LAWRENCE, Kan. — Religion often molds the positions voters take on political issues from abortion to transgender rights to welfare. But a new study finds that piety, by itself, does not inspire political engagement and even pushes individuals away from activism.
Researchers at the University of Kansas looked at a dataset spanning 33 years that examined the correlation between an average individual’s levels of religiosity and political participation.
Political participation, as defined by the researchers, encompassed any of seven actions: signing petitions, joining boycotts, demonstrating, voting, striking, being a member of a political party, or occupying buildings and factories.
The nature of the data allowed the researchers to examine political behavior across different faiths.
In general, the researchers found that religion, despite its strong stances on many social issues, does not increase one’s likelihood of participating in political behavior. In fact, the authors say that it actually often serves as a deterrent when it comes to activism.
“Since religious beliefs, by themselves, do not suffice to motivate individuals to act politically, it is incorrect to infer political behavior from religious beliefs alone,” explains researcher Mariya Omelicheva, an associate political science professor, in a university news release. “Religion interacts with secular structures and pressures to encourage or deter individuals from engaging with the political world,”
Still, the long-held academic notion that those with religious beliefs will no longer guide the discourse in democratic societies has not yet manifested itself.
“Contrary to these prognoses, the full separation of religion and state has never occurred even in established democracies,” says Omelicheva. “Religions have entered public debate, in this way influencing policymaking and the shape of democratic life… transform[ing] national and global politics.”
This is despite what the researchers believe are underwhelming efforts by churches and other religious institutions to get their adherents to engage politically.
Interestingly, there was no significant difference in the ways members of a specific religion were inclined to engage, spare for Buddhists and Jews.
Buddhists were more likely than others to sign a petition, participate in a boycott, or occupy buildings, while Jews were more likely to take part in a boycott or strike.
“Our research lends support to the widely accepted argument that churches and religiously affiliated organizations can mobilize citizens for political participations,” Omelicheva concludes. “The jury, however, is still out on the specific mechanism that turn churches into the platforms for political mobilization.”
The full study was published in August in the journal Religion, State, & Society.