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Religious Identity in US Politics, Matthew R. Miles

Rock of Ages: Subcultural Religious Identity and Public Opinion among Young Evangelicals, Jeremiah J. Castle

Reviewed by David O' Connell



How does religion influence political attitudes? For a simple question, researchers have yet to settle on a definitive answer. But two new contributions by Matthew R. Miles and Jeremiah J. Castle offer fresh ways of thinking about the impact of religious identity and commitment.

In Religious Identity in US Politics, Miles seeks to offer “conceptual clarity” about what it means when someone chooses to identify with a religious group (p. 3). Traditionally, scholars examine the impact of religion on politics through measures of belief (the certainty that someone has of God’s existence), belonging (whether someone chooses to affiliate with a denomination), and behavior (how frequently someone attends church). But Miles argues that we should instead see religion as a social identity that can shape people’s actions even when they no longer believe, belong, or behave. Thinking about religion in this way requires understanding how religious identity can compete with other identities like partisanship and how, in certain contexts, someone’s religious identity can be a more—or less—powerful explanation for their politics.

From this starting point, Miles advances three propositions. First, he hypothesizes that people who strongly identify with a religion will have more positive views of political leaders who share their religion, even if those leaders belong to the opposite party. Second, he predicts that people should have negative political reactions to individuals who do not belong to their religious group. Finally, when someone’s political and religious identities pull them in different directions, Miles expects that their response will depend on the relative strength of those identities.

Some of the empirical findings that Miles reports are compelling. For example, Miles shows that Republicans were six times more likely to trust Barack Obama if they shared a religious identity with the president (p. 58). Equally intriguing is Chapter 7’s finding that when a respondent with a strong religious identity is informed that his or her religion is thought of unfavorably by members of their political party (for example, a Muslim Republican), that individual will become more partisan in response—essentially choosing to downplay the lower-status identity. Chapter 8 also deserves praise for its use of a novel data set surveying members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the Utah/Idaho area. This chapter adds to our general understanding of a growing religious tradition that has not been extensively researched to date.

Still, Religious Identity in US Politics is not without problems. Casual readers will find the theory sections inaccessible. Too often, the clarity of the argument is undermined by awkward language—phrases such as “those who affiliate with opposing religious persuasion” abound (p. 89). There are also measurement questions throughout, for example, the way Miles groups all the major Protestant traditions into a single category when studying the impact of shared religion between a Congress member and a constituent (pp. 40–41).

A more valuable contribution would be Castle’s Rock of Ages. There is admittedly little original data to be found in Castle’s book. Although he supplements his statistical analysis with 42 semistructured interviews of college-attending evangelicals, the bulk of the book is based on widely available data such as the Pew Religious Landscape Study. At the same time, Castle is not the only scholar to examine the political opinions of young evangelicals. Nonetheless, Rock of Ages is a comprehensive overview of the politics of a religious group that is often misunderstood by the media.

Castle’s book is guided by two simple questions. First, are 18- to 29-year-old evangelicals becoming more liberal? And, second, if the opinions of these evangelicals are changing, is that change being driven by internal causes, such as the emergence of more moderate religious leaders, or by external causes, such as the impact of secularization? To answer these questions, Castle develops what he calls a “subcultural theory of public opinion,” a theory he suggests could be used to understand the politics of other religious groups like theologically conservative Catholics, too.

A subculture is a smaller group embedded in a larger culture, one with ideas and interests at odds with the mainstream. Evangelicals, according to this theory, are little different from bikers or punk rockers. Each subculture is a part of a group that generates a sense of identity, discredits secular culture, and communicates political messages. Given this understanding, Castle has two central expectations. He argues that the evangelical subculture’s influence will be strongest on those issues most tied to evangelical identity (such as abortion). He also argues that the evangelical subculture will have its greatest impact on those individuals who are the most active within it.

The answers to Castle’s research questions are primarily found in Chapters 2 and 3. Chapter 2 conclusively proves that the political views of young evangelicals are awfully similar to their conservative parents and to previous generations of young evangelicals. There is no liberal wave happening. Only on same-sex marriage, welfare, and immigration do the data suggest that young evangelicals are more liberal than previous generations. Abortion continues to remain an important issue for young evangelicals, while immigration, inequality, and the environment are less important. Chapter 3 shows that any opinion changes that are taking place are being driven by factors outside the evangelical community, given that changes are concentrated among less committed young evangelicals. The remainder of the book tries to understand the causal dynamics behind these findings.

To say that Castle’s book would be an excellent inclusion in an undergraduate course on religion and politics might read as a backhanded compliment, but it should not. Castle has written a highly readable book. The main findings, although mostly descriptive, are interesting. Furthermore, the book provides brisk overviews of many of the basic elements of evangelical politics. Experts will find this material familiar, but undergraduates would not. To me, Rock of Ages feels like the young evangelical equivalent of Martin Wattenberg’s Is Voting for Young People?—a fine book to be compared to, for sure.

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