Religious Mobilization and the Selection of Political Elites: Evidence from Postwar Italy

The forthcoming article Religious Mobilization and the Selection of Political Elites: Evidence from Postwar Italy by Massimo Pulejo is summarized by the author below. 

Despite worldwide trends towards secularization, local religious leaders remain an important point of reference for many communities across the globe, in both developed and developing countries. On top of being spiritual guides, religious leaders are in the position to orient the social and political choices of citizens, especially among the most faithful. Indeed, in the runup to an election, religious authorities often make open endorsements of political parties and candidates, which may have a concrete impact at the ballot box. But what makes religious leaders so effective as political sponsors? And how do they deliver their endorsements in practice? 

Using Italian Catholic bishops as a case study, this article shows that the electoral influence of religious leaders hinges on two key factors. First and foremost, to be able to mobilize the community in support of a candidate, religious leaders need to be sufficiently embedded within their local jurisdiction. Namely, the analyses demonstrate that personal connections between a religious leader and a political candidate are only conducive to more electoral support when the bishop was born within the electoral district, as opposed to having been assigned there at a later stage in his life. In fact, when they enjoy a connection to a bishop native of their electoral district, Christian-Democratic candidates can expect sizable electoral gains, and a significant boost in their probability of winning a seat. Second, as a means to convey their electoral preferences to large segments of their communities, local religious leaders may take advantage of religious festivals. Consistent with this idea, the results show how the impact of connections on votes is stronger if the election takes place shortly after the local religious festival. Third, to be effective, religious leaders also need their organization to approve of their political involvement. Indeed, decomposing the effect over time reveals that the electoral influence of bishops dissipates after the Second Vatican Council, which discouraged the involvement of the clergy into political matters. 

These findings suggest that the electoral influence of religious leaders does not simply stem from their spiritual authority. Rather, it critically depends on both the personal characteristics of leaders and the contextual factors that may favor or impair the delivery of their political messages.   

About the Author: Massimo Pulejo is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Milan. Their research “Religious Mobilization and the Selection of Political Elites: Evidence from Postwar Italy” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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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.

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