Politics may influence religion more than the other way around

The Living Way Ministries Church in Opelika, Alabama is in hot water after posting this blatantly political defense of accused child molester and senate candidate Roy Moore Facebook

It almost goes without saying that being an evangelical means you are much more likely to be a Trump supporter. But what if being a Trump supporter was much more likely to make you an evangelical?

That’s the theory that Michele Margolis, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, lays out in her new book, From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity. As Margolis summarizes it in an op-ed in The New York Times, “We don’t just take cues about politics from our pastors and priests; we take cues about religion from our politicians.”

Before the political parties were ideologically homogenous, church attendance among white Republicans and white Democrats was fairly even. Today, white Republicans are 20 percent more likely to attend Church and believe in God than white Democrats.

Margolis notes that most analyses attribute the changes to a variety of factors, including the rise of the religious right as a political force and the Republican party’s alignment with “traditional values” campaigning.

But Margolis argues that people solidify their political leanings before they cement their religious beliefs. Young adults are more focused on politics than on religion. Their religious habits often come into sharper focus once they have children and need to make decisions about how to raise them. At that point, their political leanings are already established.

Margolis says that, looking at the data, Democrats and Republicans in their 20s were equally secular. But by their 30s, Republicans were much more likely to become church goers. Faith itself was not a sufficient explanation of the political sorting. Margolis’s data analyses finds that Democrats in their 20s who are churchgoers were not likely to become Republicans in their 30s.

All of which means, that when it comes to religion, Americans are seeking churches that match their political beliefs, not the churches cause them to change their political beliefs. The churches do, however, reinforce their political leanings.

In fact, says Margolis, President Trump may be changing his evangelical base’s faith, making them “more and more drawn to the evangelical label and to churches they know will be filled with politically like-minded congregants.”

The drawback to these divisions is that it reinforces existing beliefs and makes change less likely. If evangelicals never have contact with LGBTQ people, their opinions will never change. Instead, we will always remain an abstract “other,” making it easier to dismiss us altogether.

Churches used to be about religion, bringing together people across the political spectrum. But increasingly, they are extensions of the political parties–especially the Republican party, since more Democrats simply no longer attend church.

Anyone thinking that faith will help our divisions and bind up our partisan wounds is bound to discover that, if anything, the opposite is now true.

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