Religion and American Politics

Domestic and International Contexts

by Paulina Napierała (Volume editor)
©2023 Edited Collection 384 Pages


This book presents a broad international and interdisciplinary perspective on the role of religion in American politics (both domestic and international). It is a result of cooperation between Jagiellonian University scholars and an international group of academics, including renowned American specialists, who study the interactions between religion and American politics. Coming not only from the USA, but also from Israel, Spain, Hungary, Poland, and the Palestinian territories, they provide a unique international perspective on how the USA deals with issues on the intersection of religion and politics. The book covers a variety of topics, including civil religion, legal issues, religious liberty, the public role of Black churches, religious influences on U.S. politics and on public attitudes toward a number of domestic and international policy issues.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • The Role of Religion in American Politics: Research Approaches
  • Evolving Relations Between Religion and American Politics
  • American Civil Religion After Trump: Twilight or Rebirth?
  • Religious Influences on American Conservative Populism
  • Constitutional Dimensions of Religious and Political Debates in the United States
  • The Exploitation of Religious Passions in the U.S. Constitutional Practice: The Christian Right and the Judicial Review
  • The Legal and Political Context of Contemporary Free Exercise Jurisprudence
  • Religion, Liberty, and Marriage Equality
  • Religious Clauses of the First Amendment in the Concept of “American Islam” of Post-9/11 Era: The Case of Yasir Qadhi
  • Religion, Race, and Politics: The Political Role of the Black Church
  • The Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and the Activist Tradition of the Black Church
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Three Social Evils in the United States: Racism, Poverty, and Militarism
  • Cooking Up the Revolution: The Black Panthers, Church Kitchens, and the Place of Religion in the Black Power Movement
  • The Fire This Time: Black Church Burnings in the Era of Obama and Black Lives Matter
  • Religion, International Politics, and Global Issues
  • Religion and Support for the “Trump Doctrine”
  • Evangelicals’ Influence on U.S. Policy on Israel and the Palestinians in Recent Decades
  • Religion and American Public Attitudes on Global Warming, 2020
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

Paulina Napierała


The idea behind this volume is to present a broad international and interdisciplinary perspective on the role of religion in American politics (both domestic and international). The United States is remarkably religious and secular at the same time. While it is a pluralist democracy, known for its multicultural identity, the role of religion has been crucial in the formation of the nation’s identity and history as well as in American politics. The relations between religion and U.S. politics are complex and delicate, and while the United States remains a world power, they also influence its foreign policy and international relations. Therefore, researchers continue their efforts to analyze and understand these dynamics.

This volume is a result of cooperation between Jagiellonian University scholars and an international group of academics, including renowned American specialists, who study a variety of topics surrounding the interactions between religion and American politics. Coming not only from the United States but also from Israel, Spain, Hungary, Poland, and the Palestinian territories, they provide a unique international perspective on how the United States deals with issues at the intersection of religion and politics and how American solutions concerning the interactions between the two spheres are perceived around the world. As one aspect of this cooperation, the contributors to this book also had the opportunity to meet and discuss these topics at the international “Religion and Politics in the United States” conference organized in 2021 by Paulina Napierała and the GIRES Institute (which during the pandemic served as a commodious forum for online academic events).

The authors of the following chapters represent several academic fields. Therefore, they examine how religion and politics in the United States conflict, collaborate, or otherwise influence each other, taking various perspectives. The majority of us are political scientists, but others represent theology, religious studies, law, history, and cultural studies. The topic of religion and politics is interdisciplinary in its nature, but a (recently actively developing) sub-field of political science—the politology of religion (or political science of religion)—while often drawing on different perspectives, also adds its own prism and offers new models, concepts, and other theoretical and methodological tools useful in analyzing religious influences in the political sphere. Therefore, in the introductory chapter, I explain the research approaches taken in this volume as well as the new concepts.

The book explores the intersections between religion and American politics in many contexts, historical and contemporary, domestic and international. It is divided into four parts: Evolving Relations Between Religion and American Politics; Constitutional Dimensions of Religious and Political Debates in the United States; Religion, Race, and Politics: The Political Role of the Black Church; and Religion, International Politics, and Global Issues. Each part starts with a slightly longer chapter that takes a broader perspective and considers historical background, and thus introduces readers to the particular topics discussed in the following chapters.

The first part starts with Károly Pintér’s chapter, where he analyzes the evolution and condition of American civil religion as well as its prospects after Donald Trump’s controversial and divisive use of it. The author places the recent transformation of civil religion in a historical and theoretical perspective. In the second chapter, James L. Guth and Lyman A. Kellstedt examine the role of religion in creating support for recently rising populist movements, paying special attention to conservative populism in the United States. Using quantitative methods, they analyze how different ethnoreligious traditions respond to populist themes and to what extent theological traditionalism influences attitudes toward American conservative populism.

In the second part of the book, the authors analyze constitutional dimensions of various religious debates in the United States. It starts with Sebastian Kubas’ text concerning the relations between the modern liberal constitutional state and religious organizations. Kubas examines the attempts of the Christian Right to institutionalize their cultural preferences through decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. His chapter introduces a broader perspective of the evolution of the Christian Right’s legal strategies and then discusses cases concerning both the Free Exercise and the Establishment Clauses. In the next chapter, Jerold L. Waltman focuses specifically on contemporary free exercise jurisprudence, putting it into legal and political context. He carefully examines three major cases from the last few terms of the Court, presenting arguments and perspectives of both sides of the “religious freedom” debate. He also distinguishes between regulations that might apply to religious organizations and to commercial enterprises that invoke religious reasons. Emily R. Gill’s chapter concentrates on the debate focused strictly on the issues of religion, liberty, and marriage equality. She starts with discussing differences between negative and positive liberty, and then analyzes Obergefell v. Hodges, describing four different positions concerning marriage equality and referring to prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The last chapter of this part also discusses religious clauses of the First Amendment, concentrating, however, on how they influence a “foreign” non-Christian (immigrant) group in the United States. Elad Ben David shows how the clauses are being incorporated in the concept of “American Islam,” particularly by Yasir Quadhi. This chapter, while generally discussing domestic issues, also touches upon the international contexts and events that have influenced the situation of Islam in the United States.

The third part of the book is dedicated to the role of the Black Church in American history and politics—a topic usually discussed separately although it is deeply connected to the relations between religion and politics in the United States. The chapters here describe the complicated relations among religion, race, and American politics, concentrating on a particular ethnic minority church but also depicting the role that minority churches can play in democratic pluralistic societies (despite or against the systemic flaws). In the introductory chapter, Paulina Napierała, focusing on the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, analyzes a comprehensive topic of the activist tradition of the Black Church. She places her study in a broader historical and theoretical perspective and provides a background for specific themes discussed in the following chapters. The next topic, analyzed by Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes, concerns the life and the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—one of the most famous figures in the Black Church. The author pays special attention to King’s stance on the “triplet social evils” in the United States: racism, poverty, and militarism. While racism and poverty are mostly seen as domestic problems, in discussing King’s attitude toward the Vietnam War Pagán also touches upon the international context. Michael McLaughlin, on the other hand, focuses on a lesser known aspect of history, the role of churches in the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Schoolchildren Program, showing how—despite ideological differences—they provided a sanctuary for the Black Panthers and gave the Party a chance to influence communities through caring for the hungry. In the last chapter of this part, Jajuan Johnson presents the consequences of Black churches’ continuous engagement on the side of their communities. He examines the evolution of racialized violence against Black churches in the post-Civil War era and presents cases of violence against this symbol of Black independence in the era of Barack Obama and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The final part of the volume discusses religious influences on American international policies and on public attitudes toward global issues, including militarism and global warming. In the first chapter, James L. Guth and Brent F. Nelsen analyze how religion shapes public attitudes toward the “Trump Doctrine.” They begin with the broader context, commenting on how the “return to religion” in international relations has sparked interest in the role of religion in shaping attitudes toward foreign affairs—one channel through which faith can influence a nation’s policy. They define the “Trump Doctrine” as a “distinctive blend of nationalism, militarism and unilateralism” and find it important that religion significantly influences public attitudes toward Trump’s policies. In the next chapter, Husam Mohamad puts the focus on a specific narrower topic: how the beliefs of evangelical groups such as dispensationalists and Christian Zionists have been influencing U.S. policies in the Middle East. He also investigates how these groups promote their vision of Israel’s relations with the Palestinian territories. In the last chapter, Lyman A. Kellstedt and James L. Guth examine how religion shapes American attitudes toward global warming, finding considerable differences among members of American religious groups. The global issue of environmentalism turns out to be highly influenced by religion, especially by theological traditionalism that usually results in skeptical attitudes toward global warming.

The publication of this volume would not have been possible without a grant from the Institute of American Studies and Polish Diaspora at Jagiellonian University and additional funds provided by the Centre for International Studies and Development, which I acknowledge and greatly appreciate. I would also like to thank the Kosciuszko Foundation and the Advanced Research Collaborative for the grants that allowed me to work on the last stages of the editing process at the City University of New York. I am grateful for academic support from scholars representing various Polish and American universities who agreed to review particular chapters of the book, and especially for the work of the reviewer of the whole volume. Mostly, however, I want to thank all the scholars who agreed to participate in this publication.

Paulina Napierała

The Role of Religion in American Politics: Research Approaches

Regardless of secularization processes taking place in the modern world, especially in terms of institutional or functional differentiation,1 and against the predictions of the early proponents of secularization theory, including Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim, who expected that with modernization religion would disappear (at least from the public life), it still plays an important role in the public and political sphere2 of many countries, including the highly modernized United States. Because religion’s constant presence attracts new research, some scholars argue that secularization theories were wrong. Others, on the other hand, explain that such theories usually comprised several levels, claims, and assumptions, including structural differentiation, decline of religious practices and beliefs, and marginalization or privatization of religion. As they argue, while the general historical structural trend of secular differentiation has been taking place, religions have reacted to it in different ways—not only by marginalization and retreat to the private sphere (as previous theories would suggest) but also by what Jose Casanova calls the “deprivatization” of religion. In this perspective, privatization and deprivatization are simply different historical options for religions in the modern world.3 Both of these processes have been taking place in the United States as well—and as a result of the dominance of one option or the other, over the past few decades, “the study of religion and politics has gone from being ignored by the scholarly community to being a major focus of research.”4

Secularization theories have had a similar effect on studying international relations, and despite the recent “return to religion” in international relations, it is important to remember that the religious factor “stayed on the backburner in the study of international relations for a long time,”5 which has been especially evident in theoretical approaches. Currently, one group of academics suggests that religion’s return poses a fundamental challenge to international relations theory and therefore new and alternative paradigms should be developed, while another group has argued that the study of religion in international relations does not require a revolution, but rather evolution of the theoretical frameworks currently at our disposal.6

Because religion continues to be an important force in American domestic and international politics, as well as in international relations in general, in this volume scholars focus on how it influences various policies and public attitudes, including those toward foreign affairs, and how—through that—it also influences U.S. foreign policy. They further examine how American religious groups can act as social movements, political actors, and interest groups (in both domestic and international contexts).

This chapter provides an overview of different perspectives and approaches taken by the authors to examine and explain the complicated relations between religion and American politics. It also presents the attempts undertaken by the representatives of the political science of religion to structure the way the new sub-discipline draws on different fields and approaches, adding its own prism and methodology and trying to develop a separate theoretical framework. It is thus necessary to begin this discussion with a brief presentation of how scholars researching the relations between religion and politics conceptualize religion.

There are many definitions of religion, including theological, non-theological, inclusive, exclusive, substantive, functional, sociological, and psychological ones.7 Theological definitions are useful mostly for theologians, but not so much for social scientists. Substantive definitions focus on the presence of a set of items (the content) associated with religion, such as God, gods, other supernatural beings, or the Absolute.8 Functional definitions concentrate on the role that beliefs and rituals play for a community (sociological) or an individual (psychological).9 Many scholars researching religion and politics have adopted a substantive rather than a functional approach, viewing religion as related to the supernatural.10 One of the most general substantive definitions is that authored by Edward Burnett Tylor which simply states that religion is a belief in spiritual beings.11 The reason for choosing substantive definitions in political studies has been explained by the authors of the Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics:

Although the core of religion—the realm of the transcendent, supreme beings, and direct communication with the divine—is beyond the realm of social science […], research can show how the beliefs and behaviors and organizations associated with religion shape individual political attitudes and behavior, as well as institutional structures and processes.12

On the other hand, some of the most well-known definitions often contain both levels: substantial and functional—for example, Durkheim’s famous definition that states, “[R]eligion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”13 Some authors argue that both functional and substantive approaches can be useful in political science, depending on the research purpose.14 As Maciej Potz stresses, if scholars want to “explain general mechanisms by which various beliefs and ideas translate into political action, the functional approach will enable generalizations,” showing similarities between “religious” and “secular” ideas.15 However, if the purpose of the study is to understand the difference that religion makes in politics (which the political science of religion is mostly interested in), then “substantive definitions will better serve this purpose.” Focusing on these ideas, beliefs, and practices, “which refer to the supernatural,” substantive definitions allow investigation into their political impact.16 In the end, for his own studies he chooses a broad substantive understanding of religion that combines sociological and psychological approaches, according to which “religion is a system of beliefs and practices related to the supernatural, held and practiced individually or collectively.”17

As the authors of The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics stress, however, no matter how religion is defined, it is a multidimensional phenomenon and scholars do not always agree on the number and character of its dimensions. Nevertheless, a number of social scientists have accepted the view that there are at least “three major components of religion that are potentially important for politics: believing, behaving, and belonging.”18 In this perspective, “the substantive content of a faith is embodied in religious beliefs, the practice of a faith is reflected in behavior, and belonging is revealed by affiliation with a religious community.”19 While all of these dimensions provide a useful scheme for analyzing the political influence of religion, different theoretical approaches put varying emphases on these three dimensions.

Theoretical perspectives that consider these dimensions are often applied by political scientists researching the American religious context, and they have been carefully analyzed by Corwin Smidt, Lyman Kellstedt, and James Guth in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics. I will briefly present these perspectives before discussing other approaches and different propositions of theoretical frameworks. As the authors explain, since the 1980s American political scientists have been looking at the influence of religion on politics through two most common competing perspectives. More recently, another perspective was added—one that attempted to provide a kind of synthesis of the previous two. Importantly, the first of these, the ethnoreligious perspective, is closer to Durkheim’s notion of religion as a social phenomenon where the affiliation with a religious group shapes political responses, and the second, the theological restructuring perspective, more reflects Max Weber’s view that religion is embodied in beliefs which shape political attitudes and behavior. The third one, the synthetic perspective, views religion as embodying belonging, beliefs, and behavior, all of which influence political life.

As the experts explain, the ethnocultural perspective was formulated primarily by historians, and it focuses on the different ethnoreligious groups that migrated to America. According to this view, these groups held differing worldviews, cultural preferences, and religious reference groups, all of which shaped their political and partisan views and preferences.20 And although, as sociologists of religion argue, these ethnoreligious attachments have been recently weakened by assimilation and other processes, many American political analysts continue to apply this scheme, finding it still, at least partially, relevant.

The second perspective, also known as religious restructuring theory, was introduced in the 1980s to explain the growing divisions within American faith traditions and was further developed in the 1990s.21 The scholars behind it argued that growing theological divisions within different traditions had affected political divides. “Orthodox” believers who adhered to traditional doctrines tended to support the political right, while religious “progressives,” who argued for a compromise with science, tended to move toward the left. Within this theory, theological divisions are more important than ethnoreligious divisions.22

The third perspective built on the previous two, arguing that both religious affiliations and religious beliefs, along with religious behavior, help to explain how religion shapes American politics. According to this approach, some groups behave as the ethnoreligious model would suggest and others respond on the basis of contemporary divisions over beliefs.23

These models, often used by American researchers including political scientists and sociologists (usually in their quantitative analyses), have been applied in several studies included in this volume. In the following chapters, they are extensively used particularly by F. Nelsen, James L. Guth, and Lyman A. Kellstedt. However, elements of these perspectives, especially of restructuring theory, also appear, while not always explicitly, in other analyses, including the chapters authored by Pintér, Kubas, Gill, Napierała, and Mohamad. In a similar vein, the elements and certain assumptions of the ethnoreligious model can be traced in the articles concerning Black churches.

As the aim of this volume was to include interdisciplinary research on religion and politics in the United States, as well as both qualitative and quantitative analyses, the authors—representing different disciplines—have also taken theoretical and methodological approaches characteristic of their various fields of studies. Moreover, some of them, apart from using a particular perspective, draw widely from other fields as well. A number of the contributors, including the political scientists, employ legal, sociological, historical, theological, religious, and cultural studies approaches, as well as politological.

Károly Pintér, for example, as a specialist in language, literature, history, and culture, not only examines the historical development of certain concepts studied by sociologists of religion, but he also employs elements of content analysis and discourse analysis, focusing on linguistic and rhetorical aspects of the researched phenomenon while placing it in a political context. Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes, on the other hand, while strongly concentrating on the theological perspective and theological interpretations, also applies elements of historical, biographical, and comparative religions approaches, especially when he explains the influences of certain Christian and non-Christian theologies on Martin Luther King’s political views. Michael McLaughlin largely uses a historical framework, building on social historical work and historiography related to the Black Panthers and their partnership with churches. Additionally, however, he draws from social movement theories and research perspectives common in the Black Church studies and sociology of religion, especially when examining the role of religion in Black political organizing. Jajuan Johnson while looking through the prism of heritage studies, adds elements of cultural and religious studies theories as well as elements of theological analysis when approaching Black liberation theology. Generally, however, he places the topic of Black church burnings in the political context of Barack Obama’s election. Focusing on political mobilization of Black churches and using an interpretative model developed within political science, Napierała additionally places her analysis in a historical perspective and discusses previous sociological approaches to the topic of Black Church activism. She concentrates on theology as well, and touches upon the potential applicability of certain elements of the restructuring model in analyzing the levels and forms of political behavior of Black churches. The legal scholar Sebastian Kubas extensively applies his legal perspective in focusing on church-state relations and constitutional law. He stresses, however, that the legal disputes that he describes concern the socio-political realm. He also pays attention to sociological and political studies on the Christian Right. Elad Ben David applies a legal perspective in his chapter as well, while his knowledge of Islamic studies and references to international politics play an important role in his analysis. Jerold L. Waltman and Emily R. Gill are political scientists who analyze constitutional dimensions of religious and political debates in the United States, widely drawing from both the legal framework and political philosophy. Husam Mohamad, also a political scientist, employs a broad theological analysis, and while concentrating on the role of interest and lobbying groups in the policymaking processes, he also touches upon social movements theories.

All these analyses, in result, provide a truly interdisciplinary picture of the intersection between religion and politics in the United States. The variety of perspectives, which the authors (representing different fields) have employed, undoubtedly contributes to the understanding of the political role of religion and to the general topic of religion and politics. Moreover, a number of these approaches have sometimes been applied by some political scientists who postulate the development of a new separate sub-discipline of political science: the politology of religion or political science of religion.24 While they generally see the new sub-field as “a specific discipline due to its research of political science themes, in the context of religion,”25 they do not always agree on details in methodology. Therefore, the use of the above-mentioned approaches would be possible mostly for those scholars who, while seeing the politology of religion as a specific sub-field of political science (rather than religious or other studies), treat it broadly and interdisciplinary in terms of methodology.26 Not all political scientists favoring the development of the politology of religion, however, agree with such an approach. Some postulate a narrower definition of the sub-field along with a set of separate analytical models and theoretical tools emerging strictly from political science. Therefore, it is useful to take a closer look at different approaches to the politology of religion and their evolution.

Michalak who in 2016 defined the politology of religion quite broadly—as “interdisciplinary exploration within subject matters, where religious and political factors intersect and interact with each other”27—later decided to analyze, classify, and specify several different understandings of this term that had developed over the years.28 As he explained, the first understanding is the most popular and commonly used interpretation. It sees the politology of religion as whole research that takes into consideration all combinations of phenomena that are specific to the worlds of religion and politics. It also encompasses methods of many disciplines, especially political science, religious studies, theology, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies, history, and law. As a result, the specific findings of these disciplines “will be an inherent part of the politology of religion.” In this sense, however, the politology of religion will be their sub-discipline or auxiliary science. In the second understanding, the politology of religion is defined specifically as a sub-discipline of political science. In this case, its essential interest is the political analysis of the phenomenon of religion (including its components, such as doctrine, worship, and religious organization). The basic assumption here is to see religion as a political phenomenon, similarly to how sociology of religion sees religion as a social phenomenon. The third understanding of the politology of religion also sees it as a sub-discipline of political science, but “assumes that its content includes issues of the permeability of interplay of religious phenomena and political phenomena,” while “the obligatory starting point for research is the assumptions of political science with reference to methods and achievements of other scientific disciplines.” The fourth understanding is narrower, seeing the politology of religion “as political research on religion based on the paradigm of the function of the political factor in religion.”29

Apart from these four understandings, Polish political scientist Maciej Potz developed another, even narrower, understanding of this sub-discipline, publishing his suggestions in 201930 and 2020.31 The scope of his definition of the politology of religion was a result of setting strict boundaries to political science, understood as “empirical science about the mechanisms of political power.” From this perspective, the task of the politology of religion as a sub-discipline of political science would be to find the answer to the question about the importance of religion for the relations of political power.32

In his writings, Potz has stressed that research on the relationship between religion and politics was long outside of the mainstream of political science. It was often dominated by the legal approach, with the main focus on church-and-state relations and constitutional law. There was also research within religious studies (the field that considered the politology of religion its own sub-field), but apart from that, as he argues, the relations between religion and politics were either analyzed from confessional positions (e.g., in Poland—in connection with Catholic social teachings) or from the perspective of political philosophy (or political theology). On the other hand, as he points out, in many English-speaking countries the topic of religion and politics has been regarded as inherently interdisciplinary (i.e., studied by scholars representing different disciplines, who would discuss any interactions between religion and politics).33

In his view, all these perspectives have not been sufficient, especially from the point of view of political science. Therefore, not only does he advocate seeing “political science of religion as an explanatory framework of the political role of religion, grounded in political science,” but he also formulates a multilevel theoretical approach to the study of the political role of religion.34 While doing so, he criticizes previous approaches, especially the prevailing legal and theological ones, not only as insufficient but also as “being normatively overloaded and failing to grasp the actual impact of religion on power relations.”35 At the same time, he acknowledges and values the theoretical perspective discussed and applied by the authors of The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics36 but stresses that “it is for the most part applicable only to the United States,”37 while his aim has been to develop a more broadly applicable concept. Therefore, he offers an approach that

consists of three distinct—but integrated—theoretical perspectives: the economic or transactional approach, grounded in rational choice theory and economic theories of religion; the social movements theory (SMT) approach, looking at the internal assets, organization and dynamics of religious actors; and the cultural/humanistic approach, exploring evolutionary, psychological and sociological determinants behind individual propensity to religion-inspired political mobilization.38

What is important in his concept of the politology of religion and its research approach is that religious organizations (churches, sects, cults, etc.) are seen as political actors (either as organizations or communities), while religion is considered a system of beliefs and practices (related to the supernatural) that motivates people to social and political behavior. Therefore, in his view, these religious-political actors should be analyzed in the same way as secular political actors (e.g., political parties, social movements, or interest groups). Even religious organizations themselves are seen here as political systems—“the arenas of power relations.” The author stresses that while politics is secondary to their “supernatural goals,” their political activity should be still analyzed from the political science perspective because “they share a lot with other political actors in terms of their short-term objectives and strategies of political action.”39 As he explains, they use “mimicry strategies,” taking the roles of social movements or interest groups while additionally holding specifically religious instruments.40 As such they can act either as stakeholders or as veto players.41 Religious actors still play an important role not only in theocracies but also in democratic political systems, bargaining with political parties, lobbying decision-makers and mobilizing their members into political action, all while providing religious ideas that motivate political attitudes.42 The fact that religion claims special status among other systems of beliefs, as well as the fact that religious organizations behave like political actors, contribute, according to the author, to the sustained presence of religion in the public arena of the contemporary world.43 Therefore, in his view, their engagement in politics should be analyzed at the three levels connected to the three above-mentioned theoretical perspectives.

The economic or transactional approach which (most) generally looks at how religious actors interact with other actors within a political system should be applied at the macro level—when analyzing the interaction among actors within an entire political market/system. The social movements theory, which focuses on collective mobilization, can be used at the mezzo level to analyze a particular organization and research communication mechanisms, resources, and other elements influencing its mobilization potential. The cultural/humanistic perspective which aims at explaining relations between religion and politics in the context of individual motivations is useful at the micro (individual) level.44

As Potz explains, the economic perspective or transactional approach might actually be relevant in explaining two spheres—not only the behavior of religious organizations as entrepreneurs competing with other actors on a political market but also the relations between individuals as consumers and religious organizations as producers or suppliers of religious goods.45 He thinks, however, that it is better suited for macro-level analyses concerning competition among actors.46 The basic assumption behind this approach is that religious organizations are seen as economic entities operating within a market (understood as either a society at large in a “religious economy” or a political system in political science of religion). They produce and sell goods to their members, such as the promise of salvation, but they also sell and exchange goods with other political actors (such as political parties or governments). This second kind of goods includes their members’ votes and mass actions that they are able to organize for or against these other political actors.47 Moreover, as economic actors, religious organizations can also engage in various profit-maximizing behaviors, including subcontracting, vertical integration, monopolistic practices, and fierce market competition.48 Therefore, this perspective is most useful for macro analyses that look at religious organizations from the outside.

The social movement theory, on the other hand, as the author points out, reveals more of the internal operations within religious organizations, and it can be useful for the analysis of the collective mobilization of religious actors. It bridges the gap between culturally shaped individual dispositions and institutionalized political action,49 and allows to study the mechanisms by which available resources (e.g., communication networks, internal power structures, culture) and emergent collective qualities (common identity, shared normative commitments) are utilized to “convert critical dispositions to political action.”50 Generally, it explains motives, means, and opportunities that allow religious organizations to take actions.51 Motives might be shaped by religion (which is helpful in creating group identities, legitimizing norms, and upholding worldviews). Means, such as symbols, money, ideas, leadership, communication, or political space might also be provided by religious organizations. Political opportunity structure, on the other hand, includes legal environments for the activities of non-state actors.52 Importantly, as the author notices, one great advantage of this approach is that “it helps integrate the church-state paradigm into political science of religion,” which happens “through the notion of political opportunity structure which contains much of what the church-state studies are concerned with […].”53

The cultural perspective, which in his approach is useful at a micro level, helps determine individual motivations and social mechanisms behind the religiously inspired political behavior of individuals and religious organizations. While exploring evolutionary, psychological, and sociological predispositions toward religion-inspired political mobilization, it might focus on religious mechanisms of the religious legitimation of power, religious doctrines that either make people obedient or inspire their (political) behavior, as well as on the political role of religious leaders and the mechanisms of political control within religious organizations.54 As such it encompasses many aspects of research characteristic of such fields as psychology, sociology of religion, and religious studies.55

Potz argues it would be best to integrate all these perspectives, but he acknowledges that it is often difficult, especially for a single researcher.56 A scholar might thus concentrate on one of the levels, applying appropriate theoretical concepts. Potz also admits that “[n]one of these perspectives is predisposed to become the theory of politics and religion. They have their own territories and the aspects of the relationship they are best at explaining.” At the same time, their territories sometimes overlap.57

His proposition is both interesting and useful, as it might help organize and structure research on topics strictly connected with political science. He discloses, however, that he does not offer “a single, coherent theory for studying all instances of the religion’s influence on the sphere of politics.” As he acknowledges, “[p]olitical science of religion is too vast an area to be approached with a single method or model.” Therefore, what he proposes is “[…] a structured selection of conceptions, models and other theoretical tools potentially useful for the analysis of religion-related political phenomena […]”58—within the narrowly defined sub-field of political science. He also adds that even such a narrowly defined politology of religion and its approach to studying the relations between religion and politics does not exclude the use of other disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, religious studies, or theology, as long as they help in understanding the influence of religion on power relations.59

There is no doubt that the authors of this volume use a number of approaches characteristic of many of the above-mentioned disciplines. Some of them also analyze their particular topics from an interdisciplinary perspective. While they all contribute to the topic of religion and politics (often considered as inherently multi-disciplinary), they do not necessarily represent the politology of religion (understood narrowly). This volume, in turn, offers a broad approach to the topic of religion and politics. Nevertheless, although not all of the authors are political scientists and not all of their analyses can fall in the category of political science of religion—unless it is defined in the broadest sense—the book might still be considered as contributing to the field of the politology of religion (understood in both the broader and narrower senses). For those who stress “the validity of exploring the relationship between religion and politics based on the tools of many scientific disciplines,”60 it will deliver several new perspectives, topics, and approaches. Those who prefer a narrower understanding of this new sub-field of political science will not only find several analyses that can be classified as representing the politology of religion in the narrowest sense but also studies which, despite drawing on approaches from other fields, do concentrate on the influence of religion on power relations. Other analyses in this volume might contribute to further politological research.

In many chapters, including some interdisciplinary ones, the authors touch upon certain elements of the analytical framework proposed by political scientists, including some concepts and theoretical tools postulated in the politology of religion (although not always in a structured way). They also analyze the political engagement of religious organizations at various levels, including the suggested micro, mezzo, and macro levels. And while a number of them might not represent a fully developed political science approach to the study of religion in politics, they can certainly contribute to further politological analyses, providing additional details (more carefully examined in their respective fields). Therefore, their analyses serve an important subsidiary role, as their findings can be interpreted in the light of theoretical frameworks applied by political scientists. Moreover, if we look at this volume as a whole, it can provide a multilevel analysis (suggested by Potz) of religion-related political processes taking place in the United States (although not every process and not every phenomenon will be analyzed at each level).

The first part of the book, which comprises contributions by Károly Pintér, James L. Guth, and Lyman A. Kellstedt, might be considered as representing the microlevel and the cultural perspective. Both chapters focus on individual motivations and social mechanisms influencing religiously inspired behavior. Guth and Kellstedt, while applying the ethnoreligious and restructuring theories characteristic in American studies on religion and politics, focus on how belonging and believing influence political behavior and individual attitudes, in this case toward American conservative populism. And while the restructuring perspective concentrates most directly on beliefs, and the ethnoreligious perspective focuses more on religious affiliation and identity (rather than theologies and beliefs themselves), they all influence individual motivations, which are analyzed here. Pintér, on the other hand, concentrates on civil religion and its social function, touching upon the specific role political-religious leaders play in civil religion, examining how they use specifically understood religious doctrine/ideology to influence certain political attitudes of Americans.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2024 (February)
American politics political science of religion civil religion evangelicals Establishment Clause Free Exercise Clause Black churches marriage equality Trump Doctrine environmental attitudes populism islamophobia Christian Zionism
Berlin, Bruxelles, Chennai, Lausanne, New York, Oxford, 2024. 384 pp.

Biographical notes

Paulina Napierała (Volume editor)

Paulina Napierała is Assistant Professor at the Institute of American Studies and Polish Diaspora of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Her research explores the intersection of religion and politics in the United States, currently the role of Black churches. She was a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Graduate Centre’s Advanced Research Collaborative (2022-23) and a grantee of the Kosciuszko Foundation (2015, 2022), the National Science Centre Poland (2019), and the Fulbright Commission (2007-08).


Title: Religion and American Politics