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Assessing Conventional Wisdom about Religion and Politics: A Preliminary View from the Pews

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Given religious leaders’ frequent opportunities to communicate to a large and receptive audience, political messages delivered during religious services have the potential to make a considerable impact on American politics—with particular significance for political education and mobilization. Social scientists routinely conclude that such messages are indeed disseminated, a claim we test in this study. Is it in fact true that church– and temple–going Americans regularly receive political messages from their ministers, priests, and rabbis during worship services? If so, what forms do these pronouncements take? How intense are they? Is this communication limited to messages from the service leader or does it come from other parts of the service, either informal or ritualistic? Existing empirical assessments of this topic depend heavily on survey research, asking congregants (or, less often, members of the clergy) about the frequency and content of political messages. Although such studies are certainly valuable, we approach religious political communications in a more immediate way: by observing them directly. Our conclusions are based on two waves of attendance at weekly services during 1998–1999, varying by religious tradition and denomination, region, and other dimensions. We find that “political” messages, broadly defined, are indeed delivered quite often. However, content analysis of these messages reveals that they typically address matters of social justice and rarely other types of political activity or belief, such as specific public policies or civic involvement (including voting). Political references during services only very occasionally constituted calls to direct political action on the part of the worshiper. Ultimately, our findings suggest that political content does occur relatively frequently during U.S. religious services, supporting the accounts of other social scientists. Our analysis offers new insight as to the content and nature of the political messages Americans are exposed to during religious services.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Colby College, Waterville [email protected] 2: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, Washington [email protected]

Publication date: March 1, 2003

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