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date: 05 August 2020

Electoral Choice and Religion: United States

Summary and Keywords

Scholars have identified a variety of mechanisms through which religion could impact vote choice in the United States. Researchers have long recognized that, like other social identities, religion is an important factor in the development of party identification. In the United States, evangelical Protestants and highly committed members of other religious traditions tend to favor the Republican Party, while seculars and low-commitment members of other religious traditions tend to favor the Democratic Party. Religion also impacts views on a variety of issues, including abortion, social welfare policy, and foreign affairs. Under the right circumstances, religious voters may incorporate these policy positions into their vote choice. Finally, a growing body of research recognizes that voters use a candidate’s religious views as a heuristic to infer partisanship, ideology, competence, trustworthiness, and a variety of other traits. Given these numerous paths of influence, it is no surprise that researchers regularly find that religion is an important factor in electoral choice.

Researchers have also identified a variety of ways in which religion can impact turnout, thereby creating a second means for religion to influence American elections. Religion helps in the development of social networks and civic skills, thus reducing the costs of political participation. Religion can also be a factor in the development of sociopsychological traits such as threat, thereby facilitating mobilization. By understanding the capacity of religion to impact both turnout and electoral choice, scholars can better understand the myriad ways in which religion influences elections in the United States.

Keywords: religion, political parties, political issues, candidates, elections, voting, politics and religion


While religious identities are exerting a declining impact on electoral politics in most advanced industrial democracies, religion continues to exert an important influence on electoral behavior in the United States (Norris & Inglehart, 2004). Indeed, controversies over religion have been ubiquitous in recent American elections. Could George W. Bush mobilize enough evangelical voters in 2004? Would the persistent false rumor that Barack Obama was a Muslim cost him votes in 2008 and 2012? Would evangelicals turn out for Mitt Romney, a Mormon who was once pro-choice? Would evangelicals refuse to vote for Donald Trump, who appeared at times to lack familiarity with Christianity and whose offensive statements about women suggested that he did not share evangelicals’ conservative attitudes about sexuality? At the heart of each of these controversies is an assumption that religion is an important factor in vote choice. This article summarizes the scholarly literature on the nature of religion’s impact on American elections in an effort to better understand the dynamics behind its influence on voting behavior.

A survey of the research on religion and politics suggests that religion has important implications for each step in the vote choice process. At its core, religion is an important social identity. Like many social identities, it lends itself to the development of party identification, widely recognized as the best predictor of vote choice (Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes, 1960; Lewis-Beck, Jacoby, Norpoth, & Weisberg, 2008). Religion can also impact the way that voters view political issues. In particular, in recent decades religion has become closely associated with cultural issues like abortion, gay marriage, and the relationship between church and state. Finally, religion impacts the way that voters view the candidates. Voters use a candidate’s religious identity to make inferences about the candidate’s party, ideology, issue attitudes, and other traits.

Given that religion operates at each stage of the decision process, it should be no surprise that researchers regularly find a “God gap” in voting (Green, 2010). In an original analysis of the religion gap in the 2016 election, evidence was found that both religious tradition and religious attendance impacted vote choice in a variety of complex ways. Finally, religion’s impact on turnout is briefly discussed, highlighting the fact that turnout is highest among cultural in-groups from Judeo-Christian traditions and lowest among out-groups like Muslims and the unaffiliated. Together, the analysis highlights the complicated ways in which religion impacts voting and turnout in American elections.

Religion, Social Identity, and the Party Cleavages

Any effort to understand the electoral relevance of religion must begin with an understanding of religion’s role in building party identification. Numerous theoretical perspectives emphasize the fact that party identification is the single best predictor of the vote in the United States (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, & McPhee, 1954; Campbell et al., 1960; Green, Palmquist, & Schickler, 2002; Lewis-Beck et al., 2008). The debate over the nature of party identification is a long-running theme in the study of American politics (e.g., Johnston, 2006; Niemi & Weisberg, 2001). One influential perspective, sometimes deemed the “social-psychological” school or the “Michigan model,” explains the formation of political attitudes through the famous “funnel of causality” (Campbell et al., 1960; Lewis-Beck et al., 2008). In this model, political behavior begins with sociodemographic characteristics such as gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation. These factors influence the development of party identification, which is understood as a psychological identification with a political party. Once developed, party identification influences views on political issues. Both partisanship and issue attitudes condition views of the candidates. Together, these factors account for most of the vote choice decision.

Social group identities are an important factor in the development of partisanship. Identification with a social group seems to form quite easily for humans, even when groups are based on relatively nonconsequential traits (Tajfel, 1981, 1982). Therefore, it should be no surprise that highly salient identities like race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation dramatically influence the development of party identification. Another influential social identity is religion. As of 2014, about 77% of Americans affiliate with a given religion, and approximately 36% of Americans report that they attend religious services weekly or more (Pew Research Center, 2015). Religion also plays a crucial role in the day-to-day existence of many Americans (Putnam & Campbell, 2010); about 53% of Americans report that religion is “very important” to their daily lives (Pew Research Center, 2015). Given the importance of religion as a social identity, it should be no surprise that religion influences partisanship.

Another take on the sociopsychological model provides a slightly different account of how religion becomes relevant for partisanship. Green, Palmquist, and Schickler (2002) suggested that party identity forms as individuals compare themselves to the social group images of the major parties. Voters notice that they are more like the elites and activists of one party, and they begin to see themselves as part of that party. In the early part of the 21st century, evangelical Protestants and “religious people” are an important part of the Republican Party’s image, while seculars have become a part of the Democratic Party’s image (Campbell, Green, & Layman, 2011, p. 46). This perspective provides a path of influence for religion even absent the social cues picked up through church membership (e.g., Djupe & Gilbert, 2009; Putnam & Campbell, 2010).

That said, it is important to note that the exact nature of the relationship between religion and the parties changes over time, in part because religion itself is a multidimensional concept (Layman, 2001; Leege & Kellstedt, 1993; Smidt, Kellstedt, & Guth, 2009). In particular, researchers have identified three dimensions of religion, sometimes called the “three Bs”: believing, behaving, and belonging (Kellstedt, Green, Guth, & Smidt, 1996; Layman, 2001). For many researchers, the foundation of religion is belonging, whether that means a local congregation, a specific religious denomination, or a broader religious tradition (Steensland et al., 2000). Perhaps the most important measure of belonging is religious tradition, which Kellstedt et al. (1996, p. 176) defined as “a group of religious communities that share a set of beliefs that generates a distinctive worldview.” For example, the evangelical Protestant religious tradition is made up of historically White denominations that took a theologically conservative approach toward modernity (Smidt, 2007, 2013). These denominations include most Baptists, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Pentecostals, Charismatics, and many nondenominational churches. The believing dimension encompasses both a general belief in a God or gods and conformity to specific religious doctrines such as biblical literalism, transubstantiation, and reincarnation (Layman, 2001). Finally, behaving refers to taking part in religious activities such as attending church, praying, reading religious texts, fasting, and avoiding certain foods (Kellstedt et al., 1996). Clearly, these dimensions are related to one another; each religious group has its own characteristic beliefs and behaviors. It is also possible to take part in certain beliefs and behaviors while rejecting an identification with any religious tradition. The key, then, is that researchers studying religion’s impact on voting must account for the multidimensional nature of religion.

For much of U.S. history, the primary religious cleavage between the parties was defined on the basis of religious belonging. Sometimes referred to as the “ethnoreligious” model of voting or the “old religion gap” (Green, 2010), this cleavage pitted members of liturgical churches (Catholics, Episcopalians) against members of pietist churches (Baptists, Methodists, etc.) (Smidt, Kellstedt, & Guth, 2009; Swierenga, 2007). While those belonging to liturgical churches preferred the libertarian policies of the Jacksonian Democrats, pietists increasingly used the Whig party to further their religious causes. For example, in the 1840s, the Whigs extended the naturalization period from five to fourteen years, making it more difficult for often Catholic immigrants to become citizens (Swierenga, 2007). The wave of immigration due to the Irish famine in the early 1850s greatly increased anti-immigrant sentiments and was a major factor in the founding of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party in 1854 (Wilentz, 2009). For several decades after the Civil War, another wave of immigration caused a dramatic increase in the percentage of Catholics in the American population and a corresponding increase in anti-Catholic sentiments (Jeansonne, 2004; Swierenga, 2007).

This belonging-based “ethnoreligious” divide was on full display during the election of 1960, when John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith became a major campaign issue. The controversy over Kennedy’s faith led to his famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in which he declared, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic” (Kennedy, [1960] 1992, p. 175). The Kennedy campaign’s efforts to confront anti-Catholic sentiments highlight the continuing importance of religious tradition in structuring the divide between the parties in the mid-20th century.

Religion and the Parties: The New Religion Gap

Even while Kennedy was defending his faith on the campaign trail, there were signs that the ethnoreligious model was weakening. During the 20th century, secularization led to a declining relationship between religious identities and political behavior in most advanced industrial democracies (Norris & Inglehart, 2004). Indeed, the accumulating scientific work of Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and other secular thinkers caused a crisis of credibility for many religious traditions in the United States (e.g., Jeansonne, 2004). The differing responses to secularization and modernization within and between denominations caused a gap between theological traditionalists, who rejected Darwinism and advocated taking the Bible literally, and theological modernists, who took religious doctrines more figuratively (Hunter, 1991; Jeansonne, 2004; Layman, 2001). For much of the period between the publication of Darwin’s work and the mid-20th century, a sizable majority of the American public sided with the “traditionalists” on this battle, thereby giving neither party an incentive to alter the dominant ethnoreligious cleavage (Layman, 2001).

However, things began to change in the 1960s when a wave of cultural liberalism swept over the country as the baby boomers came of age (Putnam & Campbell, 2010; Layman, 2001). Increasing sexual liberalism and opposition to the Vietnam War drove the “New Left” activists into the Democratic Party, and the party responded by taking a major step to the left on cultural issues with the nomination of George McGovern in 1972 (Layman, 2001). Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court announced its controversial decision in Roe v. Wade (1973). Theological traditionalists responded with a backlash, which Putnam and Campbell (2010) describe as an “aftershock” to the earthquake of the 1960s. A new social movement, known as the New Christian Right, emerged with the goal of mobilizing evangelical Christians and other religious traditionalists into conservative politics, largely on the basis of cultural issues like abortion (Putnam & Campbell, 2010; Wilcox & Robinson, 2011). The New Christian Right helped mobilize activists into Republican Party politics and pushed the Republican Party to the right on cultural issues (Hunter, 1991; Layman, 2001; Putnam & Campbell, 2010). The style of political debate also changed, as both cultural progressives and cultural traditionalists based their arguments on a set of mutually exclusive norms and values, thereby reducing the potential for discussion and compromise (Leege, Wald, Krueger, & Mueller, 2002). This set of social and political changes proved so divisive that sociologist James Davison Hunter (1991) famously described it as a “culture war.”

The increased emphasis on religious commitment (the “believing” and “behaving” aspects of religion) led to growing differences in behavior between low-commitment and high-commitment members in each tradition that Wuthnow (1988) labeled “religious restructuring” (Putnam & Campbell, 2010; Smidt, Kellstedt, & Guth, 2009). For example, Catholics moved out of the Democratic Party and became a key swing constituency, with highly committed Catholics increasingly voting Republican and less highly committed Catholics remaining Democratic (Wilson, 2007). The changes were also visible at the elite level. One frequently made comparison notes that while John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith was the primary religious issue in the 1960 presidential election, by 2004 John F. Kerry’s Catholic faith was uncontroversial for the vast majority of voters. Instead, most of the discussion about Kerry’s religion was centered around his apparent lack of orthodoxy on key issues like abortion (Steinfels, 2007; Wilson, 2007).

That said, scholars must be careful not to overemphasize the role of religious commitment and underemphasize the continued importance of religious tradition. The literature is clear that under the current alignment, both religious tradition and religious commitment matter for public opinion and vote choice (Green, 2010; Layman, 2001; Putnam & Campbell, 2010; Smidt, Kellstedt, & Guth, 2009). The continued prominence of religious tradition helps us explain why some religious groups, including Black Protestants and Jews, did not become more Republican during this period. The Black Protestant church has its own unique brand of theology that incorporates elements of Black liberation theology and the Prosperity gospel (Harris-Lacewell, 2007). Thus, while African Americans do tend to hold conservative attitudes on cultural issues, those views tend to have a smaller impact on voting behavior (McDaniel, 2007). Likewise, the unique elements of the Jewish religious tradition, including its emphasis on peace and nondiscrimination, are an important factor in their continued liberal voting patterns (Djupe, 2007). Therefore, researchers must be careful to account for both religious commitment and religious tradition when attempting to understand the relationship between religion and the parties today.

Two important religious trends suggest the potential for additional change in the relationship between religion, the parties, and the vote. First, researchers have noted a rapid increase in the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation, beginning in the 1990s (Hansen, 2011; Hout & Fischer, 2002; Putnam & Campbell, 2010). This increase, which Putnam and Campbell (2010) labeled the “second aftershock” to the earthquake of the 1960s, is concentrated among younger generations and political moderates and liberals (Hout & Fischer, 2002). Second, the United States is growing more racially and ethnically diverse, leading to growing diversity within most religious traditions (Jones, 2012; Putnam & Campbell, 2010). Conventional wisdom dictates that both trends will benefit the Democratic Party in the long term (Jones, 2012). However, it is worth noting that both trends also create incentives for the Republican Party to shift its policy positions and open up its coalition to seculars and non-Whites in order to remain competitive. While the Republican Party’s embrace of the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s candidacy for president suggest that White Christian retrenchment is currently a winning strategy for Republicans, it remains unclear for how long this strategy will work given America’s growing diversity and secularism.

Religion, Issue Attitudes, and the Vote

A second path for religion to influence voting behavior comes through its influence on specific issue attitudes. Throughout American history, religion has been associated with a variety of issue positions. Around the time of the American founding, groups like the Baptists and the Methodists took strong stances against the establishment of religion, ultimately forming an important part of the constituency that passed Virginia’s religious freedom bill in 1785 (Corbett & Corbett, 1999). American religious groups were also deeply divided over the issue of slavery, causing painful splits within the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches (Corbett & Corbett, 1999). Prohibition caused yet another divide; most Protestant denominations (especially those with a more pietist style) supported prohibition, in part because of ethnocentric concerns about the drinking of Irish Catholics (Ahlstrom, 1972; Corbett & Corbett, 1999). In short, religion has impacted public opinion in some of the most important political questions in the history of the United States.

In the early 21st century, thanks to religious restructuring and the culture wars, religion is perhaps most closely associated with cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage. When abortion began gaining salience after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), religious leaders from both the Catholic and evangelical churches spoke out. Religious elites founded organizations like the Moral Majority (Jerry Falwell), Focus on the Family (James Dobson), and the Christian Coalition (Pat Robertson) in the hopes of mobilizing evangelicals and religious traditionalists into conservative politics (Capps, 1990; FitzGerald, 2017; Martin, 1996; Wilcox & Robinson, 2011; Williams, 2012). These divisions were reflected in the mass public as well: A variety of studies showed that both religious tradition and religious commitment were important factors in structuring the public’s attitudes on abortion (Cook, Jelen, & Wilcox, 1992; Evans, 2002; Jelen, 2009). Sensing the strategic opportunity to pick up voters, both parties shifted their coalitions: The Republican Party moved to the right and the Democratic Party moved to the left (Layman, 2001). The end result was the two parties becoming more polarized on cultural issues like abortion (Adams, 1997).

Religion also plays an important role in views on other cultural issues. In the 1990s and 2000s, LGBT rights (including gay marriage) emerged as another issue in the culture wars (Campbell & Monson, 2008; Haider-Markel, 2001). Both religious tradition and religious commitment play an important role on LGBT rights (Putnam & Campbell, 2010), although that relationship is sometimes more complex than expected (Jelen, 2009; Wilcox & Norrander, 2002). A third front in the culture wars includes debates over the proper role of religion in the public square, including teacher-led prayer in public schools, the display of the Ten Commandments on government property, and school voucher programs. Not surprisingly, both religious tradition and religious commitment are strong predictors of attitudes on religious establishment policies (Jelen & Wilcox, 1995). While we generally do not think of attitudes on church and state as an important factor in voting behavior, Castle (2015) showed attitudes on religious establishment did impact electoral choice among those who felt high levels of cultural threat.

While the link between religion and cultural issues is well established, a variety of research suggests that religion also informs economic issue attitudes (Wilson, 2009). Perhaps the most famous connection between religion and economics comes from German sociologist Max Weber’s (1930) famous “Protestant ethic” thesis. In the Calvinist strain of Protestant theology, hard work and discipline were thought to be a sign of being one of “the elect” (i.e., those predestined to salvation). A consequence was that hard work was valued and encouraged in majority-Protestant societies. Weber (1930) famously argued that this Protestant ethic was an important factor in the development and flourishing of capitalism in Western Europe. Weber’s thesis received some support in survey research. Barker and Carman (2000) showed that White born-again Christians held more conservative attitudes on domestic spending, taxation, and the role of the federal government in the economy, even when controlling for a variety of other factors. Using structural equation models, they showed that religion’s influence on economic attitudes operated both directly and through intervening variables like cultural attitudes, party identification, and ideology. Other research suggested a more complicated relationship between religion and economic attitudes. Wilson (1999) stressed that evangelicals tended to hold more favorable attitudes toward Blacks, the unemployed, the poor, and the homeless than mainline Protestants. However, mainline Protestants remained more supportive of welfare and food stamps than evangelicals, suggesting that evangelicals are simultaneously more empathetic toward the poor but also opposed to governmental solutions to poverty.

There is also some evidence of a connection between religion and attitudes on foreign policy, although in general the relationship is weaker than on cultural issues. For example, Barker, Hurwitz, and Nelson (2008, p. 308) found that belief in biblical inerrancy was strongly related to support for “messianic militarism,” by which they meant the belief that the international actions of the United States were “divinely inspired” and “necessary to a cosmic battle between good and evil.” Guth (2009) argued that religion’s impact on foreign policy attitudes may be growing due to increased attention from religious leaders (especially evangelicals and Catholics) as well as the increasing connection between party identification and foreign policy views. Guth (2009) then showed that evangelicals, mainline Protestants, White Catholics, and Jews all had higher levels of support for the Bush Doctrine (preemptive military action for the sake of national security, including preventing terrorism) compared to other groups. He found that these effects were mostly a function of religious beliefs and behaviors, including civil religion, moral absolutism, and religious involvement.

In short, then, religion is connected to views on a variety of political issues. However, not every issue that matters to religious voters will impact vote choice. The literature is clear that, for most voters, party identification is earlier in the causal stage than issue attitudes (Campbell et al., 1960; Converse, 1964; Lewis-Beck et al., 2008). Therefore, in most circumstances, voters will change their issue positions to maintain consistency with party elites (Carsey & Layman, 2006). In order for an issue to play an important role in party identification (and therefore voting behavior), two conditions must be met. First, citizens must find a given issue to be politically salient. Second, citizens must be able to identify clear party differences on such issues (Carmines & Stimson, 1989; Carsey & Layman, 2006; Layman & Green, 2005; McTague & Layman, 2009). The scholarship is clear that cultural issues such as abortion met both of these requirements (Adams, 1997; Layman & Green, 2005; McTague & Layman, 2009). For other issues, including welfare, defense, and the environment, evidence that these issue positions exert a deep impact on partisanship and vote choice is considerably weaker (Layman & Green, 2005).

Religion and Candidate Choice

Although the U.S. Constitution prohibits any official religious test for office, it has long been clear that candidates’ personal religious views were important to voters. During the election of 1800, some elites argued that voters should oppose Thomas Jefferson on account of his religious views (Lambert, 1997). In another well-known example, 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith’s Catholic faith became a major campaign issue (Hostetler, 1998). In the second half of the 20th century, the religious views of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and nearly every other presidential candidate generated controversy for one reason or another.

The interest in candidates’ religious biographies has continued in the 21st century. Seemingly every election, commentators fret over how candidates’ religious identities will attract or repel voters. In 2004, the story was evangelicals’ attraction to George W. Bush, as well as Catholic voters’ suspicions toward John Kerry (in part due to his positions on cultural issues like abortion) (Wilson, 2007). In 2008, internet sources helped spread the false rumor that Barack Obama was a Muslim (Hollander, 2010; Layman, Kalkan, & Green, 2014). At the same time, observers suggested that Barack Obama spoke about religion in a more convincing manner than many recent Democratic nominees (CNN, 2008; Green, 2010; Pew Research Center, 2009), leading to speculation that perhaps he would receive more support from religious voters compared to Gore and Kerry. In 2012, commentators suggested that evangelicals might not support Mitt Romney with the enthusiasm necessary to achieve victory (Campbell, Green, & Monson, 2014). In 2016, commentators debated Donald Trump’s knowledge of and devotion to Christianity and questioned whether evangelicals and religious traditionalists might sit the election out, or even vote for Hillary Clinton (Benen, 2017).

There is mounting empirical evidence that candidates’ religious identities affect voter support. One such example was the persistent false rumor that Barack Obama was a Muslim. Hollander (2010) found that ideological conservatives, younger people, the less educated, and biblical literalists were more likely to believe that Obama was a Muslim. Despite the typical belief that exposure to the news media increases political knowledge, Hollander found that exposure to news media over the course of the campaign did not help correct misperceptions of Obama’s religion. Expanding upon these findings, Layman, Kalkan, and Green (2014) argued that misperceptions of Obama’s faith were driven in part by motivated reasoning, or the tendency of partisans to process new information in a way that reinforces existing attitudes. Using a survey experiment in which they varied information about Obama’s faith, they showed that cues such as using Obama’s middle name (Hussein) and discussing his exposure to Islam as a child were more effective at increasing perceptions of Obama as a Muslim among conservatives and the less politically aware.

There is also evidence that Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith may have impacted support for his candidacy. During the 2008 Republican primary elections, Campbell, Green, and Monson (2012) did a survey experiment in which they gave voters one of three profiles of Mitt Romney: a control with no information about his religion, a treatment that mentioned that he was “a local leader in his church,” and another treatment that said he was “a local leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, often called the Mormon Church.” While the church treatment had no statistically significant effect, the Mormon treatment reduced the probability of supporting Romney by about 30% (Campbell, Green, & Monson, 2012). Sides and Vavreck (2013) went one step further, attempting to estimate the impact of negative attitudes toward Mormons on the popular vote in the 2012 election. They found that if Americans’ attitudes toward Mormons were as warm as their attitudes toward generic Christians, Romney would have received an additional 0.8% of the popular vote. This effect was modest, but in a close election it may have proved consequential.

Beyond these candidate-specific controversies, polling firms like Gallup have repeatedly found that Americans report that they would not vote for members of certain religious groups for president. These surveys are closely tied to ethnocentrism (Kinder & Kam, 2009), with Americans repeatedly providing the symbolic stamp of approval to social in-groups (Judeo-Christians) and rejecting various social out-groups. A 2015 Gallup poll found that most respondents felt comfortable voting for social in-groups such as Catholics (93%), Jews (91%), and evangelical Christians (73%). In contrast, respondents showed continued skepticism toward out-groups such as Muslims (60%) and atheists (58%) (McCarthy, 2015). That said, there may be hope for candidates from social out-groups: Over time, Gallup has seen groups like Catholics and Mormons move from out-group status to in-group status by confronting the negative stereotypes behind their tradition (e.g., Campbell, Green, & Monson, 2014; Wilson, 2007).

A recent wave of research has attempted to understand the dynamics behind the influences of candidates’ religious identities. One shortcoming of the candidate-specific research is that estimating the true impact of religious traits using real candidates is quite difficult due to religion being tied in with other candidate characteristics like party, ideology, gender, appearance, and policy positions. Therefore, researchers have increasingly turned to experimental research designs in which they can hold the other details of a candidate’s profile constant. As with most survey experiments, one concern with this approach is external validity. In particular, many of these experiments fail to accurately simulate a complex, multicandidate electoral environment. Nevertheless, they have become an important tool for estimating the impact that a candidate’s religion has on her electoral support.

The research emphasizes that candidate traits can be an important heuristic, or shortcut, for voters (Campbell, Green, & Layman, 2011; Castle, Layman, Campbell, & Green, 2017; Popkin, 1994). Voters use candidate traits to infer other information about the candidates, including their ideology, trustworthiness, and competence. McDermott (2007) showed that voters stereotyped Catholic candidates based on the behavior of Catholic voters. As American Catholics have become more conservative since the 1960s, voters increasingly perceived Catholic candidates as more conservative. Following up on this research, McDermott (2009) showed that voters stereotyped evangelical candidates as more conservative, more competent, and more trustworthy than other candidates. Campbell, Green, and Layman (2011) showed that a candidate’s religious tradition shaped the effect of partisanship in voters’ evaluations, especially for evangelical Protestant candidates.

Another round of research has attempted to explain why atheist candidates have consistently received more opposition than other religious groups in the Gallup poll and other surveys. Consistent with the research showing that voters use candidates’ religious identities as a heuristic, Djupe, Calfano, and Back (2014) showed that most of voters’ resistance to atheist candidates was due to three stereotypes: The public believed atheists were untrustworthy, ideologically liberal, and opposed to a public role for religion. This research suggested that if representation of the nonreligious in Congress is to grow, atheists may need to use carefully chosen rhetoric to overcome these deeply held stereotypes.

Researchers are also increasingly recognizing that religious commitment is an important candidate trait, especially in the postreligious restructuring era (Castle et al., 2017; McLaughlin & Wise, 2014). For example, Castle et al. (2017) conducted a 4 X 3 survey experiment in which they asked respondents to rate their support for a hypothetical state legislative candidate. The treatments varied the candidate’s party (no cue/Republican/Democrat) and the amount of religiosity signaled in a brief statement (no cue/moderate religiosity/high religiosity/secular). They found that a candidate’s level of religiosity conditions the impact of party identification, ideology, and cultural issue attitudes, even after accounting for the respondent’s own religiosity. Their most striking finding was that the secular Republican candidate essentially did not activate partisanship among Republican respondents.

The growing importance of religiosity may provide one reason why candidates are increasingly using religious language both on the campaign trail and while in office (Domke & Coe, 2007; Shogan, 2007). For example, while most observers indicated that religion was not an important part of Donald Trump’s life prior to 2016, he incorporated religious language in his speeches and made high-profile stops at important religious centers, including Liberty University (Worthen, 2017). Another strategy candidates sometimes employ is speaking in coded religious language that appeals to insiders while at the same time avoiding negative reactions among outsiders who are unfamiliar with the “code” (Kuo, 2006). Using a series of experiments, Djupe and Calfano (2009, 2014) found that certain religious cues common in American political rhetoric appeared to generate strong positive reactions among evangelicals while evoking little to no negative reaction among other voters. Together, then, the research on religion and candidate preferences suggests that candidates’ religious affiliations, religiosity, and use of religious language can have important effects on electoral support.

Religion and Vote Choice

The previous section summarized several strains of research that, in totality, suggest that religion operates at every stage in the vote choice process. In order to get a sense of the magnitude of religion’s effects, this section briefly profiles religion’s impact on the 2016 presidential election, relying on data from the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (Ansolabehere & Schaffner, 2017). The very large sample size in the CCES (N = 64,600) allowed for obtaining reliable estimates of voting behavior, even for groups that made up a fairly small percentage of the American population. The dependent variable, presidential vote choice, consisted of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, and “Other.” Following the basic system developed in Steensland et al. (2000), the author coded the respondents into one of several religious traditions: evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, and Unaffiliated. Finally, the author grouped members of other traditions together as “Other Faiths.”

Electoral Choice and Religion: United States

Figure 1a. The effects of religious tradition and religious commitment in the 2016 election. Author’s original analysis.

Source: 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. (a) All Voters

Electoral Choice and Religion: United States

Figure 1b. The effects of religious tradition and religious commitment in the 2016 election. Author’s original analysis.

Source: 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. (b) Attend Once or Twice a Month or Less

Electoral Choice and Religion: United States

Figure 1c. The effects of religious tradition and religious commitment in the 2016 election. Author’s original analysis.

Source: 2016 Cooperative Cooperative Congressional Election Study. (c) Attend Once a Week or More.

The data in the top panel of Figure 1 show a broad “God gap” in the 2016 election. Black Protestants (89%), Muslims (81%), and Jews (69%) were the most pro-Clinton religious traditions. In contrast, evangelical Protestants were easily the most pro-Trump constituency, with 74% voting for the Republican candidate. In certain circumstances, religion was also clearly related to third-party voting. In particular, many Mormons were dissatisfied with both major party candidates, and the data show that about 20% of Mormons voted for third-party candidates like Evan McMullin.

It is also clear that religious commitment exerted a powerful effect on voting behavior in 2016. The middle and bottom panels of Figure 1 show the impact of religious tradition among nonweekly attenders (those who attended religious services once or twice a month or less) and weekly attenders (those who attended services weekly or more). The data make it clear that the precise nature of religious commitment’s influence varied by tradition (see Smidt, Kellstedt, & Guth, 2009). Often, higher religious commitment pushed groups toward conservative politics. For example, 79% of weekly attending evangelicals voted for Trump compared to 70% of nonweekly attending evangelicals. Weekly attending mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Unaffiliateds, and Mormons were also more conservative than their nonweekly attending counterparts. In other cases, religious commitment tended to push groups in a liberal direction. For example, weekly attending Muslims were more supportive of Clinton than nonweekly attending Muslims (83% to 79%, respectively). In 2016, religious commitment was related to third-party voting among Mormons: While about 7% of nonweekly attending Mormons voted for third-party candidates like Evan McMullin, among weekly attenders that figure soared to 24%. Finally, among Black Protestants, religious commitment appeared to have had little to no effect (likely because such a high percentage of African Americans already affiliated with the Democratic Party). In short, it was clear from this analysis that both religious tradition and religious commitment played an important role in vote choice in 2016.

Religion and Turnout

While this article is primarily concerned with religion and vote choice, religion also has an important impact on turnout. This relationship creates a second avenue through which religion can impact election results. One prominent illustration of this fact is Karl Rove’s famous assertion that George W. Bush’s narrow victory in 2000 was partly due to lower than anticipated turnout among evangelicals (Stricherz, 2004). As such, an important part of Bush and Rove’s strategy in 2004 was increasing turnout among evangelicals, particularly in battleground states like Ohio (Campbell, 2007). Evidence suggested that tools, including microtargeting and gay marriage ballot initiatives, may have helped the campaign achieve its goal of mobilizing more evangelicals (Campbell & Monson, 2008; Monson & Oliphant, 2007). Having established the importance of turnout among religious groups, discussion of how religion influences turnout is warranted.

One influential account of political participation, the civic voluntarism model, suggests that participation (including turnout) is largely a function of resources (such as time, money, and civic skills), psychological engagement with politics, and recruitment within social networks (Verba, Scholzman, & Brady, 1995). This model opens several doors for religion to impact political participation generally and turnout in particular. One important role for churches is allowing members to practice civic skills like giving speeches, organizing meetings, and working in groups (Putnam, 2000; Putnam & Campbell, 2010; Smidt, den Dulk, Penning, Monsma, & Koopman, 2008). Indeed, those who are more active in their religious traditions tend to be more active in politics (Putnam, 2000; Putnam & Campbell, 2010), although the size of this effect varies by religious tradition (Djupe & Grant, 2001). Importantly, Djupe and Gilbert (2006, 2009) noted that individuals were more likely to develop civic skills when they were involved in religious institutions that were more internally homogeneous and more distinctive compared to the local community. Religion also builds powerful social networks, allowing members to mobilize under the right conditions (Campbell, 2004; Putnam & Campbell, 2010).

Another prominent strain of research on turnout suggested that sociopsychological motivations can impact turnout (Weilhouwer, 2009). For example, the research stressed that party identifiers and those with more well-developed ideological identities were more likely to cast a vote (e.g., Lewis-Beck et al., 2008; Flanigan, Zingale, Theiss-Morse, & Wagner, 2015). To the extent that religion influences the development of partisanship and ideology, then, religion might indirectly impact turnout. Another sociopsychological factor is psychological threat. Research indicates that religious communities such as evangelicals and Mormons may prove especially capable of political mobilization when their values are threatened (Campbell, 2004; Campbell, Green, & Monson, 2014). For example, gay marriage ballot initiatives may have played an important role in mobilizing religious conservatives in swing states during the 2004 campaign (Campbell & Monson, 2008). These sociopsychological factors create a second mechanism allowing religion to influence turnout.

In order to visualize the cumulative effects of these processes, Figure 2 shows turnout by religious tradition in the 2016 election (again drawing on the CCES data). An important trend is that turnout is higher than average among Jews, mainline Protestants, evangelical Protestants, Mormons, and Catholics. It is noteworthy that all of these groups are religious in-groups that are relatively well established in American society. In contrast, the groups least likely to vote include social out-groups like Muslims and members of Other Faiths (e.g., Kalkan, Layman, & Uslander, 2009). In addition, turnout was quite low among the Unaffiliated. Certainly, one reason for the low turnout may be the continued status of the unaffiliated as a religious out-group. However, an important alternative explanation is that seculars do not meet regularly and therefore are not exposed to many of the opportunities to build civic skills and form social networks that religious adherents receive. One agenda for future research may be adjudicating between these competing explanations for turnout among the unaffiliated.

Electoral Choice and Religion: United States

Figure 2. Turnout by religious tradition. Author’s original analysis.

Source: Weighted 2016 CCES data.

These differences in turnout are politically important. As noted, seculars are a growing part of the American population, and they are a prominent liberal constituency. However, if seculars continue to turn out at rates comparable to 2016, the Democratic Party may find it difficult to win elections consistently. Hansen (2011) suggested that seculars do have the ability to mobilize, especially when presented with threats from opposing groups, such as the New Christian Right. Institutionalizing mobilization among seculars may prove important to Democrats’ future electoral success. Alternatively, maintaining (or even increasing) the high levels of turnout among groups such as evangelicals and Mormons may prove vital to the Republican Party’s continued ability to win elections.


This article has shown how religion impacts party identification, issue attitudes, and candidate choice. Together, these influences paved the way for religion’s impact on vote choice. In the analysis of the 2016 presidential election, both religious tradition and religious commitment influenced voting behavior. There was also evidence that religion impacted turnout, providing yet another avenue for religion to decide election outcomes. The assumption of a broad religious influence on voting behavior, evident in the quadrennial controversies in American presidential politics, was thoroughly supported in the academic literature.

As shown, while religion’s influence on voting was consistent, the precise nature of its impact varied over time. While the religious divides between the parties were once based in ethnoreligious identities, in the early 21st century they are rooted in cultural orientations toward modernity. It remains to be seen how long the cultural divide between the parties will persist. Important developments, including the increasing number of Americans with no religious preference and the rising diversity among many religious traditions, may lead to another round of changes in the religious cleavage between the parties. Therefore, continued monitoring of religion’s impact on voting is warranted.


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