in such democratic strongholds as Hungary, with such democratic idols…sorry…totalitarian demagogs as Viktor Orban. Orban has coined the phrase “Christian liberty.”

Christianity Today—no fan itself of Christian Nationalism—reports:

Orbán has styled his political program as a defense of “Christian liberty.” He argues that Hungary has historically been a Christian island in a sea of foreign threats, such as Soviet Communism and German Nazism. Today, he says, it must be defended against Islam, immigrants, globalism, and liberalism.

According to Carolyn Gallaher, professor in the School of International Service at American University, Orbán connects to voters through his identification as a Christian and legitimizes his political views by saying they are synonymous with Christianity. His invocations of faith are less about specific issues than powerful symbolism.

The prime minister was once an atheist. But on the way to power, Orbán reconnected with his Calvinist roots and underwent a religious transformation in the 1990s, even remarrying his wife in a church and having his children baptized. His Christian identity has become key to his political ego and his vision for Hungary.

He talks about the nation’s Christianness as he argues for instituting restrictive immigration policies, aiding persecuted Christians in Africa and the Middle East, and amending the constitution to define marriage as solely a relationship between a man and a woman.

“Orban does not shy away from fighting the culture war,” wrote Rod Dreher, the American Orthodox author of The Benedict Option and Live Not by Lies.

This is the project of collecting conservatism under one officious umbrella. Gone are the days where a fiscal, economically liberal conservative might have liberal views on bodily autonomy or other social issues and still find their home in the Republican Party.

Such behavior is indicative of religion playing second fiddle to politics in human behavior. Religion, and theology, may act as window dressing to more fundamental beliefs.

It’s as if voters get sucked under the umbrella by one single issue (say, in the US, gun rights) and then get ideologically infected by all of the others—or at least having sympathy for them so that these worries are allowed to grow.

The umbrella takes under its shadow new worries based on old ideas. Critical race theory is the new culture war bogeyman for those on the right.

Though Republicans may realize that abortion could be a poisoned chalice right now, the reversal has engendered a confidence in them that is knocking at the door of other assumed rights. As Dionne points out, there is a bill on the books in Idaho to ban public drag performances, as well as 33 Republicans introducing a bill in the mold of Florida’s “don’t say gay” law.

The controversial Florida law bans instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third-grade classes. As NPR observes of the new bill:

The language in the proposed legislation lumps together topics of sexual orientation and gender identity, with sexual content such as pornography and stripping.

It would prohibit federal funds from being used to support any “sexually-oriented” programs, events, and literature for children under 10; ban federal facilities from hosting or promoting such events or literature; and allow parents and guardians to sue government officials, agencies and private entities if a child under 10 is “exposed” to such materials.

As they go on to outline, it is thought that the bill, with vague terminology, will have far-reaching ramifications.

What is often absent from these quasi-religious policies and debates is…God. Actual religious content and debate, theology and philosophy, is lacking. Instead, Christian Nationalism is perhaps more a cultural-political phenomenon that uses God as an ultimate justifier or codifier of personally held positions.

In a previous article of mine (“Does Belief in God Drive One’s Politics or Politics Drive One’s Belief in God?“), I discuss that religiosity and nonreligiosity are powerful markers of political intent. But the question is one of direction of causality. Does one hold to certain political views because of their religious views, or vice versa?

Our own Phil Zuckerman has something to say on this. Zuckerman, Galen and Pasquale, in their excellent book The Nonreligious, state (all quotes from p. 190-96):

It should now be apparent that nonreligious worldviews transcend individual issues. And as mentioned earlier, it is often difficult to determine whether a view on any given issue exists because an individual is secular or nonreligious. Another possibility is that broad tendencies – such as liberalism – develop prior to any religious/nonreligious views, and thus the social view is endorsed by seculars may not actually be causally related to any underlying nonreligious reason….

We return briefly to a similar pattern, mentioned in more detail in chapter 6, that cognitive and personality-related traits underlie and contributes to not only sociopolitical views, but also a secular worldview…. To put it colloquially, this suggests that people are secular and politically liberal becausse of their temperament and personality, rather than being liberal because they are secular. 

It is worth bringing in political psychologist David Pisarro’s work here. In the following fascinating TED Talk, Pisarro shows that moral psychology underwrites political choices:

YouTube video

In line with this sort of work, Zuckerman et al continue:

Further, as is the case with religiosity, there is also evidence of a substantial inherited component to political orientation, and this genetic variation in political orientation is itself mediated by personality traits. According to such theories, religiosity may be part of a cluster of traits that also include social (but not economic) conservatism and authoritarianism, reflecting an underlying “Traditional Moral Values Triad.” This may at least partially explain why individuals come to different religious and metaphysical conclusions despite contrary environmental influences; individuals’ early cognitive preferences place them on a “trajectory” of later religious and political worldviews. 

This appears to be borne out by the data when looking at something called “church shopping.” It now seems that people will leave a church (or even religion) based on a political disagreement with the church or fellow congregants. (Read this excellent in-depth article from The Atlantic on the topic.) Such behavior is indicative of religion playing second fiddle to politics in human behavior. Religion, and theology, may act as window dressing to more fundamental beliefs.

It’s as if voters get sucked under the umbrella by one single issue (say, in the US, gun rights) and then get ideologically infected by all of the others—or at least having sympathy for them so that these worries are allowed to grow.

The Washington Examiner admits that this is a prevalent phenomenon:

People in the United States are increasingly using their political views to inform their religious beliefs , with 25% of adults saying they’ve considered leaving their religion because of disagreements with their political affiliation.

This notion of “church shopping” has become more common over the last several years as more religious topics make their way into the political realm, according to a study from Monmouth College . Roughly 52% of adults have “shopped” for different churches and another one-third have done so more than once, the study shows.

“I think a lot of this is driven by things like abortion, same-sex marriage, the traditional moral issues that we think of in this area,” said Andre Audette, a political science professor at Monmouth. “It seems like our politics is impacting our religion.”

Audette concludes that with such church shopping, “The winners are evangelical Protestants, a conservative group that is the largest coalition in the Republican Party, and secularism.”

In other words, polarization.

The answer to the titular question of my previous piece—”Does Belief in God Drive One’s Politics or Politics Drive One’s Belief in God?”—is that politics drives one’s religious beliefs. A conservative will take on a conservative understanding of God: authoritarian, the sort you might see in the Old Testament. A liberal might focus more on the New Testament. More accurately, though, is the idea that your underlying core characteristics drive both politics and religious belief—though, later on in your life, both drive each other coextensively, as I will explain quickly.

Once one takes on a religion that fits with one’s moral framework, we often see a spiral effect. I have talked about this with regard to whether reading certain newspapers or sources informs your moral/political position or whether your moral/political position informs the sort of newspaper that you read (see “Do We Drive the Media or Does the Media Drive Us?“)

When you get sucked in, it can be a spiral downwards (or upwards) as one academic paper, “The Mutual Reinforcement of Media Selectivity and Effects: Testing the Reinforcing Spirals Framework in the Context of Global Warming“, states. It looks at the spiral process that sucks people into a whirlpool of accepting the next “wave” of media in the general directional path they are on:

This study tests a model of reinforcing spirals in the context of global warming, using a 2-wave, within-subjects panel survey with a representative sample of Americans. Results show that, within waves, conservative media use is negatively related to global warming belief certainty and support for mitigation policies, while nonconservative media use is positively associated with belief certainty and policy support. In addition, the results show that consuming conservative or nonconservative media at Wave 1 makes people more likely to consume those same media at Wave 2, partly as an indirect result of the media’s effects on global warming belief certainty and policy preferences. Wave 2 media use, in turn, further strengthens audiences’ global warming belief certainty and policy preferences.

If you then transfer this into the context of core traits, religiosity, and politics, you can see a similar spiral effect being prevalent in driving one to greater conservatism and religiosity, or on the other hand, to greater liberalism and non-religiosity.

Hence, political polarization.

The challenge for political liberals (or, indeed, the other side of the spectrum) is that to convince someone away from Christian Nationalism or religious conservatism is not to disabuse them of their belief in God, but, rather, to inform an entire political and moral-psychological shift.

And that’s hard.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...