In the main, the link between religious variables and political choices is wrapped up in a communicative process of exposure and adoption. Specifically, people become exposed to religious teachings and viewpoints within religious contexts, they then must determine whether and to what extent they will adopt those teachings and viewpoints as their own, and then they must adapt them to political ends. Critical to this approach is the acknowledgment that religious social and institutional contexts are rife with diversity, even within religious traditions. This diversity extends to religious adherents, congregations, and elites and means that people receive a variety of religious and political cues from religious sources across time and space. It is this variation that is critical to measure in order to understand religion’s effects on political behavior. That is, documenting the implications of religious diversity is as much a question of research design as it is a theoretical framework. This framework is flexible enough to accommodate the growing literature examining political input effects on religious output.
The norms and patterns of exposure and adoption vary by the combination of the communicator and context: political communication in congregations, religious communication effects on politics in congregations, and religious communication by elites in public space. There are very few instances of political elites in religious spaces, at least in the United States. Presidents and other political elites have used religious rhetoric throughout American history in varying proportions, though how they have used it is changing in the Trump era to be much more particularistic and exclusive rather than the traditional broad and inclusive language of past presidents.
A central variable moderating the impact of communication is credibility, which can be demonstrated in multiple ways, including political agreement as well as religious office, rhetorical choices, and decision-making processes. Religious elites, especially, battle against the weight of history, inattention, and misperception in their attempts to lead prophetically. As a result, religious elite influence, in the sense of changing hearts and minds, is a fraught enterprise.
Naturally, we recommend adopting research designs that are appropriate for incorporating measurement on communication exposure so we can appropriately understand adoption decisions. This demands some creativity on behalf of researchers, which also drives them toward experimental work where exposure questions are built into the design and affords them a great deal of control.