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Religion and Secularism among American Party Activists

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Abstract

Prior work has shown party activists and religious divisions to be two of the leading causes of party polarization in American politics. Using the Convention Delegate Studies, we examine the interaction between these two culprits and their impact on party polarization. We leverage a novel measure of secularism in the latest wave of the Convention Delegate Studies to demonstrate that active secularism is distinct both conceptually and statistically from low religiosity. Furthermore, we show that both religiosity and secularism drive party activists to take more extreme policy positions, to identify themselves as more ideologically extreme, and to exhibit less support for compromise. As the Democratic and Republican Parties have become more secular and religious, respectively, these results suggest religious polarization may compound existing divisions between the two parties and exacerbate the partisan divide in American politics.

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... Following World War II, U.S. protestants across denominations emphasized individual morality and evangelism, but the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s ultimately pushed liberal White protestants into direct social action, to the consternation of conservative White protestants (Wuthnow 1988). However, the emergence of the Moral Majority in the 1970s, which advocated for traditional Christian values in public life, and the increasingly close coupling of conservative protestants with the Republican party, again shifted public perceptions of Christianity (Gushee 2008;Layman and Weaver 2016;Wuthnow 1988). ...
... The polarized climate may be placing liberal Protestants in a double bind, wherein they are called upon to articulate their distinct religious perspective while also wanting to show that their approach to politics differs from that of conservative Protestants. Furthermore, liberal Protestants also seek to distinguish themselves from secular liberal groups (Layman and Weaver 2016;Scheitle 2005); although my data cannot address how people at Dogwood Church discursively engage with such secular groups, future research should explore how liberal Protestants carve out their identity in liberal contexts where a religious motivation may also be viewed with skepticism (Sager 2017). ...
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... While such "passive secularism" is an important phenomenon in itself, "active secularism," i.e., "the affirmation of secular identity and beliefs" (Campbell et al. 2018, 553) is arguably a more interesting cluster of attitudes. While passively secular citizens are by definition indifferent toward religion but may still accept its traditional role in society and politics, actively secular citizens are positively opposed to religious arguments and authority, which may spur them into political activity and lead them to adopt more extreme positions (see, e.g., Layman and Weaver 2016;Brockway 2018;Layman et al. 2021). ...
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As religiousness is declining across democracies, scientific interest in secular orientations and their political implications is growing. One specific and particularly important aspect of secular attitudes is political secularism. Political secularism is not merely the absence of religiousness, but rather a world view which holds that religious beliefs should play no role in politics. While there are hundreds of survey instruments that measure the strength and content of religiousness, there is no comparable measure that taps into political secular-ism. In this research note, I briefly review the concept of political secularism and present a cluster of items which target it. Utilizing data from four large population representative samples taken from the eastern and western states of Germany, I use confirmatory factor analysis to show that these items form a short but internally consistent scale. This scale also displays convergent and discriminant validity. It may be readily used in future surveys.
... The correlation between religiosity and Republican identification and voting has become stronger over time (Davis 2018;Putnam and Campbell 2010). This link has been found at multiple levels of political participation -among general voters, party activists, and elected representatives alike (Layman and Weaver 2016). This relationship holds for a variety of religious indicators, including worship attendance, frequency of prayer and scripture reading, saying grace regularly, belief in biblical authority, and holding an image of God as involved and authoritative (Bader and Froese 2005;Layman and Green 2006;Putnam and Campbell 2010). ...
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... For example, most unaffiliated voters align themselves with the Democratic Party. This growth of the nonreligious among active Democrats furthers the religious-secular divide between the Democrats and Republicans, with the latter party courting committed Evangelicals and other religious traditionalists (Campbell et al. 2018;Layman and Weaver 2016). Although Democratic Party affiliation tells us something important about nonreligious political views and values, political party affiliation does not map perfectly to individual conservative or liberal political views, which is why examining political attitudes may shed light on more fundamental values or perhaps clarify the nature of relations between political ideology and nonreligion. ...
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