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To date, the evidence on whether religious participation serves to moderate white Americans’ attitudes on issues such as immigration and civil rights is mixed. Some scholars have found strong moderating effects; others report that frequent church attendance actually promotes intolerance toward out groups. This paper advances the debate by sketching a theory of the conditions under which religious participation might be expected to promote moderation. The most important preconditions are: a religious tradition in which elites attempt to cultivate values such as toleration and respect for diversity; an institutional infrastructure capable of conveying elite cues; and a congregational environment in which elites possess some measure of authority over rank-and-file members.
Using this criteria, it is possible to arrange the major American religious groups along a spectrum, based on the likelihood that frequent church attendance will moderate believers’ attitudes on issues of race and identity. Groups like the Southern Baptists, whose leaders are not typically concerned with promoting diversity, and whose institutions are relatively decentralized, anchor one of the spectrum. At the other end are traditions like Catholicism and Mormonism, both of which possess well developed authority structures, and both of whose leaders were sharply critical of candidate Trump’s rhetoric on race and immigration. In the middle are the mainline Protestants – churches that actively promote respect for diversity, but whose elites have little real authority over their parishioners.
Using data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) and the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group, I find conditional support for the hypothesis that religious participation’s moderating effect is real, but not universal. In short, it is mediated by religious institutions and authority, and it varies considerably across faith traditions.