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date: 28 October 2020

Gender and Religiosity in the United Statesfree

  • Mirya R. HolmanMirya R. HolmanDepartment of Political Science, Tulane University
  •  and Erica PodrazikErica PodrazikDepartment of Political Science, Tulane University


Religiosity is a combination of public and private religious practices, beliefs, and experiences. While diversity exists in how religiosity is measured, three central components are consistent across the scholarship: organizational religious engagement, non-organizational religious activities, and subjective religiosity. To measure organizational religious engagement, scholars frequently look at church attendance and participation in congregational activities. Non-organizational religious activities include frequency of prayer, reading the Bible or other religious materials, or requesting others to pray for you. Subjective or intrinsic religiosity includes self-assessed religiousness (where respondents are asked, “How religious would you consider yourself?”) or strength of affiliation, as well as specific beliefs, such as views of the afterlife, hell, and whether the Bible is the literal word of God.

Various groups express different levels of religiosity. One of the most well-documented and consistent group-based differences in religiosity is that women, including white women and women of color, are more religious than are men across religions, time, and countries. Women report higher rates of church attendance, engagement in religious practices (including prayer and reading the Bible), and more consistent and higher levels of religious interest, commitment, and engagement. Many explanations for these gaps in religiosity exist including differences in personality and risk aversion, gendered socialization patterns, and patriarchal structures within churches. Scholars have engaged in robust debates around the degree to which explanations like risk assessment or gender role theory can account for differences in religious behavior between men and women. Yet unresolved, these discussions provide opportunities to bring together scholarship and theories from religious studies, sociology, gender studies, psychology, and political science.

Religiosity shapes a variety of important political and social attitudes and behaviors, including political ideology and participation. The effects of religiosity on political attitudes are heterogeneous across men and women—for example, highly religious women and men are not equally conservative, nor do they equally oppose gay rights. The process by which religiosity shapes attitudes is also gendered; for example, the effects of women’s religiosity on political attitudes and participation are mediated by gendered attitudes. And while religiosity increases political participation, the effects are not even for men and women, nor across all groups of women. Future research might examine the differing effects of religiosity on subgroups of men and women, including evaluations of how intersecting social categories like race, gender, and class shape both levels of religious engagement and the degree to which religiosity influences other political and social behavior.


  • Comparative Politics
  • Political Theory
  • Political Behaviour
  • Comparative Politics

What Is Religiosity?

Public and private religious practices, beliefs, and experiences all constitute components of religiosity. Scholars commonly use three central components to measure religiosity: institutional religious engagement, non-organizational religious activities, and expressive or subjective religiosity. Scholars use church attendance and participation in congregational activities to measure organizational religious engagement. Self-reported frequency of prayer, reading the Bible or other religious materials, or requesting others to pray for you are common measures of non-organizational religious activities. Self-assessed religiousness is measured through responses to questions like “How religious would you consider yourself?,” attachment to a particular denomination, and endorsements of specific views, such as belief in an afterlife, hell, and whether the Bible is the literal word of God.

Scholars often distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic forms of religiosity, with intrinsic forms defined in terms of faith and spirituality. Intrinsic forms are thought to permeate every aspect of an individual’s psyche and life, motivating their behavior and giving meaning to their life’s actions (Allport, 1954). Extrinsic forms are distinctly “worldly” and utilitarian, such as belief in sin or an afterlife, leading to individual worldly rewards like safety, social dominance, and external validation for one’s way of life. Thompson and Remmes (2002) distinguish between the two as “religion as a means” versus “religion as an end.”

Both intrinsic and extrinsic forms of belief influence individual religious behavior, so while scholars often use individual measures such as a literal belief in God or church attendance to represent religiosity overall, recent scholarship has focused on cumulative measures that use factor analysis to create multidimensional scales. These scales encompass intellectual and ideological thought, public and private practices and experiences, emption, and perception of experiential aspects of religiousness (Huber & Huber, 2012; Neff, 2006). Duke University’s religion index is similarly composed of three dimensions, including frequency of attendance at religious services and private religious activities and intensity of intrinsic religiosity (Koenig & Büssing, 2010). Future research might engage with these measures to identify when aggregate measurement provides more or less explanatory value than individual behaviors and beliefs.

Gender Differences in Religiosity

One of the most consistent findings from over a half-century of scholarship on religious behaviors and beliefs is that women, as compared to men, exhibit higher levels of most forms of religiosity (de Vaus & McAllister, 1987; Lenski, 1953; Miller & Hoffmann, 1995; Trzebiatowska & Bruce, 2012). The distinct and persistent effects of gender on religiosity, coupled with vigorous debate over its causes, makes it one of the most studied group-based differences in the subfield. These gender differences in religiosity have been documented across locations, including in North America, Africa, Australia, and Western Europe (Akinyele, 2007; Crockett & Voas, 2006). While the majority of research focuses on Christian faiths, gender differences in religiosity have also been documented among Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu men and women (Firth, 1997; Hartman, 2016; Hassan, 2007; Kalkstein & Tower, 2009; Read, 2003). This article discusses the forms that gender gaps take and outlines several of the most common explanations for gender differences in religious activity and interest.

The gender gap is larger for private forms of piety than for public religiosity, although gaps exist across both measures (Sullins, 2006). For example, women report much higher levels of belief in God and the supernatural (Sherkat, 2008) and more frequent personal religious practice, such as prayer (Baker, 2008; Levin, Taylor, & Chatters, 1994). At the same time, women are also more publicly religious than men and exhibit higher rates of organizational affiliation (Batson, Schoenrade, & Larry, 1993; Rinehart & Perkins, 1989) and participation in religious habits like prayer and Bible reading (Davis & Smith, 1991).

There is a high level of heterogeneity within women’s religiosity. For example, age matters: older women—across races—participate more frequently in religious activities than do older men (Levin et al., 1994), and girls report higher levels of religious belief than do boys (Tamminen, 1994). Education decreases religiosity equally across both men and women; that is, highly educated men and women are equally likely to identify as non-religious or non-believers (Baker & Whitehead, 2016; but see Burge, 2017). Location-based differences in religiosity also exist, with higher religiosity among those that who live in rural areas (as compared to urban) and the South and Midwest (as compared to the Northeast and West) (Chalfant & Heller, 1991; Lay, 2012). While there is clear evidence that location shapes the political behavior of women and girls (Lay, 2017), scholars have yet to investigate how location might shape the religious behavior of men compared to women.

Heterogeneity in women’s religious experiences is also in evidence across race and ethnic groups. Race and gender have multiplicative—rather than additive—effects on religious involvement, consistent with theories of intersectionality (Brown & Gershon, 2016; Crenshaw, 1989; Farris & Holman, 2014). Although most women of color exhibit higher levels of religiosity than their co-racial male counterparts, the levels and types of these activities vary by racial and ethnic group. Thus, while black adults—both men and women—participate in religious communities at higher rates than their white counterparts (Calhoun-Brown, 1996; Levin et al., 1994; McDaniel, 2013) with stable levels of engagement over time (Emerson & Sikkink, 2006), there is heterogeneity when white and black women are compared (Farris & Holman, 2014). And while Latinos generally are more religious than whites (Gershon, Pantoja, & Taylor, 2016), less is known about gender differences in specific forms of religiosity between Latinas and Latinos or the degree to which these differences vary by generation, acculturation, or socioeconomic status.

Much of the literature on gender differences in religiosity focuses on sex differences and conceptualizes sex as a binary biological marker. Recent research points out the folly in this approach, rightfully calling for a more nuanced view of gender as a social construct (Cornwall, 2009). Of particular interest are Bittner and Goodyear-Grant’s (2017) findings of the inconsistencies in using sex to measure gender. Future research should evaluate questions of religiosity using their more nuanced measure of masculinity and femininity. Indeed, the limited extant literature demonstrates the importance of considering gender rather than sex: Francis and Wilcox (1998) found that degrees of masculinity and femininity were better predictors of religious orientation than sex, particularly among adolescents. In a follow-up study Francis (2005) found that the effect of femininity persisted among older men and women.

Research on religiosity also largely focuses on why women and men do engage in religious activities, not why they do not. Scholars have found that men, non-Hispanic whites, and Asian Americans are most likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated or non-religious (Baker & Smith, 2009; Baker & Whitehead, 2016; Djupe, Neiheisel, & Sokhey, 2018). Social and economic status, upbringing, political preferences, and lived experiences all shape religious disengagement (Baker & Whitehead, 2016; Djupe et al., 2018). For instance, previously incarcerated individuals and cohabitating adults were both less likely to participate in organized religion (Chatters, Taylor, & Lincoln, 1999). Future research might build on work by Baker and colleagues (Baker & Smith, 2009; Baker & Whitehead, 2016) to evaluate how gender interacts with social and economic forces to shape religious disengagement, or on work by Djupe et al. (2018) to examine how political and social attitudes shape whether women—as compared to men—decide to switch churches.

Good Girls Go to Heaven? Central Explanations for Gender Differences in Religiosity

A multitude of explanations for the gender gap in religiosity exist, including those that focus on sociological differences between women and men, such as gendered socialization patterns, the security axiom, and patriarchal structures within churches, as well as psychological explanations that include differences in personality and risk aversion. In each of these theories, a robust debate has emerged over the degree to which any single factor cause can satisfactorily explain why women are more religious than men.

Gendered Socialization Patterns

Across cultures and countries, men and women are socialized to value and perform roles traditionally associated with their gender, such as caregiving and interpersonal skills for women and leadership and assertiveness for men (Eagly, Wood, & Diekman, 2000; Trzebiatowska & Bruce, 2012). Within gender role theory, these socialization patterns lead to internal and external rewards for compliance with social norms and punishments for deviations for both men and women (Cassese & Holman, 2017a; Hoyt & Burnette, 2013). Women’s socialization reflects personality traits and modes of conduct compatible with religious orientations (Levin et al., 1994). Moreover, because women’s secular gender roles are proximate to women’s activities in religion (including motherhood and the nursing of the ill and elderly), women may find it natural to embrace the parallels between secular and non-secular roles (Trzebiatowska & Bruce, 2012).

Gender Roles

Certain attitudes may also shape women’s religiosity. One core set of such attitudes is the endorsement of traditional gender roles, which include endorsement of women in traditional caretaker roles, the idea that it is better for children if mothers stay home with them, and the belief that men should be the primary breadwinners (Cassese & Holman, 2017b; Silván-Ferrero & López, 2007). Religiousness is associated with higher levels of endorsement of traditional gender roles (Cassese & Holman, 2017b; Hoffmann & Bartkowski, 2008), and women may engage in religious behaviors because it is consistent with traditional gender norms.

The interactive effect of gender role attitudes and specific religious beliefs may be particularly influential on women’s religiosity. The highly gendered social hierarchy of conservative, literalist churches may psychologically motivate women to accept literalist interpretations of the Bible as a compensatory mechanism that offsets their marginalized status within the church (Cassese & Holman, 2017b). Excluded from positions of authority in these patriarchal organizations, literalism may emerge as a compensatory effect—adherence to which allows them to affirm their inclusion within the church and commitment to their faith as well as providing a conduit by which they can assert their own religious commitment (Hoffmann & Bartkowski, 2008).

Women in gender-traditionalist religions may (re)interpret central elements of the religion to engage in self-empowerment (Brasher, 1998; Burke, 2012; Hekman, 1995). For example, women may utilize masculine imagery of God to represent an ideal man, either as a father or a husband, which promotes a more intimate relationship with God (Griffith, 1997; Whitehead, 2012). Individuals who are raised in religious traditions (particularly literalist traditions) may also internalize forms of benevolent sexism (particularly paternalist attitudes). These views create and reinforce the view that women are the moral guardians of the family and men are incomplete without women. Such attitudes correlate more highly with forms of intrinsic religiosity, suggesting that literalist’s tendencies toward benevolent sexism constitute deeply held beliefs about the validity of traditional gender roles (Burn & Busso, 2005).

Structural and Cultural Factors

An individual’s economic and social place in society may also influence religiosity. The security axiom suggests that poorer individuals are particularly vulnerable to a variety of problems including health risks, gender inequality, and other structural inequalities that make them more susceptible to political, social, and economic instability. As a result, those in poorer nations—or poorer people in richer nations—may be more inclined to religiosity, as it reassures them of a greater cosmic plan or guarantees security in heaven (Inglehart & Norris, 2003). When women’s more vulnerable structural locations produce more precarious life positions, heightened security anxiety could contribute to increased levels of religiosity (Levin et al., 1994; Norris & Inglehart, 2011). These findings suggest that the security religion offers is particularly appealing to women (Miller & Hoffmann, 1995).

It may also be that women—overburdened with gendered social expectations—are incentivized to engage in religious practices. For example, women experience higher levels of stress from their roles as primary caregivers and in caregiving professions like teaching, nursing, and social work. These stressors may drive them to religious participation as a coping mechanism (Levin et al., 1994). As evidence, women are more likely to use their religious affiliation as outlets for solidarity with others, especially other women. Church Bible classes, mothering associations, and emotional support groups help women navigate stresses they face in their personal lives (Trzebiatowska & Bruce, 2012). The degree to which women’s more vulnerable economic status also promotes their religiosity because of a reliance on church-based aid is yet unstudied but could be a fruitful avenue for understanding women’s religiosity within the context of women’s vulnerable social and economic positions.

Personality and Risk Aversion

Personality differences between men and women have received significant attention as a source of religiosity. Miller and colleagues (Miller & Hoffmann, 1995; Miller & Stark, 2002) argue that women may be “physiologically” or biologically more risk-averse than men, making them more likely to avoid the existential risk of rejecting belief in God. How would this make women more religious? In short, non-belief is a risky behavior—those who believe in an afterlife might regard irreligiousness as potentially shaping one’s place in the afterlife. Within this context, if women are biologically more likely to avoid risk, they may also be biologically more inclined to be religious. Subsequent scholars have rejected both the biological underpinnings of these arguments, arguing instead that socialization shapes risk assessment and that risk assessment fully explains gender differences in religiosity.

Socially constructed gender processes shape both men and women’s perceptions and experiences of risk and their religious beliefs and convictions (Collett & Lizardo, 2009; Francis, 1997). Within this framework, Collett and Lizardo (2009) argue that power-control theory, or the idea that belief in traditional gender roles leads parents to try to control their daughters’ behavior, leads women to be socialized as more risk adverse. These patterns are concentrated in patriarchal households, who are more likely to be highly religious. There is some evidence of this, as the gap in religiosity declines among men and women raised in egalitarian households (Collett & Lizardo, 2009; but see Hartman, 2016; Hoffmann, 2009). Other socialization factors may also play a role. For example, women may be more sensitive to social costs attached to non-religious beliefs, particularly as women have traditionally been regarded as more moral than men (Baker & Smith, 2009; Edgell, Frost, & Stewart, 2017). Future research might evaluate how religious education may reinforce or challenge gendered socialization patterns like risk control; building gender into work like that by Guhin (2016) and others might provide a fruitful avenue of study.

While a robust debate has emerged about the sources of women’s risk aversion, a similar debate has also emerged about the degree to which risk aversion actually provides a full explanation of gender differences in religiosity. Upon testing, most research finds little evidence that risk preferences or beliefs in hell, the afterlife, or eternal damnation explain gender differences in religiosity (Freese, 2004; Freese & Montgomery, 2007). Comparative research finds no change in the effect of sex on religiousness when risk preferences are included in models (Freese, 2004; Freese & Montgomery, 2007; Roth & Kroll, 2007). These findings suggest that, at a minimum, risk preferences may be more influential in the gendered behavior of non-believers than a satisfactory explanation for the gender gap in religious participation.

Additional research has looked at other personality differences among religious and non-religious individuals, finding consistent personality patterns among religious individuals, such as scoring high on measures of agreeableness and conscientiousness (Saroglou, 2013). While some additional research has evaluated how known gender differences in these personality orientations (Costa, Terracciano, & McCrae, 2001) may influence religiosity (Penny, Francis, & Robbins, 2015), questions remain as to the degree to which personality differences between and among men and women contribute to religiosity (Friesen & Djupe, 2017).

Religiosity and Political Attitudes

Religiosity shapes a wide range of group-based identities and attitudes producing non-uniform effects across subgroups and creating differential effects on men’s and women’s political engagement and preferences, as well as variation within groups of women. As Layman (2001, p. 317) contends, although men and women express comparable levels of religious traditionalism, “there is a big difference in the moral values of traditionalists and modernists within each gender.”

Religion plays a role in individual and group identity formation and maintenance among African Americans. As discussed, African American churches play a key role in reinforcing shared cultural histories and modern identities. Thus, religiosity is associated with higher levels of in-group identification among African Americans (Dawson, 1994), although women and men are unequal recipients of this identification (Alexander-Floyd, 2007).

Among Latinas, religious identification may similarly reflect a desire to maintain the salience of Hispanic heritage (Mohamed, 2015), which may motivate greater participation in religious activities (Peña & Frehill, 1998) as a way to preserve a cultural identity (Cadge & Ecklund, 2007) even as Latinas integrate themselves into new cultural contexts. Future research might evaluate the degree to which gender shapes the degree to which religiosity is associated with acculturation. One possible explanation for the divergent effects of religiosity on white and Hispanic women on political participation lies in the way women from both cultures engage with their religious identity. For instance, while many religiously conservative traditions isolate women in lower social positions, some scholars suggest that Hispanic women are more successful at engaging religious beliefs and participation in a way that subverts and transforms social values (Peña & Frehill, 1998). As a result, religiosity may serve different sociopolitical objectives among white women and Latinas, although this topic deserves more study.

Ideology and Partisanship

While sociocultural norms and realities shape individual religious beliefs and practices, religious beliefs affect the formation and reformation of partisanship and ideology. Generally, women are more liberal than are men in the United States (Kaufmann & Petrocik, 1999; Ondercin & Bernstein, 2007) and most of the developed world (Inglehart & Norris, 2003), although there are significant variations across subgroups, location, and time (Brown & Gershon, 2016; Ondercin, 2017). Many scholars argue that religiosity exerts a more conservatizing force on men as compared to women. Indeed, Kaufmann (2002, p. 296) argues, “There is strong evidence that the culture wars—in particular partisan polarization over abortion and homosexual rights—may have recruited additional women to the ranks of the Democrats.” Cassese and Holman (2017b) investigate further, finding that specific religious beliefs, including a literalist view of the Bible, are associated with conservatism among some religious women.

Social and Political Acceptance

Despite being more accepting of individual out-group members than men (Pratto, Stallworth, & Sidanius, 1997), women are politically more reluctant than men to allow unpopular out-groups to exercise or expand their civil/constitutional rights and more likely to select targets with religious significance (compared to men, who are more likely to choose targets with ideological significance). Women are also more likely to offer religious objections to the out-group (Sullivan, Piereson, & Marcus, 1993). This tendency is partially linked to higher levels of religiosity among women (Golebiowska, 1999) but is also likely related to how religious norms shape individual predispositions to social dominance.

Gender Roles

Religiosity is particularly influential in shaping women’s gender role attitudes (Bartkowski & Hempel, 2009; Bartkowski & Read, 2003; Wilcox & Jelen, 1990), with religious women expressing more conservative attitudes about women’s gender roles than their male counterparts and less religious women expressing more liberal attitudes than men low on religiosity, an effect that holds across subpopulations of women (Bartkowski & Read, 2003; Read, 2003). Women’s more conservative attitudes on this topic may be mediated by their own theologically conservative beliefs, whereas men’s support for gender traditionalism is more directly predicted by their religious affiliation (Bartkowski & Hempel, 2009). These findings suggest that women may use traditional theological beliefs as “cultural compensators” to justify a belief system that prescribes them limited organizational authority (Hoffmann & Bartkowski, 2008).

Homosexuality and Abortion

Support for gay rights varies by religiosity and denomination (Barringer, Gay, & Lynxwiler, 2013) but also by gender within highly religious groups (Moskowitz, Rieger, & Roloff, 2010). Heterosexual women are, overall, more tolerant of gay individuals and issues than heterosexual men, even in more socially traditional southern states (Barringer et al., 2013). Similarly, when scholars account for the effects of religiosity, women are more likely to support legal abortion than men (Kelley & De Graaf, 1997), just as they are more concerned with women’s rights or other women’s issues (Sapiro, 2003). Lizotte (2015) also finds women are more likely to support legal abortion than men once she controls for religiosity; without these controls, men appear more favorable to abortion than are women.

Religious influences have particular relevance for the abortion debate, not only because religious teachings on life and death shape individuals’ perceptions about the legitimacy of abortion but because religious teaching and the norms of religious communities create and reinforce a worldview that profoundly influences individual attitudes. The emotionally charged nature of the abortion debate is, Luker (1984, p. 7) argues, a partial product of opposing personal interests: “People see in the abortion issue a simultaneously pragmatic, symbolic, and emotional representation of states of social reality—states that they find reassuring or threatening. . . . Participants in the abortion debate, therefore, are defending a world view—a notion of what they see as sacred and important—as well as a view of the embryo.” Few other issues showcase the conflict between religious and secular outlooks so clearly.

Religiosity and Political Participation

Religion has long played a role in national politics on both the individual and organizational levels, including increasing voter turnout and political engagement (Djupe & Gilbert, 2006; Jones-Correa & Leal, 2001). Churches can develop congregants’ political knowledge, skills, and resources as well as provide skills with political spillover benefits, including social capital, psychological engagement in a community, and organizational membership (Burns, Schlozman, & Verba, 2001; Dawson, Brown, & Allen, 1990; Djupe & Gilbert, 2006; Gershon et al., 2016). As a result, religiosity is generally associated with higher levels of various forms of political participation, including voter turnout and political knowledge, particularly among minority communities (Austin, 2006; Gershon et al., 2016; McDaniel, 2013; Warren, 2001). In many ways, church involvement may supplement or replace resources unavailable to these communities, encouraging group-based political activism and individual-level engagement (Dawson, 2001; Djupe & Grant, 2001; but see Holman, 2016; Verba, Burns, & Schlozman, 2003).

At the same time, women and men may not receive equal political benefits from religious engagement (Coffé & Bolzendahl, 2010; Read, 2007; Robnett & Bany, 2011). Indeed, while religiosity is associated with higher levels of political engagement, these effects are not uniform across men and women (Cassese & Holman, 2016; Coffé & Bolzendahl, 2010) or within heterogeneous groups of women (Farris & Holman, 2014; Holman, 2016). Indeed, gender shapes how individuals receive cues regarding political participation found in religious environments (Djupe, Sokhey, & Gilbert, 2007). And while research shows that church involvement facilitates the political participation of black men, it does not always do so for black women. The limited evaluations of Asian Americans suggest that religiosity has a smaller effect on women’s (as compared to men’s) religiosity (Jamal, 2005; Read, 2007). Research has yet to evaluate the degree to which religiosity may intersectionally shape the political engagement of Latinas and Latinos, although extant research on gender, ethnicity, and political participation suggests room for scholarly investigations (Brown, 2014; Gershon et al., 2016; Kam, Zechmeister, & Wilking, 2008).

The gendered structures of churches may also reduce the effect of religiosity on women’s political participation. Djupe (2014) argues that the underrepresentation of women in clergy positions (Olson, Crawford, & Deckman, 2005) may limit the degree to which women draw political benefits from churches but finds only limited evidence of a positive effect of a woman clergy member on political participation. Scholars have also pointed to the demobilizing effects of sexism within black churches on black women’s activism (Alexander-Floyd, 2007; Robnett & Bany, 2011). And, as Cassese and Holman (2016) find, women who adhere to literalist beliefs that designate strict gender roles for women reinforce their in-group identity and reduce their political participation. Future research might evaluate the degree to which other central religious beliefs shape political engagement across gender and racial groups.

Religiosity is also associated with important political activities like seeking naturalization. Latina immigrants are more likely to pursue naturalization than their male counterparts (Pantoja & Gershon, 2006). Lien (1994) found that that acculturation to American culture increased political participation among Hispanics; if these findings hold, they help create a fascinating intersectional image of Latinas both as culturally immersed in their traditional religious practices and as active instigators of cultural integration.

Religious beliefs associated with some denominations may be particularly important for political mobilization. For instance, if one perceives God as being active in daily life—as many white evangelical and black Protestant churches do—the need for individual action to address political problems may be seen as useless, as God will handle these issues (Froese & Bader, 2010). By contrast, Jews and mainline Protestants—who regard God as more inactive—may feel a need to be politically engaged since the Lord is further removed from political events (Driskell, Embry, & Lyon, 2008). At the same time, a black image of Christ has no effect on African American political engagement (Calhoun-Brown, 1999). Yet little of this research evaluates the ways in which gender shapes these views of God or if the views of God are equally influential in men’s and women’s political participation; this provides an avenue for future research.

Conservative doctrines provide an opening for conservative interest groups (and the Republican Party) to target voters who are likely to be receptive to their message about traditional social and family values but may be unlikely to turn out to vote (Smith & Walker, 2013; Wilcox & Sigelman, 2001). Although evangelical Protestant churches are most closely associated with institution-backed political activism, the Catholic Church routinely promotes voter turnout as well (Holman & Shockley, 2017). How much this activism increases women’s turnout is unclear, but such efforts may interact with the mobilizing effects of group membership and beliefs to promote political engagement (Wilcox & Sigelman, 2001). As such, mobilization by churches may promote men’s conservative activism while moving women toward liberal activism.


The research here documents the scholarship on how gender shapes religiosity, with a focus on the central discussions of why women are consistently more religious than men. The article then delves into the potential consequences of these differences in terms of group membership, political attitudes, and political engagement. Throughout the article gaps in the scholarship are noted, with a focus on understanding how gender interacts with core religious and political beliefs and activities to produce differing experiences and attitudes for men and women.

Religiosity includes a diverse set of activities and beliefs. The diversity in religiosity is also reflected in who engages in these activities and endorses these beliefs. The long-standing and consistent pattern of women’s higher levels of religiosity has produced vigorous debates and a large body of scholarship. At the same time, however, there are still clear gaps in our knowledge about the forms of religiosity, differences in religiousness across groups, and the effects of these religious behaviors and attitudes on social and political views and engagement. We have laid out this literature and identified various gaps in our collective knowledge. For example, we know much less about how women across racial and ethnic groups engage in religious activities as compared to their male counterparts. These gender differences are particularly important as we consider that, for example, the white evangelical population in the United States is declining while the Asian and Latino evangelical population increases (Putnam & Campbell, 2012; Wong, 2015). Nor do we know much about how race, gender, and religiosity interact to shape political attitudes. The interaction of gender and racial or ethnic identity in shaping religious and political experiences is worthy of further attention.

There is also methodological room in the study of gender and religiosity in how both gender and religiosity are measured in the scholarship. While research demonstrates the utility of moving beyond a binary measure of gender and some research suggests this is important for discussions of gender and religiosity, there is still considerable room for uncovering how gender as a social construct and spectrum can influence religious behavior. Similarly, in the measurement of religiosity, there have been some efforts toward developing aggregate measures of religious behaviors and beliefs. What remains unclear, however, is how these efforts might shape our understanding of gender and religiosity, particularly given the extensive findings that particular components of religious identity are key to gendered religious and political behavior.

Further Reading

  • Bartkowski, J. P., & Hempel, L. M. (2009). Sex and gender traditionalism among conservative protestants: Does the difference make a difference? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48(4), 805–816.
  • Bittner, A., & Goodyear-Grant, E. (2017). Sex isn’t gender: Reforming concepts and measurements in the study of public opinion. Political Behavior, 39(4), 1–23.
  • Brasher, B. E. (1998). Godly women: Fundamentalism and female power. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Brown, N. E., & Gershon, S. A. (Eds.). (2016). Distinct identities: Minority women in U.S. politics. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Cassese, E. C., & Holman, M. R. (2016). Religious beliefs, gender consciousness, and women’s political participation. Sex Roles, 75(9–10), 514–527.
  • Djupe, P. A. (2014). The effects of descriptive associational leadership on civic engagement: The case of clergy and gender in protestant denominations. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 53(3), 497–514.
  • Griffith, R. M. (1997). God’s daughters: Evangelical women and the power of submission. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Hoffmann, J. P. (2009). Gender, risk, and religiousness: Can power control provide the theory? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48(2), 232–240.
  • Hoffmann, J. P., & Bartkowski, J. P. (2008). Gender, religious tradition, and biblical literalism. Social Forces, 86(3), 1245–1272.
  • Layman, G. C. (2001). The great divide: Religious and cultural conflict in American party politics. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Lizotte, M.-K. (2015). The abortion attitudes paradox: Model specification and gender differences. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 36(1), 22–42.
  • McDaniel, E. L. (2013). The black church and defining the political. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 1(1), 93–97.
  • Miller, A. S., & Hoffmann, J. P. (1995). Risk and religion: An explanation of gender differences in religiosity. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 34(1), 63–75.
  • Olson, L. R., Crawford, S. E. S., & Deckman, M. (2005). Women with a mission: Religion, gender, and the politics of women clergy. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
  • Rinehart, S. T., & Perkins, J. (1989). The intersection of gender politics and religious beliefs. Political Behavior, 11(1), 33–56.
  • Robnett, B., & Bany, J. A. (2011). Gender, church involvement, and African-American political participation. Sociological Perspectives, 54(4), 689–712.
  • Whitehead, A. L. (2012). Gender ideology and religion: Does a masculine image of God matter? Review of Religious Research, 54(2), 139–156.


  • Akinyele, S. T. (2007). Gender differences and church member satisfaction: An appraisal. Gender and Behaviour, 5(2), 1432–1441.
  • Alexander-Floyd, N. G. (2007). Gender, race, and nationalism in contemporary black politics. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Allport, G. (1954). The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Austin, S. D. W. (2006). The transformation of plantation politics: Black politics, concentrated poverty, and social capital in the Mississippi delta. Albany: State University of New York Press.
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