Honors Thesis Spotlight: Faith Matters: Towards a Group Theory of Evangelicals’ Role in American Politics

Contemporary Evangelical Christians are often associated with having a right-wing political ideology. This association is driven by the political phenomenon observed in American known as the “God Gap”. This “Gap” refers to a political difference between those who identify with religion and those who do not; specifically, those who align themselves with a religion are far more likely to identify as Republican, especially Protestant Christians. Many scholars investigate the connection between religion and politics has been of interest to scholars but they have yet to determine the role that religious identification has on political behavior. The current literature focuses on how the Christian Right vote but does not delve into why they vote. The researcher seeks to better understand the impact of religion on political behavior  through the lens of new advances in political behavior theory. More specifically, this project examines American Evangelical’s perception of the political out-group and how this affects their political behavior.

While the term ‘Evangelical’ has evolved in popular culture to encompass any form of Conservative Protestantism—ranging from Baptists to Fundamentalists—this project defines Evangelicals as Christians who emphasize a secondary birth or born-again experience, and focus on personal religious conversion. The theoretical groundwork for this research is rooted in the Group Theory of Religion and Politics. The basic idea behind group theory is the profound ability of humans to create groups and thus the creation of an “us” and “them” mentality. These groups form sets of rules and characterizations that allow them to distinguish between the in-group and the out-group. These group attachments can influence individuals’ political decisions.

With these theories and definitions established, the author extends their literature review to include the role of attachment and perception. Recent scholarship suggests that group attachments with religion, such as frequently attending services and forming friendships with other church members, has an effect on political behavior. This project also focuses on the negative out-party perceptions rather than positive ones. This is because new research suggests it is negative partisanship that motivates political behavior. This means that political behavior is driven by the desire to vote against those who are a perceived threat to the voter’s values, rather than specific policy preferences. Based on these theories and the Republican party’s use of symbolic politics and religious appeals to orient themselves as “God’s Party,” the researcher theorizes that as religious involvement increases, so do negative perceptions of the political out-group. Consequently, religious identity is solidified with conservative political identity.

To analyze the group theory hypothesis of Evangelical political behavior, the researcher utilizes data from the Pew Center’s Religion and Politics survey. The questions cover views about both major parties as well as other institutions, and are analyzed to see how they are perceived by those who identify as Evangelical.

Based on the results, there is a correlation between religious embeddedness and negative perceptions of the political out-group. The results suggested that Evangelicals hold very negative views of the Democratic Party and faith, meaning they do not find the party to be friendly to religion. While the results also suggested Evangelicals do not necessarily find the Republican Party to be friendly to religion, the perception is not as negative as the Democratic Party. This finding is evidence to uphold the theory of negative partisanship.

While this research presents evidence of a correlation between religious group identity and political behavior, further research is needed to understand the causal mechanism of this phenomenon. This research adds to the existing literature by offering a new perspective in which political science can analyze the role of religious groups in U.S. politics.

Gaberial Clements is a graduate of Florida State University from the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy. This post is based off Gaberial’s honors thesis, written by COSSPP blog intern Dara Begley. For more information about this project, click here. For more information about Gaberial, click here.

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