Communication Dynamics in Religion and Politics
Summary and Keywords
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.
Given that the vast majority of people identify with a particular faith, religion is one of the most important sources of guidance for orientating life and relationships, linked across huge literatures to a litany of political attitudes and behaviors. Scholars have found issues including foreign policy (Guth, Green, Kellstedt, & Smidt, 2005), space travel (Ambrosius, 2015), the environment (Barker & Bearce, 2012; Djupe & Gwiasda, 2010), nationalism (Shortle & Gaddie, 2015), the economy (Beed & Beed, 1996; McGauvran & Oldmixon, 2018), social welfare (Be’ery & Bloom, 2015), political tolerance (Djupe, 2015; Eisenstein, 2008), as well as the “social” policies including abortion and gay marriage (Haider-Markel & Meier, 1996; Olson & Cadge, 2002) to be linked in some manner to religious variables, which can include an enormous variety of individual and group-level beliefs, values, behaviors, identities, memberships, social interactions, and elite-based cues.
In the main, the link between religious variables and political choices is wrapped up in a communicative process of exposure and adoption (Djupe & Calfano, 2013b; Zaller, 1992). 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 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 (e.g., Djupe & Gilbert, 2009; Gilbert, 1993). This diversity extends to both religious adherents, congregations, and elites (Calfano, 2009; Calfano, Michelson, & Oldmixon, 2017; Holman & Shockley, 2017). This means that people receive a variety of religious and political cues from religious sources across time and space, and 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.
At the same time, religious communication is not limited to the institutional or worship settings where adherents meet. In fact, in the modern political era, the line between religious communication in the sacred and secular realms has become blurred, often intentionally (see Dillon, 1995; Moody, 2002). As noted in this article, politicians have sought for years to infiltrate the exposure and adoption process, with varying degrees of success (Zaller, 1992). The same is true of the ever-expanding crop of televangelists who are highly active in social media as well (Burge, 2018).
The purpose of this article is to document different types and contexts of religious communication scholars have investigated across social science disciplines. We focus on four categories that vary the content and context of the communication. The first focuses on political communication within settings where the exposure and adoption process is most prevalent—houses of worship. The second considers the political effects of religious communication. Next, we examine the phenomena of communication by religious groups in public (to members and nonmembers), and last we examine religious communication by public officials, a context that takes on even greater relevance with the consolidation Donald Trump appears to have achieved among American evangelicals (see Djupe & Claassen, 2018). We also offer a brief discussion of research designs aimed at building on insights from these studies.
Political Communication in a Religious Setting
Religion has often been termed the nation’s most popular form of voluntary association (see Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985), so understanding political communication through the lens of what occurs in the collective settings where faith is encouraged and lived out among adherents is critical (Djupe & Gilbert, 2003; Finke & Stark, 2005). It may seem odd to Americans to start with political communication in houses of worship given what many perceive as the separation of church and state granted by the First Amendment to the Constitution, but the amendment does not guarantee separation. Neither does it determine whether worship provides varying amounts of political information to their parishioners.
For multiple religious traditions, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or something else, houses of worship have long been considered political communities (e.g., Gilbert, 1993; Jamal, 2005; Lazerwitz & Harrison, 1979; Wald, Owen, & Hill, 1988). Just exactly how political concerns manifest in these communities is of great interest and recurring debate. Most agree with the long line of scholarship that has documented the link between involvement in religious organizations and political participation more broadly (e.g., Djupe & Gilbert, 2006; Jamal, 2005; Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995; Westfall, 2018; but see Scheufele, Nisbet, & Brossard, 2003), though it is important to note that it is entirely possible that this effect occurs without political communication. For instance, adherents may develop civic skills through their religious involvement that “spills over” to political activity (Peterson, 1992).
However, Djupe and Gilbert (2009) demonstrate that there is no relationship between religious involvement and political activity when politics is not discussed in their sample of churches. Political communication appears to be key to translating religious activity to political activism, though this linkage needs testing in additional studies. Instead, there is considerable evidence that those exposed to political messages within religious environments may also be moved to political action (Wilcox & Sigelman, 2001). Though measures of “political churches” tend to be quite vague (see the discussion in Djupe & Gilbert, 2009; McClerking & McDaniel, 2005), the measures are connected with greater efficacy (Calhoun-Brown, 2010), greater political knowledge (Tate, 1993), and of course more political involvement (Calhoun-Brown, 1996), though perhaps in ways that suggest the intervening power of agreement (Brown, 2011). However, such measures can also be quite detailed and closely connected with place, demonstrating tight mechanisms of influence on congregants’ political action (e.g., Smith, 2017).
There are many ways to capture political communication in church. Take Wald et al.’s (1988) observation about a church in Gainesville, Florida:
[T]he sanctuary was festooned with posters promoting solidarity with Central American victims of rightist oppression, the minister’s sermon lauded the resistance of women to tyranny throughout history, the explanation of harvest symbols stressed the need to combat poverty and hunger and the choice of hymns included folk songs from the civil rights era. (p. 533)
And this merely captures the possibilities apparent to the visitor off the street. There are innumerable connections members make with each other informally at coffee hour, which is common in the United States, or in the various small groups and activities houses of worship often hold. From a different perspective, several scholars have registered concerns about the quantity of the political discussion across lines of difference occurring within religious contexts (e.g., Mutz, 2006; Mutz & Mondak, 2006). To them, religious organizations are silos of agreement, not contexts for the free exchange of ideas. However, their works only examine the political discussion partners indicated by survey respondents rather than incorporate the expansive sources of political communication houses of worship may provide.
The longest line of inquiry has documented how much clergy engage with politics to their congregants. Dating back to at least Campbell and Pettigrew’s (1959 examination of how clergy in the South engage with the civil rights movement (see also Pope, 1942), researchers have been interested to know how much clergy engage, and whether they are willing to act as prophets, challenging their publics to live in accordance with the faith. Work from the 1960s castigated the clergy (in northern California) for failing to engage civil rights and the Vietnam War at sufficient levels (Stark, Foster, Glock, & Quinley, 1971). At the very same time, however, others were finding “Storms in the Churches” where clergy political engagement was causing rifts that drove out members, reduced their contributions, and undermined religious authority (see Hadden, 1969; Quinley, 1974). Mainline Protestant membership numbers have been sliding ever since this period.
Given these warning shots, perhaps it is surprising that clergy were found to engage at higher levels by the late 1990s (Djupe & Gilbert, 2008). Yet, by this time, clergy may have learned the essential lesson, which is to provide for the needs of the congregants in order to enjoy the freedom to engage in political speech and action without losing members (Djupe & Neiheisel, 2019). The view that clerical political engagement increased over this period was confirmed in the Southern Baptist Convention (Guth, 1996), so that the former gap between religious liberals and conservatives has effectively closed.
While concerns over the religious effects of political communication ebbed for several decades, they have resurged in the past dozen years or so, motivated by the dramatic rise in the religious “nones” beginning in 1994 (see Hout & Fischer, 2002). In this view, the attention granted to the Christian Right, which has made evangelicals synonymous with Republicans (Patrikios, 2013), drove moderates and liberals out of American religion. Djupe, Neiheisel, and Conger (2018) place this dynamic squarely in a communication context by showing that only when the Christian Right is salient, such as when they advocated for same-sex marriage bans, do the proportion of nones grow in a state. Moreover, in congregations, highly localized disagreements over politics are what drive marginal members out of their congregations (Djupe, Neiheisel, & Sokhey, 2018a), whether concerning the Christian Right or not. In fact, disagreements over the Christian Right are more likely to drive evangelicals to leave their churches given the high concentration of Christian Right politics in those churches.
Overall, political communication from clergy is relatively common, though a small part of their jobs (Jelen, 2001), but depends heavily on the issue and context (e.g., Djupe & Gilbert, 2003; Guth, Green, Smidt, Kellstedt, & Poloma, 1997; Olson, Crawford, & Deckman, 2005; Smidt, 2016). Religious social theology drives issue agendas (Guth et al., 1997; Smidt, 2016), but so does the community context in which clergy minister (Djupe & Gilbert, 2003; Olson, 2000; Owens, 2007), not to mention the denominational context with directives from on high (e.g., Cadge, Olson, & Wildeman, 2008; Calfano, Oldmixon, & Gray, 2014; Holman & Shockley, 2017). Clergy tend to talk more about politics when their congregations are underrepresented in the community (Djupe & Gilbert, 2003; Olson, 2000), often explicitly considering themselves in those cases to be representatives of their congregations (Djupe, Burge, & Calfano, 2016). Of course, speech is not the only mode of information delivery, as several works have examined church bulletins (Holman & Shockley, 2017; Smith, 2008).
It would be a mistake to assume that clergy simply communicate the content of their attitudes (though see Brown, Kaiser, & Jackson, 2014), that they are motivated to press their opinions on their publics. Instead, they appear to carefully calibrate how they talk about political issues to avoid exacerbating dissensus. For instance, instead of simply asking if clergy talked about “immigration,” Djupe and Calfano (2012) presented clergy with 15 argument frames used in immigration policy debates and asked clergy if they agreed with each position as well as whether they had mentioned it publicly. This much more nuanced measurement of clergy political communication found that clergy discussed one argument they disagreed with for every four they agreed with (something of a constant across various studies—see Djupe & Neiheisel, 2008; Djupe, Neiheisel, & Olson, 2015; Djupe & Olson, 2013) but also that the proportions shift predictably based on the disagreement faced. Greater diversity in the congregation drives up the engagement with arguments the clergy disagree with. Clergy also moderated their talk about gay rights when they perceived a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender congregation member (Neiheisel & Djupe, 2008; see also Neiheisel, Djupe, & Sokhey, 2009). In another look, clergy faced with disagreement were more likely to present individualistic values, which might be seen as helping to reinforce their beleaguered position (Djupe & Friesen, 2018). These patterns may be important as the clergy are demonstrating some measure of deliberative democratic norms—engaging across lines of disagreement—but they also may inhibit their ability to move opinion if everyone has some argument frame to latch onto (e.g., Chong & Druckman, 2008).
While it is important to know what clergy are communicating, it is equally important in the exposure-adoption process to know what their publics are hearing. Members are more likely to report hearing clerical political speech when they are interested in politics or those particular issues (Brown, Kaiser, Rush, & Brown, 2017; Djupe & Gilbert, 2003; Scheitle & Cornell, 2015; Welch, Leege, Wald, & Kellstedt, 1993). This pattern raises the question whether the clergy drive member interest as well as their attitudes or whether members filter clerical messages based on their interest levels. The evidence strongly suggests that member filter clergy’s messages based on their own biases—members claim not to have heard their clergy when they disagree with them on an issue, and general political interest is linked with hearing from clergy on political issues more frequently (Djupe & Gilbert, 2009). And members may also put brakes on religious elites who espouse extreme, unconstitutional viewpoints (Calfano & Djupe, 2015). Those mechanisms help explain why Smith (2008) found almost no relationships between Catholic priests’ attitudes and those of their parishioners (but see Bjarnason & Welch, 2004; Djupe & Hunt, 2009; Fezter, 2001; Wallsten & Nteta, 2016).
Political Effects of Religious Communication
These null findings at the heart of religious contexts seriously challenged the traditional notions of religious authority, that clergy are the primary purveyors of religious truths and could be trusted to interpret the religious significance of worldly events including politics. If clerical political communication had, at best, highly conditional effects, then could their influence lie elsewhere? The search began for the systematic effects of religious communication for which clergy are surely granted greater credibility (e.g., Robinson & Goren, 1994). There are a number of different dimensions of religion that can be communicated, of course, and research has focused on beliefs (statements about how the world works) and values (claims about how the world should work).
As Stark and Finke (2000) described it, the primary dimension on which religious groups vary is the particular mix of inclusivity and exclusivity. Some groups embrace tension between religious ingroup boundaries and outside entities, while others see the congregation as firmly integrated into the community; the old distinction between sect and church mirrors this formulation (e.g., Johnson, 1963; Stark & Bainbridge, 1985). Given this, it is not surprising that communication within religious settings includes aspects of inclusive and exclusive values (e.g., whether adherents should seek to break down or build up ingroup barriers). As we found across a number of studies, clergy claim to communicate these values (Djupe & Calfano, 2013a), and they can be linked through experimental priming to the degree to which people report threat from least-liked groups (Djupe & Calfano, 2013c), their support for U.S. foreign intervention (Djupe & Calfano, 2013a), and immigration policy (Djupe & Calfano, 2013b; see also Brown et al., 2017).
Clergy have also been found in observational studies to be linked to political tolerance in several community studies reported in Djupe (2015). As Schaffer, Sokhey, and Djupe (2015) found, even White evangelical Christians exhibit far less and more variable “exclusive” tendencies than a focus on religious tradition as a fixed source of opinionation would expect (see, e.g., Smidt, Kellstedt, & Guth, 2009); in addition, their exclusivity was linked to greater threat and reduced tolerance, especially when in a political church. Djupe and Calfano (2015) found that inclusivity expressed by clergy (from their own report) had an effect on the threat and tolerance judgments of their members who were randomly sampled from the community in a Springfield, Missouri study.
Another focus of research has been to prime people with religious beliefs. Not surprisingly, these experiments have proven effectual in shaping the views, behaviors, and ways of thinking of message recipients. Even simple primes of responding to belief questions before answering policy questions has been shown to undermine the willingness to extend rights (Bloom & Arikan, 2012) and increase support for same-religion immigrants (Bloom, Arikan, & Courtemanche, 2015). Bloom et al. distinguish belief effects from identity effects, which when primed tend to boost exclusive orientations toward outgroups. These are important outcomes, highlighting the possibility that correlations between beliefs individuals hold and politics may be artifacts of asking about them in surveys, but more likely that those relationships reflect the outcome of unspecified communication dynamics. Some force was making those beliefs salient for people, which generated the link to opinion.
McClendon and Riedl (2015) show this in dramatic fashion in their study of religious messaging in Nairobi, Kenya. They find it is quite common to hear empowerment messages from the numerous Pentecostal congregations in the city. While many have thought about Pentecostalism as otherworldly, focusing on salvation rather than investing in the here and now, McClendon and Riedl find that randomized exposure to an empowering religious message boosts their political efficacy and participation in a political text messaging campaign. There is another important point to their study. City residents engage in considerable church shopping, which validates the priming experiment, since it is likely that residents could be exposed to the messages they prime—researchers need to think carefully about the relevant population that could be reasonably affected by the treatments.
A common religious belief communicated by more conservative religions is that God is in control or that God wills world events. Some refer to this as divine providence and these as providential beliefs. Glazier (2013) finds that support for U.S. foreign policy goes up when one is primed with providence, even if it cuts against one’s partisanship. In a related finding, Glazier (2015) finds that providential believers are more likely to engage in political activity when their clergy make concrete links to politics in their sermons. Be’ery and Bloom (2015), likewise, prime participants with a message that God is in control and find increased support for social welfare as a result. A valuable next step would be to conduct the same study with religious minorities to assess whether God can ordain another group’s political dominance.
Another tack thinks about religious argument styles. As Marietta (2009) puts it, “Sacred rhetoric invokes nonnegotiable convictions rather than reasoned consequences” (p. 388). That level of conviction yields benefits to adherents, who participate at higher levels than those without the “absolutist advantage.” Adherents also cling to their attitudes more strongly and tend to intensify debate as a result of engaging sacred rhetoric (Marietta, 2008), implicating religion in polarization (see also Robinson & Goren, 1994). From a different area of study, it appears that religion and party have collapsed on themselves, so that it is difficult to untangle religion or politics as a driver (Patrikios, 2013), and as much evidence finds politics driving religion as the reverse (Djupe et al., 2018a; Hout & Fischer, 2002; Margolis, 2018a; Patrikios, 2008).
Under some conditions, however, religious cues may be invitations to consider new information. That is, religion also offers adherents a decision-making process, such as consideration through prayer, that may function as ingroup signaling. That is, a decision reached through prayer may be more effectual than one offered without disclosing a trusted decision-making process. Djupe and Gwiasda (2010) found that some evangelicals were more likely to adopt pro-environmental attitudes when an evangelical leader attached a trusted decision-making process (reflection through prayer), while Djupe and Calfano (2009) found that the process language increased trust in a clergy source and eventual attitude certainty. These conclusions square with what Margolis (2018b) found regarding the influence of the Evangelical Immigration Table on evangelicals’ immigration attitudes.
Religion in Public Space
The previous two sections were primarily concerned with communication dynamics with members/adherents. It is clear that it cannot be assumed that within-group political communication is persuasive, though research has also documented a number of systematic effects of religious communication. But communication from religious figures and using religious cues is also broadcast to the public, beyond the group. This raises a new set of concerns about whether these cues are influential and whether they are conditional on group status, the distribution of elite opinion, and other considerations.
Perhaps the most obvious case is the case where religious elites (e.g., clergy and especially their institutional superiors) communicate religious and political information to their adherents and others in the community (Byrnes, 1991; Djupe, Lewis, & Jelen, 2016; Wald, 1992). The influence dynamic between clergy and parishioners parallels the secular elite/public relationship whereby people—in the absence of a motive for more intense effort—tend to rely on information or cues from perceived credible sources (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Popkin, 1994; Tewksbury & Scheufele, 2009; Zaller, 1992). The fact that research designs from both observational and experimental approaches find effects from religious elite political statements grants confidence that this influence dynamic works, at least for broad samples where subjects are not ensconced in a specific religious context at the time data are collected (see Nteta & Wallsten, 2012; Robinson, 2010; Robinson & Goren, 1994; Wallsten & Nteta, 2016).
However, sometimes the mechanisms of influence are not exactly clear. For instance, rather than motivate more action in a desired campaign, Margolis (2018b) finds the Evangelical Immigration Table demobolizes opponents of more forgiving immigration policy. Outside of the subgroup, Djupe and Conger (2012) find another pattern. They examine the effect of a prominent, public Christian Right movement in state politics and find that it drives up political activity rates across the board—evangelicals no more or less than non-evangelicals. Their activism does not endear religion to the state’s citizens who then display a preference for less religion in public life. Asking perhaps the obvious next question, Djupe, Neiheisel, and Conger (2018) find that a salient, powerful Christian Right movement drives down the rate of religious affiliates and drives up the proportion of nones.
In the same way that a competitive framing environment allows individuals to resist elite influence (e.g., Druckman & Nelson, 2003), a mixed religious elite framing environment undercuts influence. For instance, Campbell and Monson (2003) find that Mormon elites encouraged a vote against Prohibition in 1933 but against relaxing liquor laws in 1968 when they took a united position against the ballot measure. There are relatively few other religious groups who have visible public figures except at high levels of abstraction, though a comparison with the Catholic Church’s divisions along gender lines offer a valuable comparison case (Kraybill, 2019).
Religious influence also depends on what they say. Not all rhetoric from the right (or left) is divisive, and a good portion attempts to appeal using widely acceptable frames. One important example is that as evangelicals trended toward cultural minority status, they shifted to adopt rights frames for their issue advocacy, following successful abortion politics strategies (Lewis, 2017). Notably, evangelicals have pivoted in the aftermath of the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage to pursue “religious liberty” as a means to fend off the cultural tide. Djupe, Lewis, and Jelen (2016) find that couching a conservative message in a rights frame was successful in gaining some support from non-evangelicals, though only when presented from a credible in-group member (and not an elected official; though see Jelen, Lewis, & Djupe, 2018).
But while clergy communication in religious communities is perhaps the most local example of religious elite attempts at influence, the rise of television in the mid-20th century spawned a communicative twist on the religious elite: the televangelist. And, since this is a review of religious communication, it is important to underscore the literature showing a religious media-based influence on audience political views—and vice versa (e.g., Buddenbaum, 2001; Golan & Day, 2010; Hamilton & Rubin, 1992; Stout & Buddenbaum, 1996). To a large extent, religious media audiences are self-selected, but this does not make the communication processes at work through this medium any less compelling for scholars. Hmielowski, Chanjung, and Kim’s (2015) finding of political influence among a broad variety of religious cue sources (in addition to clergy) suggests that media-based religious elites have at least the potential for communicative impact.
Instead of imploring live audiences in the pews to align their views and behavior to clergy preferences, Robert Schuler, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and early religious media elites were able to build transnational reputations as cue-givers on matters of faith and morality (Hadden & Shupe, 1988). For their part, Falwell and Robertson were eager to position their religious teachings for maximum political impact, as both were founders of the New Christian Right of the 1970s (Heineman, 1998). The televangelist elite model has only expanded with the programming capacity of 24-hour cable channels and satellite services such as Texas-based Daystar. Though some televangelists have substantial viewing audiences, not to mention sometimes enormous Twitter followings (Burge, 2018), it is unclear just how influential these elites are in spurring viewers to adopt specific views and behavior. Part of the difficulty is that the television elites tend to communicate political material that is consonant with dominant Republican policies and candidates, making a separation of influence using even quantitative data from television ratings and related metrics problematic for researchers.
Though scholars have made inroads in studying content patterns in religious television, especially as it concerns the targeting of political and religious outgroups (e.g., Gormly, 2004), the media’s role in affecting political interaction by religious minorities (Alkazemi, 2015), and media influence in perpetuating negative impressions of religious outgroups (Calfano, Cox, Djupe, & Jones, 2016), the literature on these seemingly “virtual” religious elites requires several new lines of inquiry and methodological approaches (see Serazio, 2009, for a review).
Communication About Religion From a Political Person
The prevalence of faith communities in the United States makes it understandable why political actors would infuse political communication with religious appeals. In fact, American political history is rife with examples of religious rhetoric and public exhortations (see Butler, Wacker, & Balmer, 2007). Presidents from George Washington to John F. Kennedy used religious references in speeches and other public comments (Bellah, 1975; Chapp, 2012), but scholars have traced modern political reliance on religion to a strategy of Republican-based cultural and coded racial appeals intended to create cleavages that would undermine the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition (see Claassen, 2018; Leege, Wald, Krueger, & Mueller, 2002). An outgrowth of the cultural appeal strategy was the use of “God talk” by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, where themes of freedom and liberty were couched in religious rhetoric (Coe & Domke, 2006; Domke & Coe, 2008).
Calfano and Djupe (2009) offered a theoretical rationale for God talk by political persons: the talk functions as a social identity cue that provides ingroup credibility (i.e., among White evangelicals and other targeted groups; see also Albertson, 2011). That study also documented and tested coded God talk (e.g., “wonder-working power”) that signaled ingroup identity without alerting outgroups like religious nones. The encoded God talk strategy has been shown to be effective outside American politics (Calfano, Djupe, & Wilson, 2013), but female candidates seem to fare worse when using the cues than their male counterparts (Calfano & Djupe, 2011).
Uncoded God talk is open to polarized response. Indeed, Adkins, Layman, Campbell, and Green (2013) showed that constituencies outside the religious conservative and Republican orbit evaluate negatively the politicians using more explicit forms of God talk. But there may be a sea change in political use of religious cues in the Trump political era. Namely, rather than use coded appeals to avoid electoral backlash from nontargeted groups, Republicans appear more willing than ever to make the courting of Christian conservatives as public and overt as possible. While it is an open question whether the fragmentation of media platforms reduces total audience awareness of Republican messaging strategies, it is hard to argue that candidates in the Trump era employ religious cues of the closed-circuit variety that Djupe and Calfano (2013b) explored.
Voters have also been shown to stereotype candidates based on the politician’s religion (e.g., McDermott, 2007, 2009). This includes expectations of ideology and policy positions, which can be a boon to a candidate’s chances if a religious attribute aligns with positive perceptions of targeted constituencies. However, a problem might be in cases where attribute and stereotype do not align, or where misinformation is rampant (as was the case with the erroneous belief that Barack Obama was a Muslim— Hollander, 2010). Religious cues are also limited by the secular information environment—when secular information is widespread, it inhibits the effectiveness of religious primes (Weber & Thornton, 2012).
Designs in Religious Communication Research
The take-aways from the preceding sections suggest that advancing the literature on religious communication requires recognition of the following insights. First, religious settings and their effects are both locally grounded and diverse, and these characteristics are not often reflected in the cross-sectional samples that are common in social science research. Second, religious elites—including but not limited to clergy—can impact political outcomes among both religious and nonreligious audiences, but that influence is hardly deterministic. Third, political entrepreneurs may seek to leverage religion in their electoral efforts, but the nature of religion as a cue in the Trump political era may have changed the nature of religious communication substantially. That is, the tidal wave of explicit, uncoded information may have overwhelmed religious communities caught unable to gain high ground.
To advance the literature on religious communication, we offer three recommendations. First, the use of randomized experiments, which have gained substantial popularity in the religion and politics subfield since 2008, should continue (see Djupe and Smith’s article on “Experimental Research on Politics and Religion”). This includes the extension of research designs in other subfields utilizing media platforms to test communication effectiveness on targeted publics (see Coppock, Guess, & Ternovski, 2016; Green, Calfano, & Aronow, 2014). Second, and with all the studies pointing to contextually based differences in how religion affects political outcomes, it behooves scholars to think through ways to gain leverage on context-driven impacts, including as part of randomized experiments on religious communication. Third, and reflecting the interplay between the public and elites, it will be important for future research to examine the extent to which elites are themselves affected by the communication of religious information. Fourth, researchers should continue to explore ways to gather concrete communications to dispersed audiences through text and audio. Indeed, this is critical work to document just what messages are common and for what communities (e.g., Marchetti & O’Connell, 2018).
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