This question may seem obvious to you, but there’s a lot of nuance packed in it: Do the religious beliefs of politicians influence their policy decisions?
My gut reaction was, “Of course it does. Why wouldn’t it?” But you could also argue that someone like Ted Cruz, a Southern Baptist who’s obviously very conservative, is just reflecting the will of Texas voters. The question is whether his religious beliefs influence policy beyond what you’d otherwise expect from a conservative politician.
Daniel Arnon of Emory University has just published a paper in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion looking into this question, and he found that religious beliefs — not the labels themselves — “are a strong predictor of senators’ legislative behavior.”
Arnon looked at 150 senators over four separate legislative sessions (the 110th to 113th) for their religious labels, engagement with a religious community, and theological views.
Those aren’t always the same. Sen. John McCain, for example, was always considered an Episcopalian (a mainline tradition)… but he self-identified as a Southern Baptist (which is evangelical). The latter told you more about his voting patterns than the former.
Arnon then looked at how each of those factors correlated with their votes (or sponsorships) on various kinds of legislation. What he found was that their personal religious views had an impact on things like economic and foreign policy even after controlling for the other factors.
Senators with more traditionalist religious beliefs tended to push more conservative legislation, even if their constituencies weren’t as religious. Senators were considered “traditionalist” if they held literalist interpretations of religious texts and viewed God as commanding or restricting their actions.
“Even when controlling for the senator’s religious constituency, their personal religious preferences still matter,” Arnon explained. “Specifically, I find that the senators’ religious tradition (Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, etc) is not the main religious driver of voting in the Senate, but rather that the most important religious factor is their religious beliefs — whether traditionalist or more moderate and progressive.”
So evangelical politicians might vote a number of different ways, but evangelicals who attend conservative megachurches (and therefore share those views) vote very much alike. That’s why Democratic senators all have religious labels but, because they usually attend moderate or progressive churches, vote very differently from Republicans even on bills that aren’t religious in nature.
That tells me we should keep asking candidates about their religious beliefs and what churches they attend. They may tiptoe around controversial issues if you ask about them point-blank, but knowing where they go to church can give you a good sense of what sort of legislators they will be.
For atheists who don’t always have non-theistic options on the ballot, knowing a candidate attends a progressive church can give us some comfort that the candidate will likely respect church/state separation — even if the person doesn’t want to talk about it on the campaign trail.
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