Guest Post by Matt Golder

I asked Matt Golder to write a short synopsis of his new article in AJPS written with Ben Gaskins and David A. Siegel entitled “Religious Participation and Economic Conservatism.”  He writes:

Why do some individuals engage in more religious activity than others?  And how does this religious activity influence their economic attitudes?  Using data on over 70 countries from 1981-2004, we find that individuals engage in less religious participation when:

  • Their ability to produce income in the secular world is high,
  • When they live in developed societies, and
  • When the state regulates religious activity.

However, they engage in more religious participation when they live in societies characterized by economic inequality.

These results are consistent with a variant of secularization theory that claims religious activity declines with societal development.  When it comes to economic attitudes, we find that the religious poor are more economically conservative than the secular poor, but that the religious rich are less economically conservative than the secular rich.  This result challenges the conventional wisdom that religious individuals are always more economically conservative than their secular counterparts.

Our empirical results are consistent with our theoretical story.  Our theory starts with the observation that each country has its own religious market place, characterized by religious denominations that differ in terms of their doctrinal strictness.  Some countries have many religious denominations, others have few.  Some denominations are strict, others are liberal.  Individuals can derive benefits from both secular and religious sources.  These benefits may be material, such as flat screen televisions or bequeathed alms, or they may be “psychic”, such as those that come from having a job or being able to engage in confession.  Individuals differ in their ability to earn secular income and in their preferences for doctrinal strictness.  In our theory, individuals must choose which denomination to join and their level of religious participation.  When making their decisions, individuals take account of the fact that any time, effort, or money devoted to religious activity is likely to detract from the pursuit and enjoyment of secular benefits.  Government regulation of religion conditions this trade-off because it affects the relative costs and benefits of religious and secular activity.  Societal development matters because it increases the ability of individuals to obtain secular benefits.  Our theory recognizes that individuals face social pressure to participate, something that increases with the strictness of their chosen denomination, and that individuals take account of the participation levels of others when making their own participation decisions.

An individual’s net income depends on the tax and redistribution system.  Since individuals differ in their ability to earn income, they have different preferences over the tax rate.  Those with a low ability to earn income – the poor – are net beneficiaries of the tax and redistribution system and therefore prefer high taxes.  In contrast, those with a high ability to earn income – the rich – are net contributors and therefore prefer low taxes.  As we demonstrate, though, the extent to which individuals hold these preferences depends on their level of religious activity.  The fact that a tradeoff exists between the pursuit of secular and religious benefits implies that those individuals who engage in religious activity value marginal increases in their net income less than those who do not engage in religious activity.  This means that although the religious poor desire higher taxes because they are poor, they desire them less because they are religious – they’re more economically conservative than their secular counterparts.  Similarly, although the religious rich desire lower taxes because they are rich, they desire them less because they are religious – they’re less economically conservative than their secular counterparts.  This indicates that one’s economic preferences do not depend only on one’s position in the income distribution but also on one’s level of religious activity.  This has important consequences for things like the study of vote choice.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.