Religion, Politics, and Americans’
Confidence in Science
Darren E. Sherkat
Southern Illinois University
Abstract: Americans’perceptions of science are structured by overlapping
cultural fields of politics and religion, and those cultural fields vary over time
in how they influence opinion about science. This paper provides a historical
narrative for understanding how religious and political factors influence public
perceptions of science over the last four decades. Using data from the 1974–
2012 General Social Survey, the impact of religious and political factors are
examined and compared across decades using heterogeneous ordinal logistic
regression models and ordinal structural equation models. Estimates show that
the impact of sectarian Protestant identification and fundamentalist beliefs in
the Bible are increasingly linked to lower levels of confidence in science, and
that these religious factors also influence the impact of political conservatism
and Republican Party identification. Political conservatism has become more
oppositional towards science, and Republicans have become less enthusiastic
compared to periods when science was primarily linked to militaristic endeavors.
Scientific research and pedagogy have been politicized since the develop-
ment of science, and economic and religious interests have influenced
which branches of inquiry will be supported or repressed. Yet, science
is often perceived by mass publics more through its applications to every-
day life through technology than through discoveries of new knowledge.
Often, religious and political interests are opposed to scientific discovery
in itself, particularly if it takes a form that violates religious dogma or is
costly to the state and has limited apparent practical application. From a
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Darren E. Sherkat, Department of Sociology,
Southern Illinois University, Faner Hall 3384, Mail Code 4524, 1000 Faner Drive, Carbondale, IL
62901. E-mail: email@example.com.
A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 annual meetings of the Southern Sociological
Society, Charlotte, NC. Comments from anonymous reviewers and Paul Djupe were helpful for
improving this work.
Politics and Religion, page 1 of 24, 2016.
© Religion and Politics Section of the American Political Science Association, 2016
religious view, humans may be perceived as vain, prideful, and trying to
outdo God if they seek knowledge which they believe is forbidden (Stark
1963). Many fundamentalist religious groups actively oppose scientific
pedagogy in areas where science infringes on religious explanations or
where science supports findings that contradict religious dogma (Ellison
and Musick 1995; Jelen and Lockett 2014; Moore 2001; Plutzer and
Berkman, 2008; Berkman, Pacheco, and Plutzer 2008). Studies consistent-
ly demonstrate that scientists are significantly less religious than the
general public (Ecklund and Scheitel 2007; Gross and Simmons 2009;
Larson and Witham 1998; Lemert 1979; Leuba 1921), and sectarian
Protestants and people holding fundamentalist beliefs in the Bible are sub-
stantially more opposed to scientific pedagogy, less trustful of science, and
less informed about science (Ellison and Musick 1995; Deckman 2002;
2004; Sherkat 2011).
Political movements are also often concerned about the propriety of sci-
entific inquiry, and the social and economic implications and consequences
of scientific applications in technology. Pro-industry political movements
tend to amplify the benefits of applying science to new technologies
across many realms, from medicine and drugs, to hydraulic fracturing,
nuclear power, military technology, or genetically modified food products.
In contrast, many liberal political movements have tended to support the
regulation of the use of science to develop technologies which might
harm the environment, generate negative economic externalities for
others, waste public resources, or enable the mass killing of humans.
Recently, Gauchat (2012) argued that the politicization of science has
largely been restricted to church-going political conservatives, who have
increasingly viewed science in a negative light. However, Gauchat
(2012) does not explore several potentially important political and religious
factors on confidence in science; particularly, the potential impact of
Republican Party identification, sectarian Protestant identification, and fun-
damentalist versus secular beliefs about the Bible.
In this article, I analyze General Social Survey (GSS) data from 1974–
2012 to examine trends in the predictors of confidence in science as a
social institution. I estimate a series of ordinal logistic regression
models across each of the four decades of the GSS, and compare these es-
timates using heterogeneous choice models (Mood 2010; Williams 2009).
Next, I estimate multiple-group ordinal structural equation models to
examine how the connections between religion, politics, and confidence
and science have shifted over the four decades. These analyses show
that the relationship between religious and political attachments and
confidence in science is complicated over time, and that the redefining of
political conservatism in terms of religious causes and Christian funda-
mentalism is partly responsible for growing hostility towards science
among political conservatives and Republicans.
RELIGION, SCIENCE, AND POLITICS AS INTERSECTING
Religion, science, and politics are abstractions used to encapsulate social insti-
tutions with definitive characteristics, yet which are also connected to one
another in the broader social field. Following Bourdieu (1991a;1991b;
1993), we can think of social fields as being constituted by cultural capital
that rewards dominant actors within a relatively autonomous arena of cultural
production, and interested actors in these fields contest over the resources con-
stituting the actual and symbolic aspects of cultural capital. Cultural capital
can be both virtual and actual (Sewell 1992), consisting of rules, ideas, and
understandings, as well as buildings, laboratories, endowments, and offices.
Within any field there is considerable competition over control of cultural
capital and the artifacts it produces and reproduces, and as in all competitions
there are winners —established scientific organizations, dominant religious
groups, and major political parties —and losers —pseudoscientific move-
ments, heretical sects, and fringe political movements.
Bourdieu (1991a, 7, emphasis in the original) argued that there are two
types of capital in the scientific field, “First is the capital of strictly scien-
tific authority, which rests upon the recognition granted by the peer com-
petitors for the competency attested to by specific successes…Second,
there is the capital of social authority in matters of science, partly inde-
pendent of the strictly scientific authority (more so as the field is less au-
tonomous) which rests upon delegation from an institution, most often the
educational system.”Cultural capital in the scientific field defines “the
boundary between authentic knowledge and false science, between true
and false problems, true and false objects of science, legitimate methods
or solutions and those that are absurd….(Bourdieu 1991a, 8).”
In the case of science, religion, and politics as intersecting cultural
fields, competition for the capital of social authority within each field is
often orthogonal to capital for social authority in the other fields.
Powerful actors in the religious field transpose their understandings of re-
ligious narratives to impugn scientific motives, ends, and findings. And, of
course, the social authority of a scientist or scientific organization can be
Religion, Politics, and Americans’Confidence in Science 3
called into question if individuals or organizations grant social authority to
religious narratives or institutions (Coyne 2012;2015). Similarly, religious
social authority may be discounted in the political field, and ordained re-
ligious officials and people with formal religious training are generally
considered ill-suited for political office, and the political power of reli-
gious groups is often viewed with suspicion by those who hold sway
over the political field. Political actors rightly fear that religious authority
could stifle economic and political innovation, as has been shown using
both US data on patents and cross-national data on beliefs about innova-
tion (Bénabou, Ticchi, and Vindigni 2015a;2015b). Indeed, the mix of
political authority with religious authority can also denigrate cultural
capital in the religious field; religious leaders may profane their religious
authority by playing politics. And, scholars have persuasively argued that
the politicization of religion reduces religious capital by spurring defection
(Hout and Fischer 2002;2014; Sherkat 2014). Finally, political social au-
thority is viewed with distrust in the scientific field, as institutions and in-
dividuals with strong political commitments and connections are deemed a
corrupting influence that can undermine scientific authority (Wang 1999;
CONTEXTUALIZING CONFIDENCE IN SCIENCE IN THE UNITED
Public opinion about science is an assessment of interpretations regarding
scientific cultural capital. Most people are not scientists, and they sit on the
sidelines of the scientific field. Most Americans interact with the scientific
field only through basic pedagogy, which for most comes in primary or
secondary education, or as part of required coursework in post-secondary
education. Beyond the educational setting, most Americans are only in-
formed about scientific advances by the general media, and as a conse-
quence, Americans lag behind other developed nations in their level of
scientific literacy (Baldi et al. 2008; Bybee 2008; Bybee, McCrae, and
Laurie 2009;Cromley2009). Given the public’s minimal connections to
the scientific field, schemata from other cultural fields will have a consid-
erable influence on Americans’confidence in the field of science. How
Americans view science will be influenced heavily by their perceptions
of their experiences with scientific pedagogy, and by when and how
science intersects with public issues like education, public policy, govern-
ment funding of science, and scientific technology applied to public
concerns like energy, environmental safety, medicine, and the military
(Pion and Lipsey 1981)
The “space race”mixed science into the geopolitical conflict of the
Cold War, feeding the intrusion of politics into science that began with
the development of superweapons like the atomic bomb and the applica-
tion of nuclear power for ships and submarines (Wang 1999; McLauchlan
and Hooks 1995). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States put
enormous resources into the science and technologies of space travel and
exploration, all of these efforts were expressly political, funded by the
state, and directly or indirectly connected to potential military applications
for satellite surveillance and the perfection of long range nuclear missiles
(Hooks and McLauchlan 1992; McLauchlan and Hooks 1995).
The equation of science with the cold war space race and with milita-
rism suggests that particular types of political cultural capital will have
confidence in these applications of science, while other types of political
capital will be critical of science. Particularly, we should expect that
during the Cold War political conservatives and Republicans should be
quite favorable toward science —since science was being used to push
back communism and provide lucrative technical advances that spilled
over into the domestic economy (particularly the rise of computers).
Indeed, even religious conservatives may warm to a scientific field that
kept them safe from godless communism. And, the negative environmen-
tal potential for scientific and nuclear technologies is often deemphasized
in sectarian and fundamentalist religious communities, who often view en-
vironmentalism as “earth worship”and believe, like Reagan Interior sec-
retary James Watt, that God will fix environmental damage (Sherkat and
In contrast, liberals saw scientific militarism as a scourge that promoted a
bloated military industrial complex and threatened the very existence of the
planet. Indeed, even within the scientific community the dangers of the
nexus of the military and space complex were acknowledged, and there
was considerable conflict over hitching scientific authority to the goals
and aims of the military industrial complex (Wang 1999). Catastrophic
events like the nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island (1979) and
Chernobyl (1983), as well as the Challenger space shuttle disaster (1986)
also shook many Americans’confidence in science (McLauchlan and
Hooks 1995), perhaps especially for those on the left who were already skep-
tical about the propriety of nuclear energy or the value of a militaristic space
program. Outside of the scientific community, liberal criticism of science
was all the rage by the mid-1990s with the ascendance of post-modernist
Religion, Politics, and Americans’Confidence in Science 5
critiques of science. Yet, postmodernism’s strident rejection of science began
to backfire in the late 1990s, and liberal backlash against postmodernist over-
reach was further fueled by scientific advances in AIDS and HIV research, as
well as the growing importance of scientific research for exposing environ-
mental problems like climate change. Liberal scientists began to push back
against anti-scientific orientations on the left, and post-modernist critiques
of science became something of a joke (Sokal 2008; Sokal and Bricmont
The fall of the Soviet Empire and the conversion of China to a mixed
capitalist economy also meant the equation of science with militarism
began to decline in the early 1990s. The space program became increas-
ingly international, particularly with cooperation between Russia and the
United States to operate the International Space Station (which became op-
erational in 1998), the culmination of cooperation that began with the joint
US-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz project in 1975. It was increasingly apparent that
the main goal of the space program was no longer for military purposes,
and that satellite technologies spurred by the space program were enabling
myriad applications for non-military purposes. The rise of modern com-
puting, cell phone technologies, and the development of successful treat-
ments for HIV and other devastating illnesses transformed what science
meant in the eyes of the mass public.
While the end of the Cold War gave political liberals a reason to have
increased confidence in science, the march of progress in fields like evo-
lutionary biology and theoretical physics clashed with the fundamentalist
religious beliefs held by sectarian Protestants. Conservative Christians’
longstanding concerns about secularized scientific pedagogy led to a
flourishing of fundamentalist schools, a vibrant home schooling move-
ment, and in many areas where conservative Christians dominate public
school teachers also reflect the antiscientific views of their communities
(Berkman and Plutzer 2010;2011; Deckman 2002;2004; Kunzman
2009; Peshkin 1986; Plutzer and Berkman 2008; Rose 1988; Sikkink
1999). Alongside these developments, prominent scientists with consider-
able scientific and social authority within the scientific field began to
directly confront religiously-inspired antiscientific movements, starting
perhaps with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’(1986) detailed
criticism of intelligent design. Within the field of science, there was in-
creasingly no room for the social authority of religion, and in the 2000s
many scientists began to openly combat the intrusion of religion into
the scientific field (Coyne 2012;2015; Dawkins 2006; Dennett 2006;
Harris 2004; Stenger 2010).
Beginning in the late 1970s, sectarian and fundamentalist religious indi-
viduals and institutions began to militate politically for a host of concerns,
including the reintroduction of religious doctrines in education and science.
The considerable overlaps between religious and political social fields
made conservative religion a powerful ally for conservative political move-
ments and regimes. Indeed, religiously inspired social conservatism came
to redefine what it meant to be conservative, and starting in the 1980s
Americans increasingly identified conservatism with positions on social
issues like sexuality, abortion, opposition to evolution, and support for
school prayer (Miller and Hoffmann 1999). This was a considerable depar-
ture from earlier periods when conservatism was defined more in terms of
libertarian stances on social issues, and laissez faire economic policies.
Indeed, over the course of the last four decades, this has also affected po-
litical party alignments, as sectarian Christians and fundamentalists increas-
ingly came to identify with the Republican Party, while social liberals left
the Republicans (McDaniel and Ellison 2008; Sherkat 2014).
The 1990s also saw the development of a scientific consensus that was
equally threatening to secular and religious conservatives —the over-
whelming evidence that humans were causing climate change primarily
through the use of fossil fuels. For economic conservatives, including
most Republicans, this was seen as a radical environmentalist agenda con-
cocted by politicized scientists who were opposed to the free market. For
religious conservatives, this was more evidence that scientific materialism
trumped the revelations of their Gods and promoted earth-worship.
Indeed, Richard Cizik, a senior director of the National Association of
Evangelicals, was sharply criticized after suggesting that Christians
should be worried about climate change and active in seeking its mitiga-
tion (Banks 2007). Both variants of conservatives were emboldened by
liberal Southern Baptist and Democratic Vice President Al Gore’s
(1992) book Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit and
subsequent documentary (2006) presenting the seriousness of the
problem of climate change and environmental damage.
By 2000, fundamentalist Christian orientations and sectarian Protestant
religious identifications had become closely connected to political conser-
vatism and Republican Party identification. Indeed, the anti-scientific ori-
entations of Republican Party members became so intense that journalists
wrote of a “Republican war on science”(Mooney 2006). Yet, journalistic
accounts failed to discern whether religious factors were largely responsi-
ble for the anti-scientific drift in the Republican Party. Indeed, this is sug-
gested by recent statements from Congressman Paul Broun, a Republican
Religion, Politics, and Americans’Confidence in Science 7
from Georgia, who was the highest ranking member of the U.S. House
Science Committee, saying “God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand
that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the
big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell…You see,
there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actu-
ally show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the earth’s
but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know
them. That’s what the Bible says”(http://www.theguardian.com/world/
Similarly, Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe (2012) amplifies
that his denial of global warming is based on his fundamentalist Christian
beliefs in his book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming
Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. While many Republicans opposed to
climate science may base their antipathy on economic interests in conflict
with the scientific consensus, the politicization of science by Republicans
is also strongly rooted in Christian fundamentalism which is institutionally
concentrated in sectarian Protestant denominations.
The changing historical context over the last four decades brings with it
several expectations regarding how religion and politics will influence
Americans’views about science, and how political and religious fields inter-
sect differently across historical periods. First, in the 1970s and 1980s, the as-
sociation between science and militarism should make political conservatives
less opposed to science, and political liberals more circumspect in their con-
fidence in science. The threat of Godless communism also should quell some
of the opposition to science among sectarian Protestants and fundamentalists,
but those with no religious identification and mainline Protestants may view
science as potentially leading to global destruction during the 1970s and
1980s. Further, since the Republican Party strongly supported scientific mil-
itarism, Republicans should be quite bullish on science until the growth of
scientific environmentalism in the 1990s and 2000s. What should also be
evident in the analyses is that the indirect effects of religious and political
factors will shift over the four decades —sectarian Protestantism and fun-
damentalist beliefs should become more strongly associated with political
conservatism, and with Republican identification.
DATA AND MEASURES
Data from the General Social Survey (GSS) from 1974–2012 were ana-
lyzed to examine Americans confidence in science. I estimate models
across decades (1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s), and also examine sep-
arate models for the periods where indicators of biblical fundamentalism
are available (1980s, 1990s, and 2000s). Notably, my focus on decades
differs somewhat from the analytic strategy employed by Gauchat
(2012), who examined periods based on the presidential terms (post-
Reagan, and W. Bush), and interacted these periods with political
factors, and political factors with year of the study. Instead, I divide the
analyses into periods, and examine how political and religious factors
have varying impacts in the decades. Notably, while some of these
results mirror those of Gauchat (2012), there are important differences.
DEPENDENT VARIABLE: CONFIDENCE IN SCIENCE
Since 1974, the GSS asked respondents, “I am going to name some insti-
tutions in this country. As far as the people running these institutions are
concerned, would you say you have (1) a great deal of confidence, (2) only
some confidence, or (3) hardly any confidence at all in them [the
Scientific Community]?”While Gauchat (2012) dichotomized this vari-
able on “a great deal of confidence,”I reverse code and analyze this as
an ordinal item.
I examine two political items, (1) liberal-conservative ideological identifi-
cation, and (2) party identification. Political ideological identification is an
ordinal item running from (1) extremely liberal to (7) extremely conserva-
tive. Because Republican Party identification has been singled out as an-
tithetical to science in the journalistic literature (Mooney 2006), I use a
dummy indicator for Republican identification.
Three key religious factors are examined, religious identification, beliefs
about the Bible, and religious participation. Following Sherkat (2011), re-
ligious identifications are grouped into (1) Mainline Protestants;
(2) Sectarian Protestants; (3) Catholics; (4) Non-Christians; and (5) No re-
ligious identification. Beliefs about the Bible are analyzed across three
groups, (a) “The Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken lit-
erally, word for word;”(b) “The Bible is the inspired word of God, but not
Religion, Politics, and Americans’Confidence in Science 9
everything in it should be taken literally;”and (c) “The Bible is an ancient
book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.”
Dummy indicators for fundamentalism (word of God) and secular
beliefs (fables) are used in the ordinal logistic regression analyses,
while the structural equation models use a binary indicator for biblical
Multivariate models are estimated using controls for age, gender
(female = 1), race (African American compared to all others), education
(in years), family income, southern residence, and rural residence.
Figure 1 presents the trend in confidence in science across the four
decades and by some key religious and political indicators. Notably,
overall levels of confidence in science are remarkably stable across the
decades, declining only slightly from 44% in the 1970s to 42% in the
2000s. In contrast, several of the religious and political indicators show
volatility over time. Sectarian Protestants and fundamentalists are the
least confident in science, and their confidence declines after the 1980s
—decreasing from 36% to about 30% in the 2000s. In contrast, confi-
dence in science is high among people who reject religious identification,
and it increases substantially from 47% in the 1990s to 52% in the 2000s.
Secular beliefs about the Bible are associated with the highest levels of
confidence in science in all three decades where that measure is available.
However, confidence in science among those who hold secular beliefs di-
minishes from 54% in the 1980s to 50% in the 1990s, before rebounding
to 55% in the 2000s. This seems in concert with historical context of the
liberal “science wars”of the 1990s.
Republicans are quite positive about science, and around 49% expressed
confidence in science in the 1970s and 1980s, though this drops to 45% in
the 1990s. Indeed, only in the 2000s do we see Republicans having the
same level of confidence as other respondents. Respondents who identify
as extremely conservative are only slightly less optimistic about science
than the average respondent in the 1970s, but confidence wanes to 37%
in the 1980s and falls to about 31% in the 1990s and 2000s. In contrast,
respondents who were extremely liberal in their ideological identification
were quite confident in science in the 1970s and 1980s, at nearly 49%.
By the 1990s, extremely liberal respondents had less enthusiasm (45%)
and it continued to wane to 42% in the 2000s —bringing them even with
the average respondent.
Multivariate models are needed to sort out the relative impact of polit-
ical and religious factors, and to see if these may be accounted for by other
demographic controls such as ethnicity, gender, and educational attain-
ment. In order to compare the relative impact of these factors across
decades, Table 1 presents a heterogeneous ordinal logistic regression
model predicting confidence in science across four decades in Model 1.
Because the GSS did not tap beliefs about the Bible in the 1970s,
Model 2 of Table 1 examines models from the 1980s,1990s, and 2000s.
In the 1970s, conservative ideological identification has no significant
impact on confidence in science net of other factors, and Republican
FIGURE 1. Religious and political factors and confidence in science.
Religion, Politics, and Americans’Confidence in Science 11
Table 1. Exponentiated heterogeneous ordinal logistic regression estimates for confidence in science across decades
1970s 1980s 1980s 1990s 1990s 2000s 2000s
Model 1 Model 1 Model 2 Model 1 Model 2 Model 1 Model 2
Age 1.00 0.99 0.99 0.99**aa 0.99** 0.99**a 0.99**
Female 0.83*** 0.72***a 0.69*** 0.78*** 0.81***b 0.81***b 0.82***b
Black 0.55*** 0.63*** 0.73** 0.55*** 0.55***b 0.56*** 0.57***b
Education 1.10*** 1.11*** 1.14*** 1.10*** 1.09***b 1.10***b 1.08***b
Income 1.02 1.02* 1.02 1.03*** 1.04*** 1.03*** 1.03***
South 0.99 0.98 0.98 0.95 1.06 1.04c 1.07
Rural 0.79*** 0.92a 1.06 0.81***b 0.87a 0.91a 0.93
Religious Attendance 0.98* 0.98* 0.98 0.99 1.02a 0.96***c 0.97**b
Sectarian 0.71*** 0.88**aa 0.96 0.74*** b 0.68***bb 0.67***bbb 0.71***bb
Catholic 1.01 1.25***a 1.11 1.07b 1.05 0.96bbb 0.94
None 0.78* 0.92 0.68** 0.99a 0.97b 1.00a 0.95b
Republican 1.12* 1.22*** 1.18* 1.13** 1.25*** 0.98abbbc 0.97bbcc
Conservatism 0.98 0.96** 0.94* 0.94*** 0.94* 0.92***ab 0.93***
Biblical Inerrancy 0.86 0.77*** 0.76***
Book of Fables 1.09 1.15 1.19**
N6637 9427 3276 7910 4330 9000 9427
L2 431, 13 df 692, 13 df 267, 15 df 582, 13 df 384, 15 df 706, 13 df 692, 15 df
Total N32974 16,069
Full L2 2431, 58 df 1383, 49 df
*p< 0.05, two tailed. **p< 0.01, two tailed. ***p< 0.001, two tailed.
“a”difference from 1970s p< 0.05, “aa”difference from 1970s p< 0.01 two-tailed, “aaa”difference from 1970s p< 0.001, two-tailed.
“b”difference from 1980s p< 0.05 two-tailed, “bb”difference from 1980s p< 0.01 two-tailed, “bbb”difference from 1980s p< 0.001, two-tailed.
“c”difference from 1990s p< 0.05 two-tailed, “cc”difference from 1990s p< 0.01 two-tailed, “ccc”difference from 1990s p< 0.001, two-tailed.
political identification has a significant positive impact on the odds of
having greater confidence in science. In the 1980s, the net impact of po-
litical conservatism becomes more negative and significant, and this con-
tinues into the 1990s and 2000s. Indeed, the net impact of ideological
conservatism on confidence in science is significantly more negative in
the 2000s than in the 1970s or 1980s. It should be remembered that
what I am calling “conservatism”is an ordinal measure, and these
results could just as well be interpreted as a positive impact of liberal ideo-
logical identification on confidence in science.
In the Reagan era 1980s, Republican confidence increases (though not
significantly), and being a Republican increases the odds of greater confi-
dence in science by 22% after controlling for other factors. Republican con-
fidence drops relative to non-Republicans in the 1990s, but Republicans
remain significantly more confident in science than other Americans in
the 1990s. In the 2000s, the estimates show no significant difference
between Republicans and other respondents, which is a significant change
in the effect of party identification compared to all previous decades, and
particularly the Reagan era 1980s.
Sectarian religious identification significantly and substantially decreas-
es confidence in science in every decade when judged against the mostly
mainline Protestant comparison category. In line with expectations, sectar-
ian Protestant pessimism about science improves somewhat in the Reagan
era, when the effect of being a sectarian is significantly less negative than
in the other three decades. In the 1990s, sectarian confidence in science
declines relative to mainline Protestants, and this decline continues in
the 2000s (though the effect of sectarian identification is not significantly
different across the 1970s, 1990s, and 2000s).
Catholics also chart an interesting nonlinear pattern of confidence
across the decades. Net of other factors, Catholics are not significantly dif-
ferent from mainline Protestants in the 1970s; however, in the 1980s
Catholics are significantly more confident in science than mainliners,
and this is a significant change in the effect. After the 1990s, with the in-
creasing salience of scientific atheism, and the rise of controversies over
stem-cell research, Catholic confidence waned substantially and they
were not significantly different from mainline Protestants.
Respondents who reject religious identification are significantly more
skeptical of science in the 1970s, in line with expectations. Having no re-
ligious identification reduces the odds of higher confidence in science by
22% relative to mainline Protestants —making them roughly as skeptical
as sectarian Protestants. In the 1980s and 1990s, non-identifiers are not
Religion, Politics, and Americans’Confidence in Science 13
significantly different from mainline Protestants, and in the 1990s and
2000s the relative effect of rejecting identification is significantly less neg-
ative than it was in the 1970s.
Religious attendance significantly decreases the odds of greater confi-
dence in science in the 1970s, 1980s, and 2000s. However, in the 1990s
church attendance does not significantly decrease trust in science. Indeed,
it appears that the increasing hostility between religion and science in the
2000s makes church attendance significantly more important for lowering
trust in science, in line with Gauchat’s(2012) findings.
In Table 1, many of the control variables have substantial effects on con-
fidence in science. Over time, age has come to have a significant negative
impact on confidence in science, and it appears that the “science wars”
along with the contemporary political debates about climate change may
be undermining the confidence of older Americans. Women are signifi-
cantly less confident in science than men in all four decades net of other
factors, and the Reagan “star wars”era which also saw several technological
disasters was a significant low point in women’s confidence in science.
African Americans also have significantly lower levels of confidence than
other Americans net of other factors. Educational attainment significantly
increases trust in science in all four decades. Americans from rural areas
were less confidence in science in the 1970s, but were not significantly dif-
ferent from other Americans in the Reagan era —a significant improvement
in trust. Rural distrust of science was again evident in the 1990s; however,
in the 2000s, rural residents were no different from other Americans. It is
possible that the findings of climate science are more salient to people
who live in rural areas.
Model 2 in Table 1 presents estimates of the effects of covariates on the
odds of having greater trust in science in the three decades for which there
are indicators of beliefs in the Bible. Even after controls for beliefs about
the Bible and other factors, conservative ideological identification has a
strong negative estimated effect on the odds of having greater trust in
science, and the estimates are quite close to what was found in Model
1. However, controls for Bible beliefs eliminate the significance of the dif-
ference in the 2000 effect compared to its effect in the 1980s and 1990s.
Hence, it appears that the reason why “conservatism”was substantially
more negative in 2000 is because conservatism has increasingly become
associated with religious beliefs. As in Model 1, the estimates from
Model 2 show that Republicans are significantly more trusting of
science than others in the 1980s and 1990s. But, Republicans are no
more trusting in the 2000s —a significant shift. The decreased enthusiasm
about science among Republicans does not appear to be simply a function
of fundamentalist Christians drifting to the Republican Party.
Controls for beliefs about the Bible eliminate the significance of the dif-
ference between sectarian and mainline Protestants found in the 1980s,
and Bible beliefs also explain the significance of the effect of religious
participation found in Model 1. Indeed, in the Reagan era, with its
promise of nuclear energy and the defeat of godless communism
through military science there were only limited negative effects of reli-
gious factors —though non-identifiers are significantly more negative
than mainline Protestants. Shifting the comparison category to biblical in-
errancy shows that believing the Bible is a book of fables significantly in-
creases the odds of greater trust in science by 27% in the 1980s.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Model 2 shows that religious factors become
more important for predicting confidence in science, and sectarian
Protestants are significantly more negative than mainline Protestants even
after controls for Bible beliefs and other factors. Non-identifiers hold
roughly the same levels of confidence as mainline Protestants in the
1990s and 2000s, which is a significant increase in trust compared to main-
line Protestants in the 1980s. Bible beliefs become more salient for predict-
ing trust in science in the 1990s and 2000s, and fundamentalists are found
to be significantly less confident in science in the 1990s compared to re-
spondents who believe the Bible contains some human error. Net of
other factors, people holding secular beliefs in the Bible are substantially
more trusting of science than fundamentalists in the 1990s. Indeed, in the
2000s the odds of trust are significantly higher for respondents with
secular beliefs compared to those who believe the Bible was inspired by
God. Notably, in the 2000s church attendance lowers the odds of trust in
science, which is a significant departure from its effect in the 1990s.
Examining the impact of political and religious factors on confidence in
science over times is informative, however the single equation models pre-
sented in Table 1 cannot disentangle the relationships among these over-
lapping cultural fields. Table 2 presents direct, indirect, and total
standardized effect estimates on confidence in science from a multi-
group structural equation model (Hayduk 1988). Table 2 explores these re-
lationships estimated from a five-equation model specifying that religious
beliefs influence religious participation, political identification, and party
alignment. Religious participation is predicted to influence political iden-
tification and party identification, and political identification predicts
Republican Party alignment. Again, since Bible beliefs are only measured
since 1980, the models are estimated across the three decades.
Religion, Politics, and Americans’Confidence in Science 15
Table 2. Multi-group ordinal structural equation model of confidence in science: standardized direct, indirect, and total effects
1980s 1980s 1980s 1990s 1990s 1990s 2000s 2000s 2000s
Age −0.005 −0.009*** −0.021* −0.044*** −0.004* −0.049*** −0.038*** −0.010*** −0.045***
Female −0.095*** −0.011*** −0.105*** −0.052*** −0.007*** −0.058*** −0.050*** 0.001 −0.055***
Black −0.057** −0.025*** −0.076*** −0.092*** −0.028*** −0.120*** −0.101*** 0.003 −0.112***
Education 0.201*** 0.026*** 0.231*** 0.120*** 0.041*** 0.161*** 0.116*** 0.000 0.154***
Income 0.035 0.003* 0.040*** 0.058*** 0.019*** 0.076*** 0.073*** −0.008*** 0.077***
South —−0.007*** −0.007 —−0.005** −0.005 0.022* −0.009*** 0.001
Rural —−0.007*** 0.002* −0.030* −0.004*** −0.035*** —−0.004*** −0.013***
Sectarian −0.019 −0.022*** −0.034** −0.077*** −0.028*** −0.105*** −0.072*** −0.010*** −0.100***
Catholic —−0.001 −0.001 —0.008** 0.008 −0.023* 0.018*** −0.005
None −0.062*** 0.014*** −0.043*** —0.003 0.003 —0.035*** 0.046***
−0.072*** −0.013*** −0.085*** −0.123*** 0.005* −0.117*** −0.144*** −0.013*** −0.157***
−0.023 −0.001 −0.024*** 0.033* 0.004 0.037*** —−0.007*** −0.007***
Republican 0.055** —0.060*** 0.087*** —0.087*** −0.016 —−0.016
Conservatism −0.050** 0.019*** −0.032** −0.056*** 0.034** −0.022* −0.052*** −0.008 −0.060***
N9427 7910 9000
16.4, 21 df 16.4, 21 df
*p< 0.05, two tailed. **p< 0.01, two tailed. ***p< 0.001, two tailed.
The estimates from the structural equation models echo the findings pre-
sented in Table 1, and Table 2 shows that net of other relationships, the
total effect of political conservatism on trust in science grows more neg-
ative because of decreasing confidence in science among Republicans. In
the 1980s and 1990s, the negative direct effect of political conservatism
was offset somewhat by a significant positive indirect effect created by
Republican confidence in science. However, in the 2000s, Republicans
were not significantly different from other Americans, and the indirect
effect for political conservatism becomes negative and insignificant.
The estimates in Table 3 also show the growing importance of biblical fun-
damentalism for undermining confidence in science. Indeed, the negative
direct effect of biblical fundamentalism on confidence in science doubles
between 1980 and 2000. Interestingly, in the 1990s, a positive estimated
direct effect for church attendance on confidence in science yields a small
but significant positive indirect effect for biblical inerrancy, though the
total effect is more negative in the 1990s than in the 1980s. Net of other re-
lationships, in the 1980s the direct effect of sectarian Protestant identification
is not significantly different from mainline Protestantism; however, biblical
fundamentalism generates significant negative indirect and total effects for
sectarian identification. In the Reagan era, people who hold no religious iden-
tification were significantly less trusting of science in the direct effects,
though this is offset by a significant positive indirect effect on confidence
in science (the sources of which will be explored further in Table 3). In the
1990s, sectarian Protestants become more negative in both direct effects
and indirect effects, while non-identifiers are no different from mainline
Protestants after the close of the Reagan era and the end of the Cold War.
Religious attendance has a significant negative total estimated effect on con-
fidence in science in the 1980s, but a positive direct and total effect in the
1990s. Net of other factors, there is a very small negative indirect and total
effect of church attendance on trust in science in the 2000s.
Table 3 presents the direct effects of political and religious factors on
each other from the model estimated in Table 2, and these estimates
show how interrelationships among political and religious cultural fields
shifted across the three decades. For brevity, only estimates for political
and religious factors are presented, though all covariates presented in
Table 2 were included in the models yielding these estimates. First, the re-
lationship between political ideological identification and Republican
Party identification became stronger between the 1980s and 2000s, as lib-
erals and moderates became less likely to identify as Republican while
conservatives became more likely to claim Republican identification.
Religion, Politics, and Americans’Confidence in Science 17
Religious factors also become more predictive of Republican identifica-
tion, with church attendance becoming more positively predictive and bib-
lical fundamentalism shifting from having a negative significant effect on
Republican identification in the 2000s. Sectarian Protestants also became
more similar to mainline Protestants in their party identification, which is
remarkable since mainline Protestants are the traditional base of the
Republican Party. Catholics also show an increasing affinity for the
Republican Party over the three decades, though they remain significantly
less Republican than Mainline Protestants in the 2000s. Those who reject
religious identification are significantly less likely to be Republicans com-
pared to mainline Protestants, though this difference appears to have de-
creased slightly in the 2000s. Some of these denominational differences
are probably a function of mainline Protestants gradually abandoning
the Republican Party in the 2000s.
Political conservatism is increasingly wedded to fundamentalist reli-
gious beliefs, and biblical inerrancy became more predictive of
Table 3. Standardized direct effects of selected covariates on political and
religious factors across decades
Attendance Conservatism Republican
Conservatism 1980s —— —0.318***
Church Attendance 1980s ——0.095*** 0.038*
1990s 0.145*** 0.080***
2000s 0.102*** 0.079***
Biblical Inerrancy 1980s —0.291*** 0.092*** −0.038*
1990s 0.345*** 0.119*** −0.055***
2000s 0.373*** 0.151*** 0.051***
Education 1980s −0.289*** 0.189*** —0.131***
1990s −0.243*** 0.198*** −0.031 0.046***
2000s −0.244*** 0.165*** −0.043*** 0.091***
Sectarian 1980s 0.172*** 0.028 0.054** −0.096***
1990s 0.244*** 0.066*** 0.023 −0.020
2000s 0.163*** 0.039*** 0.037** −0.022*
Catholic 1980s −0.122*** 0.145*** −0.062** −0.179***
1990s −0.118*** 0.115*** —−0.121***
2000s −0.113*** 0.077*** —−0.066***
None 1980s −0.129*** −0.242*** −0.081*** −0.099***
1990s −0.176*** −0.239*** −0.044** −0.108***
2000s −0.238*** −0.286*** −0.096*** −0.072***
*p< 0.05, two tailed. **p< 0.01, two tailed. ***p< 0.001, two tailed.
conservative ideological identification across the three decades. This
finding conforms with research showing that political conservatism and
liberalism are increasingly interpreted through the lens of social issues
strongly associated with religion —such as abortion, LGBT rights, and
women’s equality (Miller and Hoffmann 1999). In contrast, Table 3
shows that church attendance is somewhat more closely associated with
conservatism in the 1990s than in the 1980s or 2000s, though in all
decades there is a significant positive effect of church attendance on con-
servative ideological identification. Sectarian Protestants are significantly
more conservative than mainline Protestants in the 1980s and 2000s, but
net of other factors there is no difference in the 1990s. Catholics are sub-
stantially more liberal than mainline Protestants in the 1980s, but they do
not differ significantly in the 1990s and 2000s and that coefficient was
constrained to 0. Respondents with no religious identification are estimat-
ed to be significantly more liberal in their political ideological identifica-
tion than mainline Protestants in all decades, though the difference was
less substantial in the 1990s than in the 1980s and 2000s. Notably, the
1990s was a period where the threat of the religious right appeared to
have declined (Bruce 1988; Green et al. 1996), and this may have made
religious non-identifiers less averse to a more conservative ideological
Fundamentalism is a prime motivator of church attendance, and is
rooted in commitments to sectarian Protestant denominations, where the
fundamentalist embrace of biblical inerrancy is substantially and signifi-
cantly higher than other religious groups. Catholics and respondents
with no religious identification are significantly less attracted to funda-
mentalism when compared to mainline Protestants. As other research
has shown (Hout and Greeley 1987; Sherkat 2014), Catholic religious par-
ticipation has waned compared to other groups over time, though they
remain significantly more active in the 2000s when compared to mainline
Protestants, and more than match the participatory levels of sectarian
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
Science is a cultural institution that most people interact with fleetingly,
usually mediated by other cultural institutions like education and journalism,
or through the distant applications of science to technology and medicine.
Because most of the public are disconnected from science, public opinion
Religion, Politics, and Americans’Confidence in Science 19
about science is heavily influenced by other cultural institutions that provide
perspectives for evaluating scientific authority. The cultural fields of politics
and religion intersect with the field of science and both of these cultural in-
stitutions provide overlapping lenses through which the public views
science. Political and religious filters are products of political and religious
resources, and these are sustained and interpreted through schemata that are
transposable across all three cultural fields. The dynamics of public opinion
are channeled by the intersection of historical events with the cultural fields,
and historical factors change how institutions like science are viewed de-
pending on one’s position in the political and religious field.
In the United States, political institutions are strongly linked to science
because public resources are used to fund scientific endeavors and pedago-
gy, and political actors expect that these investments will pay off by fueling
a strong economy, protecting the public health from natural and environ-
mental hazards, and yielding fearsome military technologies. The political
field is highly contested in the United States, with two major parties con-
trolling most of the political resources. Generally, the Republican Party is a
conservative party, and people who embrace conservative understandings
tend to identify Republican. However, the meaning of conservatism and
liberalism shifts over the course of the last four decades (Miller and
Hoffmann 1999). Previous examinations of confidence in science focus
on liberal to conservative ideological identification in the political field,
while ignoring connections to organized political parties. This has led to
a misunderstanding of the historical relationship between party identifica-
tion, political ideology, and confidence in science. There is no support for
the idea that there is a “Republican war on science.”Instead, self-identified
Republicans were more confident in science than other Americans in three
of the four decades observed, and no different in the latest decade. Given
that American’s views of science were heavily influenced by the space
program, nuclear energy and weapons, medical advances, and industry-
friendly technologies, it is not surprising that people who identify with
the pro-business, anti-communist/pro-military Republican Party expressed
more confidence in science. Still, Republican exuberance about science de-
clined significantly in the 21
century, as scientific research became more
associated with liberal causes than pro-business initiatives.
This research has also shown that political ideological identification was
unrelated to confidence in science in the 1970s, and that conservative op-
position to science and liberal support for science grew across the four
decades. On the conservative side of the coin, this research suggests
that the meaning of conservatism shifted over the decades to become
more focused on social issues like gender, sexuality, and patriarchal
family values —driven increasingly by religious conservatism emanating
from sectarian Protestantism and fundamentalist Christian beliefs. For lib-
erals, anti-scientific orientations lingering from the cold war era eroded as
science and scientists came to be seen as allies combating AIDS/HIV,
climate change, and environmental degradation. Science was no longer
seen as a tool of the military industrial complex.
Sectarian Protestant opposition to modern science has been longstand-
ing in the United States, rooted in the conflict between scientific discov-
eries in biology and theoretical physics and fundamentalist Christian
interpretations of the origins of life and the universe (Lienesch 2007;
Berkman and Plutzer 2010). This research has shown that religious partic-
ipation is less important for influencing skepticism about science than is
identification with sectarian Protestant denominations and embracing fun-
damentalist beliefs about the Bible. Indeed, this research has shown that
sectarian Protestants and those with fundamentalist beliefs about the
Bible are increasingly drawn to the Republican Party, which explains
some of the decline in Republican confidence. Fundamentalism is also in-
creasingly linked to more conservative political ideological identifications.
The United States is becoming more secular, and an increasing fraction of
the population reject religious identification and hold secular beliefs about
the Bible (Sherkat 2014), and these secular individuals have distinctive
perspectives on science. While the “nones”were more skeptical about
science in the 1970s when compared to mainline Protestants, the end of
the Cold War saw them embrace confidence in science. Indeed, the
anti-scientific orientation linked to religion may well have been a factor
that pushed people to reject religious identification.
The political mobilization of sectarian Protestants and fundamentalist
Christians has increasingly impacted political support for science and sci-
entific pedagogy. Pushback from scientists against religious opposition
has become increasingly direct, evidenced not only by the new atheist
movement, but also the growing popularity of secular figures like Neil
DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. Social scientific research shows that
concerns about scientific pedagogy and scientific innovation are well-
founded. At the individual level, fundamentalist beliefs and sectarian
religious identifications have been shown to diminish educational attain-
ment, hinder verbal ability, reduce scientific literacy, and decrease earn-
ings and wealth (Darnell and Sherkat 1997; Fitzgerald and Glass 2008;
At a more macro-level, these religious commitments have also been shown
Religion, Politics, and Americans’Confidence in Science 21
to decrease economic innovation both cross nationally, and across regions in
the United States (Bénabou, Ticchi, and Vindigni 2015a;2015b). It is likely
that the political mobilization of sectarian and fundamentalist religious
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